Month: August 2008

Benny Morris reviews Andrew Bostom ‘s new book

Benny Morris’s trajectory from leftwing revisionist historian to exponent of the Islamic jihad against the Jews appears complete in this New Republic review of two books: Andrew G Bostom’s The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (Prometheus Books) and Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann (Random House). With thanks: Independent Observer

“The story peddled by latter-day Arab propagandists (and reinforced by some Jewish scholars, who tended in decades past, sometimes for apologetic reasons of their own, to highlight the medieval “Golden Age” of Islamic Spanish Jewry)–that the Jewish minorities in the Muslim Arab countries before the advent of Zionism enjoyed a pleasant fraternal existence among the majority populations–has often been trotted out for the benefit of ignorant Westerners, to illustrate Muslim Arab tolerance of minorities and, politically, to promote plans for a multi-ethnic, one-state solution for Israel/ Palestine. It also has taken hold among Western intellectuals.

“Thus as prominent a journalist as Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, writes that “until the end of World War II, there was little precedent in Islam for the anti-Semitism that was now warping the politics and society of the region. Jews had lived safely–although submissively–under Muslim rule for 1,200 years, enjoying full religious freedom,” until Christian missionaries, Nazi propaganda, and the rise of Israel twisted their minds and propelled them toward anti-Semitism.

“Or consider Esther Webman, of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, who has written that “antisemitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world…. Antisemitism is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon in the Arab world.” She attributed its rise to three factors: the nineteenth- and twentieth-century penetration of Western thought into that world; “the collapse of traditional political systems and of the loyalties” associated with modern nationalism; and, “most crucial, the development of the conflict [with Zionism] over the domination of Palestine.”

“But this construct, in Bostom’s view (and in my own), is wholly false. It flies in the face of the evidence, much of it presented in Bostom’s tome. Certainly modern Christian influences, nationalist enthrallment, and Jewish nationalism (and its success) have added layers to traditional Islamic anti-Semitism. But they were building on firm foundations. From its inception, Islam and its adherents, beginning with Muhammad himself, saw Judaism (and Christianity) as rival parent religions that had to be fought and overcome for Islam to succeed. The initial struggles, in the early seventh century, were existential, a matter of survival, for the Muslims bent on dominating Hijaz and then breaking out of the dismal, arid, thinly populated confines of Arabia. The first Muslims shared a deep sense of vulnerability and threat.

And so the Jews (and Christians) in the realms of expanding Islam were subjected to a regime based on an understanding or agreement–the dhimma–of subordination, marginalization, and discrimination. By the twelfth century, the great philosopher Maimonides, a successful Jew in the Islamic world, the doctor to sultans, was to lament: “God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us…. None has matched [them] in debasing, humiliating, and hating us.” And the situation was to remain more or less constant in most of the Islamic lands down to the twentieth century.

Consider Bostom’s excerpt from Leon Godard’s travelogue Description et histoire du Maroc, published in 1860:

In the cities, the Jews live in separate quarters … called the Mellah, or the salted earth, dry and cursed. They are locked in from sundown to sunrise and on holidays, all day. They pay the Moorish guards who protect them…. They [pay] the capitulation tax … that the government sets for each Mellah…. They have eight days to pay the tax; after that, and without warning the Mellah can be pillaged…. According to the laws, the Jews cannot cultivate earth, own land or houses outside the Mellah, ride a horse in front of a town other than on a saddle for a mule … hit a Moslem, even to defend themselves except in their own house if it has been violated, be a witness in front of a court…. They cannot bid for food in Moslem market, or walk in some streets, in front of Mosques or Koubas, without holding their slippers in their hands, or get married without the permission of the Sultan…. They have to dress only in black or dark colors, wear a black hat different from the turban and not to tie with more than one knot the black scarf holding their headgear.

How and why this condition of degradation came about, and why anti-Semitism persists and, indeed, is on the upsurge in the Islamic Arab world is what Bostom’s anthology sets out to explain.

It all begins with the Qur’an–or, rather, with the encounter, as described in the Qur’an, between Muhammad, the prophet of the new religion, and the Jewish tribes in Hijaz, the area of western Arabia that includes the towns of Mecca and Medina, where Islam arose around 620 C.E. The Jews, not surprisingly, rejected the new faith and its prophet; and if the Qur’an is to be believed, they were contemptuous and sarcastic. (Religions notoriously do not take well to humor at their expense.) Indeed, the Qur’an asserts that the Hijazi Jewish tribes were downright hostile, even at one point trying to poison the Prophet. Muhammad, for his part, had earlier ordered the assassination of prominent Jewish opponents, and forcibly converted tribesmen and expelled many others, and slaughtered hundreds and consigned many of their women and children to slavery. (He took one of the daughters, Safiya, as his wife, after first dispatching her father and husband, according to the Prophet’s first major biographer, Ibn Ishaq.)

Partly in consequence, the Qur’an designates the Jews a “base” people and “killers of prophets” (harking back to the Christian charge of Christ-killing). The full verse (2:61) reads: “Humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them, and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully.” They are also said to be usurious. The full verse (4:160-161) reads: “And for the evildoing of the Jews … and for their taking usury … and for their consuming people’s wealth under false pretenses we have prepared for the unbelievers among them [i.e., those not converted to Islam] a painful punishment.” Elsewhere (5:63-64) the Qur’an states, “They hasten to spread corruption throughout the earth, but Allah does not love corrupters!” and instructs (5:51): “Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends.” And it refers (5:60) to Allah’s punitive transformation of the Jews into “apes and pigs” (the distant theological basis for Hamas’s current designation of the Jews as “sons of apes and pigs”).

Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the current grand imam of Al Azhar University of Cairo, a supreme authority in Sunni Islam, published a book in the late 1960s called The Jews in the Qur’an and the Traditions; it was re-issued in 1986. It summarized the Qur’an’s (and Tantawi’s own) attitude to the Jews in this way: “The Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e., killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of Jews keep their word…. [But] not all Jews are the same. The good ones become Muslims.” Tantawi was later to describe contemporary Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” I add in fairness that he was later to condemn the September 11 attacks, and suicide bombings in general, as contrary to Islam, though he defended “jihad” against those violating Islamic soil.

The hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, the subsequent exegeses of the Qur’an, and the early biographers of Muhammad built on and built up this anti-Semitic tradition. Ibn Ishaq (died 761), Muhammad’s first and major biographer, as transmitted by Ibn Hisham, wrote: “The Apostle of Allah–may Allah bless him and grant him peace–declared, ‘Kill any Jew who falls into your power.’ So Muhayyisa Ibn Mas’ud fell upon Ibn Sunayna, one of the Jewish merchants with whom his family had social and commercial relations, and killed him.” One of the more famous hadiths, quoted in Bostom, from Sahih Muslim, Book 41, no. 6985, reads: “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me: come and kill him: but the tree Gharqad would not say [this], for it is the tree of the Jews.” This hadith appears in variants in different collections.

Major Muslim scholars followed this anti-Semitic tradition. Al Baydawi (1286-1316?), a Shafi’ite intellectual who was chief kadi of Shiraz, wrote of the Jews’ “intense obstinacy, multi-faceted disbelief, and their addiction to following their whims, their adherence to the blind following of their tradition, their distancing themselves from the truth, and their unrelenting denial of, and hostility toward, the prophets.” Ibn Kathir (1300-1373), a Basra-born historian, wrote of the Jews’ “rebellion, defiance, opposing the truth, belittling other people, and degrading the scholars. This is why the Jews–may Allah’s continued curses descend on them until the Day of Resurrection–killed many of their Prophets.” And in our own time–he is a full-fledged member of this odious tradition–Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the “spiritual mentor” of modern Islamist extremism, wrote: “No other nation has shown more intransigence and obstinacy than the Jews. They viciously and mercilessly killed and mutilated a number of prophets and messengers. They have over the centuries displayed the most extreme attitudes towards God…. They have always boasted of their virtue and made the implausible claims of being … the chosen people of God…. Such claims are totally refuted by the Qur’an…. Theirs is a wicked nature, which is full of hatred for Islam.”

It is little wonder, then, that such anti-Semitic motifs creep into the speeches of contemporary Muslim leaders. Bashar Al Assad, the president of Syria, welcomed Pope John Paul II to Damascus on May 5, 2001 by declaring that “we notice them [the Jews] aggressing against Muslim and Christian holy sites in Palestine…. They try to kill all the the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).” Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, described the survivors of the Holocaust as “a bunch of hooligans who emigrated to Palestine,” while his protege Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies that the Holocaust took place at all. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has written: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli…. If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

But contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism, as typified by such statements, is not all of Qur’anic derivation. It also owes a great deal to modern European hate-merchants. Without doubt, Christian missionaries, traders, and officials in the nineteenth and early twentieth century flooded the region with their religious-ideological wares. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, was first translated into Arabic and published in Cairo in 1920. And more modern European anti-Semitic tenets penetrated the area during the following decades. They were perfectly embodied in the person and beliefs of Haj Muhammad Amin Al Husseini.

In her book The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, the American scholar Virginia Tilley recently wrote that “the racist … incompetent and reactionary Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini” was “unrepresentative” of the Palestinian Arabs. Tilley would have her readers believe that Husseini “was never a leader of more than a few reactionary Palestinian factions.” This is nonsense. In this respect, at least, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann put matters aright.

From his appointment in 1921 by the British as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Husseini was a major figure, and during the 1930s and 1940s he was the recognized leader–recognized, that is, by the British Mandate authorities and the Zionist leadership and, not least, by the leaders of the surrounding Arab societies and states–of the Palestinian Arab national movement, much as Yasser Arafat was the leader of the movement from the late 1960s until his death in 2004. And like Arafat, Husseini basked in the support of the Palestinian multitudes, led them into a series of historical disasters, and–when all is said and done–rejected a succession of compromises that would have resulted in the establishment many years ago of an Arab state, alongside Israel, in part of Palestine.

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‘Most Iranians would support Israeli strike’

Menashe Amir, the voice of Israel in Iran (Photo: CBC News)

Most Iranians hate their fundamentalist Islamic regime so deeply that they would support an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities – Menashe Amir, who runs a Farsi programme on Israel radio, tells Terry Milewski of CBC News.

“Of course, nobody is bombing Iran, yet. But Israel is creeping inexorably to a decision – and many experts say time is running out. In one or two years, they say, an Iranian nuclear device may be ready and it will be too late to stop it. Israel’s new F16s — called F16Is — have been fitted with bigger fuel tanks to increase their range and Israeli missile defences are being upgraded.

“What to do to avert this nightmare? Many governments — including those of Israel, the U.S. and Canada — take this question to Menashe Amir.

“Amir is the voice of Israel in Iran — but he’s much more than that. Governments call for his advice because, on Israel’s state-run radio, he’s been broadcasting daily to Iran, in Farsi, for 48 years. He’s been at it ever since he immigrated to Israel from Iran and, for the past 15 years, he’s also been hosting a fascinating Sunday call-in show. It’s a kind of an Iranian version of the CBC Radio program Cross-Country Checkup, with a twist: it’s broadcast from outside the country.

“A sampling of calls from Iranians, recorded and translated from Farsi by CBC News at Menashe Amir’s Jerusalem studio:

‘Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister.’

‘Islam only exists for [Ayatollah] Khomeini. They’ve ruined the people’s lives … they’ve brought dictatorship. Khomeini, [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad … with the oil income from the country, they live in their palaces while we live under the poverty line. What Islam? … We don’t want to live under tyranny … why can’t we have a good life?’

‘First of all, come and help us overthrow this regime and then we can have a referendum. But first we have to overthrow the regime — without violence.’

‘Our people know the regime and they know their bad intentions … unfortunately, the governments of Europe aren’t doing anything because they’re only worried about their economic interests.’

‘For what purpose do the people of Iran need nuclear weapons? The people of Iran should demand bread, water and freedom and they should shout it out. Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?’

“Iranians can call a number in Germany, so that they’re not seen to be calling the “Zionist entity,” and they’re rerouted to Amir’s studio, where they can vent. Once you understand what they’re saying, it’s a revelation.

“Amir’s Iranian callers don’t just condemn their own government. They pour out their admiration for democracy, for America — even for Israel. On a recent show, the first caller had this to say: “Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister.”

Actually, Ehud Olmert hasn’t been prosecuted yet. But it could happen. And Iranians aren’t shy about applauding Israel’s democracy — or lamenting Iran’s lack of it. One pleads, “Come and help us overthrow this regime.” Another asks, “Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?”

“In an interview with CBC News, Amir said the West has failed to understand the Iranian threat. He believes the regime is opposed by most Iranians but is consumed by an apocalyptic vision: the triumph of Shia Islam [also known as Shiite] over the world.

Western governments, he says, don’t see that, for the Iranian mullahs, the destruction of the Jewish state is just a step along the way. Everyone knows that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be wiped off the map. But Amir points out, “On the same day, in the same speech that Ahmadinejad called for wiping off Israel from the map, he added that the destruction of Israel is the first step of our final confrontation with western civilization.”

“Amir says the regime dreams of a new caliphate — an Islamic empire spanning the globe. He adds, “I want to tell you one more thing that the western countries don’t understand or don’t take it serious — and that’s the item of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah. And they believe that once the Mahdi comes, the whole universe will convert to Shiite Islam.”

“What scares Israelis even more is that this fundamentalist world view is married to high technology. Iran recently sent a rocket into space to mark the birthday of the Mahdi — a 9th century imam known to Shias as the “last imam.” When Iranian TV covered the launch, the reporter didn’t forget to add the obligatory phrase when mentioning the Madhi: “May Allah hasten his return.”

“Amir says the rocket sent a message. “They have the money, the missiles, they are seeking to have the nuclear bomb and the life of humankind is not important for them. I want to mention what Rahim Safavy, who was the chief commander of the revolutionary guards in Iran, said a few days ago: ‘We shall win and you, the westerners, shall lose because we gave 200,000 victims, martyrs, in eight years of war with Iraq and we have 300,000 disabled and injured in this war — and we don’t care about it. But you, the westerners, are afraid to give 4,000 or 5,000 thousand victims and casualties, so the final victory will be ours.’ “

“But Amir says the Iranian people don’t share the regime’s messianic vision. He says most would support an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and even rise up against the regime.

“Iranians are totally a different nation — a peaceful, polite, moderate people who want a good life, who adore the United States, who respect Canada, who like western music … But the regime in Iran doesn’t feel like they’re Iranians. Mostly, firstly, they think they are Shi’ite Muslims and they have to work for the sake of Islam and not for the sake of Iran — and they are sacrificing the Iranian interest for the sake of Shi’ism.”

“But not everyone shares Amir’s view on the fragility of Iran’s government.

“One who does not is Shabtai Shavit, who ran Israel’s legendary spy service, the Mossad, from 1989-96. Shavit, who’s now a security consultant, says the notion of Iranians overthrowing the regime in the wake of an Israeli strike is a fantasy.

“Still, Shavit agrees with Amir that Israel must not assume that the regime will act rationally. “We have to make our decisions according to the worst-case scenario: They’re going to have the bomb,” Shavit says. “They’re going to pursue … an unrational way and they’re going to use the bomb. If this is the case, then I don’t have any other choice but to pre-empt it.”

“Amir says his Iranian callers believe Israel has an obligation to act.

“Their message, he says, is rooted in history. “They claim the Israelis and the Jews have a historical debt to the Iranians because, 2,000 years ago, Cyrus the Great came, freed Jews from Babylon and he sent them back to their country to build again their homeland … Iranian listeners say, now that’s the time you pay us back. Please come and help us to get rid of this regime.”

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Iraqi-Israeli actor Naor is politically-correct Saddam

Igal Naor raised the roof playing Saddam Hussein in the BBC drama series ‘The House of Saddam’. In this interview with Rachel Shabi, anxious to come across as an Arabic-speaking Iraqi in Israel, a Communist and anti-imperialist, he tells her what Guardian readers want to hear:

Igal Naor

Igal Naor, actor who played Saddam Hussein on the small screen. Photograph: Gali Tibbon

The BBC’s just-screened, rave-reviewed drama House of Saddam was billed as an ensemble piece but it was obviously going to triumph or be trashed on the strength of one role: the dictator himself. And the reviews for this character were effusive: critics described the performance as “transfixing”, “bombastic” and “unnervingly charismatic”. He was the main reason viewers kept tuning in to the four-part television series about the Iraqi ruler. Everybody just loved the BBC’s Saddam.

“The minute I heard about it, I knew that I and no one else would play him,” says the Israeli actor Igal Naor. It’s a curious sense of conviction, because when the BBC was casting for the role, Naor was virtually unknown outside Israel. True, he had appeared in the 2005 blockbuster film Munich, in which he played one of the Black September gunmen blown up by Mossad agents to avenge the assassination of 11 Israeli Olympian athletes. But his screen time was, by his own reckoning, “less than five minutes – you know, the Mossad works quickly.”

Naor, who says he always dreamed of playing Saddam Hussein, contacted the BBC series’ casting director and received no response. Then he emailed photos of himself sporting a swiftly improvised, sticky-taped-on block moustache and kefiyeh head scarf. “Within less than an hour they called and asked how soon I could be in London.”

It’s not just the on-screen resemblance that made Naor a stunning Saddam. Dominating every frame, the actor conveyed with his very presence the bone-chilling, cultish charisma of the Iraqi dictator who ruled by bloody, ideologically-convinced terror. Neither was it a case of copycat acting.

“I wasn’t interested in recreating his every gesture and I didn’t impersonate Saddam’s voice, which was very high-pitched, like Kermit the Frog.” He does a flash impression of Saddam talking, a nasal, drawling Arabic that instantly turns heads in the sedate Tel Aviv cafe where we are sitting.

His portrayal of the Iraqi ruler is “beyond acting, it’s just being,” says Naor. “I am him, and he is me.” What, he is Saddam? “Yes. I won’t kill you, but it’s me,” he says. “You don’t find many opportunities to play someone that you know is you, perfectly you. The soul, the essence, we share it, me and him. I was astonished to realise that, but playing him, I felt that everything he did was exactly what I would do if I were in his place.” We are talking about the ruthless dictator, torturer and murderer of thousands, including close friends, long-time colleagues and family-in-law? “I understood him perfectly,” says Naor. “It is something that is connected with childhood, with pains that you have in your first years.”

Similarities between the two men’s childhoods are not glaringly obvious. Saddam’s father abandoned him, and his abusive stepfather forced him to leave the family home, aged 10, and live with his uncle. Naor was born in 1958 in Givatayim, a well-heeled suburb of Tel Aviv. His Iraqi-Jewish parents migrated from Baghdad in the early 1950s, soon after the creation of Israel (they were “strongly encouraged” to drop their original, Arabic family name and adopt the Hebrew Naor). Naor describes a happy childhood home, but relates that he grew up in “strange conditions”. During early toddler years he was raised by his grandmother – like any Iraqi child, he says – while his parents worked. As a result, his mother tongue is Arabic and he didn’t speak a word of Hebrew when he first attended nursery school.

“Iraqi grandmothers are obsessively clean and so I always wanted to wash my hands at kindergarten,” recalls Naor. “I’d say it in Arabic and nobody would understand. One day I must have just kept asking, nagging, and they got fed up and locked me in the toilet, and I stood on the seat shouting through the window, [In Arabic] ‘Granny, granny, come and get me!'”

He grew up feeling different. “I thought, I don’t speak the language, I don’t belong to you … and life is a fight, a struggle and you have to change the world,” he says. “Sometimes you realise that the biggest revolutionaries just wanted to change something in their childhood that was painful – and Saddam was a socialist revolutionary in the beginning. He did many great things for his country at first, like building a health system, education and nationalising oil revenues. And then he took the country to war with Iran and destroyed everything.”

Naor’s Saddam comprised a dimension of the Iraqi dictator as a victim of geo-politics: a classic tragic hero. The series ending, which closed on Saddam moments before his hanging, managed to evince some sympathy for the dictator, hunted down, found hiding in a hole and executed for crimes against humanity. “When you hear his name, you immediately, instinctively connect it with evil, a murderer, craziness, and so on,” he says. “If I played him only as that, I would just be fulfilling people’s expectations and that’s not interesting.” The Iraqi ruler clearly came over as a brutal tyrant in the series. “My role was to build tension between the intention of the writers and my own performance,” says Naor. “So, as Saddam, I believe every word I say, and I believe every terrible thing I do is for the good of the nation and every mistake I make is because I can’t do things in any other way, because of who I am. That’s the duty of any actor playing any role, but especially this role where there is so much prejudice.”

While the BBC was scouting for a Saddam, Naor was on location for last year’s film Rendition, in which he plays the Arab torturer-interrogator hired by the CIA to deal with terror suspects that the organisation has “disappeared” to a secret detention facility somewhere in the Middle East. He is currently working on Green Zone, a big-budget thriller inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s exposé of the US-controlled zone of Baghdad as an enclave of luxury and ignorance. In the film, due for release next year, Naor plays a politically ambiguous Iraqi general chased by American agents who are trying, post-2003 invasion, to find evidence of WMDs.

Both films raise bold questions over western policy in the Middle East and Naor’s own sentiments echo that. He thinks that blanket US support gives Israel licence not to do anything “to solve the problem with our brothers the Palestinians, the biggest problem in the Middle East”. He talks about present-day Iraq, where the American administration “just doesn’t care. They only care about their interests. And the people are paying the price, with their blood.” A communist since he was a teenager, Naor is decidedly anti-imperialist. “I was born in a period of ideology. I never liked capitalism. I don’t like people who think they can invade a country to change the regime or to kill the elected leader,” he says. “You are not the judge and not the police of the world. Who asked you? And how dare you? And what do you understand about it, anyway?”

By his own admission, Naor’s concern for Iraq goes deeper than the compassion he feels for human suffering, anywhere. “My blood, my mentality is Iraqi,” he says, pronouncing the country with a strong guttural “Q” just like his BBC Saddam. “I really know the western game well and I play it,” he says. “But I felt at home when I was filming in Morocco and Tunisia. I speak the language; I like the food, the Araq [aniseed drink], the nargile [hookah]. Me and my Iraqi friends [in Israel] talk only in Arabic when we are together. We enjoy it – there is a lot of humour and nuances that we can never express in Hebrew.” Among those friends are the Iraqi-Israeli actors Sasson Gabai and Uri Gavriel, who both featured in the House of Saddam.

In his home country, Naor is better known as a stage actor, having played countless lead roles spanning more than two decades in theatre. He is still remembered for roles in classic productions performed years ago. He is due to return to theatre later in the year, schedule permitting. Does he worry about being stereotyped as the Arab movie villain? “I don’t talk in terms of goodies and baddies,” he says. “I won’t do roles that are just ‘an Arab’ with nothing interesting about it. I also just turned down a big role because the script was anti-Israeli, it was coming from a place of hatred.”

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Haaretz profile

Ezra’s tomb in Iraq is now a Shi’ite Muslim shrine

A quarter of all Biblical prophets are buried in Iraq. This fascinating photo-feature in the Los Angeles Times blog (17 August) on the tomb of Ezra the Scribe in Amarah reveals that since the mass departure of the Jews, the site is now revered by Muslims. The tiny Jewish community is thought to have paid for repairs in 2000.

Here on the plains of the Tigris River lies the shrine of Ezra, the Jewish prophet, who returned to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian exile. According to biblical scholars, Ezra died years later back in the Mesopotamia at age 120 in what is now called Uzair. Locals believe Ezra passed away while roaming through the area with his donkey.

His shrine still exists in this predominantly Shiite district of Amarah province filled with supporters of young cleric Muqtada’s Sadr late father, a grand ayatollah assassinated in 1999. Bashir Zaalan is the custodian of Ezra’s shrine. Zaalan inherited the job from his blind 100-year-old father, who hobbles around on crutches. Iraq’s once sizable Jewish population, which thrived in Baghdad, appointed him caretaker long ago. The capital is 268 miles away.

If the shrine was forgotten after the creation of Israel in 1948, when most Jews left Iraq, Uzair has proudly embraced its cultural heritage. Like other prophets in the Bible, Ezra is a holy figure in Islam. And the wooden shrine and blue mosaics in the domed building are treated as sacred by visitors.

A picture of Sadr’s father hangs in the room where men worship by Ezra’s wooden shrine. They touch the wood out of reverence. People visit the shrine to hold classes and deliver sermons on Islam.


“Before, people had no idea who Ezra was!” Zaalan said.

Zaalan guesses the brick building is 150 years old and replaced a reed structure. Until now, Zaalan says the shrine has received no funding from the national government, but he plans on heading to Baghdad to request money.

Once Zaalan and his father visited Baghdad’s old Jewish community and informed them they needed funds for renovations. They were told a committee would be sent down to inspect the building.

No one ever came, but in 2000 a contractor showed up in the village and carried out some repairs. “We don’t know who paid for it,” Zaalan says.

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Hamas: ‘Jews lived peacefully in Arab countries’

If ever Hamas were to conquer Palestine it seems that what lies in store for their non-Muslim minorities is a dhimmi future, according to this interview with a top Hamas official on


DAMASCUS — When announced to its audience a scheduled exclusive interview with Dr. Mousa Abu Marzook (pictured – Google photo), a top Hamas leader, it received a flood of questions from its diverse global audience.

One question was put forward by a person who identified himself as an Israeli Jew who wanted to make up his mind about Hamas “independently of the local news sources.”

He wanted to know the kind of state Hamas would establish if it ever rises to power in Palestine, and whether it would expel Jews if Israel was dismantled.

“[We will deal with Jews] in accordance with our ethics, religious teachings, and historical values,” Abu Marzook, the deputy head of Hamas political bureau, told IOL.

He highlighted how Jews lived peacefully for centuries in Muslim and Arab countries.(Don’t mention the word ‘dhimmi’, anyone – ed)

“Jews lived freely and ran prosperous businesses in Egypt and Baghdad, and the markets of Baghdad are evidences of what the Jews owned.”

Colour me cynical, but whatever happened to those prosperous businesses and Jewish-owned markets, Abu Marzook? All appropriated by Arab governments without a penny in compensation to their Jewish owners – ed.

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