Month: May 2009

Catching the last Jews of Iraq before they vanish

The timing of the publication of Iraq’s Last Jews is critical, says Zvi Gabay writing in The Jerusalem Post. Two of its 19 interviewees died before they could see the book published. Soon there will be no Jews alive who remember the Jewish community of Iraq (with thanks: Lily) :

This book includes testimonies of 19 Jews (men and women) as well as of an Iraqi Shi’ite, who personally experienced the events that occurred in Iraq during the last century.

The main reasons that brought about the escape of the Jews from Iraq may be summarized as follows:

• the xenophobia of the nationalistic Sunni leadership, which did not tolerate minorities, including Shi’ites, Christians and Kurds, especially if they had substantial financial means and social standing;

• anti-Semitism, which existed in newly independent Iraq (and in other Arab countries), which was sponsored by Nazi Germany and led by the German ambassador, Dr. Fritz Grobba, who was supported by fanatical religious leaders, such as Haj Amin el-Husseni (who escaped from Palestine under British Mandate and continued his anti-Jewish activities in Iraq).

The climax of the anti-Jewish activities in Iraq, was the Farhud – the uprising against the Jews on Shavuot of 1941 – during which 135 men, women and children were murdered, hundreds were injured and much property was looted. This uprising ultimately brought about the escape and the mass emigration of the Jews from Iraq. The longing for Zion among Iraqi Jews directed many of them to Mandate Palestine and later on to Israel, while a minority opted to immigrate to other countries such as the United States, Canada, England and Australia. Today, the number of Iraqi Jews residing in Israel is 244,000, while 40,000 are distributed elsewhere in the world.

The catastrophe of the Jews of Iraq occurred for no obvious reason. The anti-Jewish policy of its governments left them with one option – to escape and leave behind all their personal and communal property. Unlike the Palestinians, the Jews of Iraq did not wage a war against Iraq nor did the Jews in other Arab countries. They were the scapegoats of political conflict in their own countries. Israeli governments throughout the years, for reasons which are not clear, did not include this catastrophe of the Jews of Arab countries as part of their political agenda nor was it included in the educational program, as in the case of the Nakba of the Palestinians. This enabled Arab propagandists to portray the Palestinians as the only victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The testimonies are personal and include a broad description of Jewish life in Iraq spanning the comfortable day-to-day life, mainly during British rule, the sufferings and persecutions once Iraq became independent and finally the escape to Eretz Yisrael, through the assistance of the Zionist underground movement, which was established after the Farhud.

They are also authentic and can be the basis for writing the history of the Jews of Iraq in the last century. The introduction, written by Prof. Shmuel Moreh, provides historical background and explains how the Jewish community survived for 2,600 years, in Babylon and later in Iraq.

The extraordinary history of Dhiaa Kassem Kashi, the young Shi’ite, who suffered from oppression in Iraq and was forced to escape in the 1980s, is a vivid example of the sufferings of the non-Sunni communities in the country. He longs for the good relations that existed between his family and his Jewish neighbors. Needless to say, there were Muslims who did not agree with the policy of hatred toward the Jews; however, their voices at the time were not heard. The Jews in Iraq suffered from the struggles between the Sunnis and Shi’ites, as today Israel is at the center of the conflict between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Arab countries.

The timing of the publication of this book is critical, since firsthand testimonies of Jews who lived in Iraq are dwindling (two of the Jews included in the book were not fortunate enough to see its publication). In this respect, special acknowledgment should be given to the Jewish Babylonian Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, for its important work in collecting and documenting personal testimonies of Iraqi Jews.

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Front page interview with editor Tamar Morad

Iraqi Jews: don’t forget your motherland

Suppressed Iraq music heritage : a bridge to peace?

Imagine the scene: an Iraqi Muslim now resident in Australia sits in a taxi on his way to Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, to meet the surviving elderly Jewish musicians who once created the man’s own musical culture but were spat out as ‘spies’ from their country of birth. This eight-minute clip(With thanks: Aida, Helen and Dia) will eventually be the basis for a documentary film, On the banks of the Tigris. Two years ago, The Age devoted four pages to this exciting project: (with thanks: Iraqijews, Ivy)

“When actor Majid Shokor fled Iraq for Jordan in 1995, he stumbled upon a great mystery. In Amman he frequented a coffee shop where exiled Iraqi artists, writers, and theatre workers met to exchange ideas. Among the works discussed were poems written by Iraqi Jews, recently published in a literary magazine. Majid was deeply moved by the poets’ love for their former homeland. It was his first encounter with the suppressed history of the once-vibrant community of Iraqi Jews.

“Three years later in Beirut, where Majid had gained temporary refuge, he came across an article depicting weekly gatherings of Iraqi-Jewish musicians in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The group included renowned performers of Iraqi songs Majid had loved as a child in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein had suppressed the seminal role played by Jews, and others opposed to his regime, in developing Iraqi music. The names of composers were removed and their works credited as folksongs.(..)

“With free access to the internet, Majid was also able to pursue his research on the fate of Iraqi-Jewish musicians. What he discovered reads both as a fable and a challenge to our divisive times: once upon a time, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They shared a culture, and common source of pleasure, in music, art, foods, Arabic language and literature.

“This culture flourished, especially in Baghdad from the 1920s onwards. Music could be heard everywhere, in coffee houses, homes, and on the radio. Iraqi-Jewish musicians and composers were highly esteemed and wrote many songs loved by all Iraqis, and popular throughout the Arab world.

“They made up the majority of the first Iraqi Radio Ensemble, recorded discs, and performed throughout the country. They included the legendary composers Saleh and Daoud Al’Kuwaiti and the much-loved singer Salima Pasha Murad.

“I realised it was an important part of my country’s history,” says Majid, “and I knew that something should be done about it, but I was not sure what.”

“When Majid mentioned the idea in October 2004 to documentary filmmaker Marsha Emerman, she was immediately interested. It appealed to her as a story that explored music and culture as a means of uniting people. In 1991, in response to the first Gulf War, she had organised a Melbourne concert that brought together Jewish, Arabic and Kurdish performers.

“Says Marsha, “as a filmmaker I have always wanted to challenge the media’s obsession with images of conflict and violence and concentrate on peace-making”. The film project, On the Banks of the Tigris, was finally born.

“In the past three years Majid and Marsha have established contact with a global network of Iraqi musicians from Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds. With development funding from Film Victoria and donations through the Australian Business Arts Foundation, they travelled to the Netherlands last December and filmed Ahmed Mukhtar, a master oud player. Ahmed shares Majid’s Shiite background, and his status as an exile from Saddam’s regime. The filmmakers then flew to Israel for their long-awaited meeting with the ageing community of Iraqi-Jewish musicians.

“Wherever he went in Ramat Gan, Majid was greeted as a long-lost son. “Ramat Gan is a little Baghdad,” he says.

“It is in the markets. The restaurants. In the pickles, the popular songs, and traditional sweets. It is in the body language, the way people speak to each other, the way they use their hands to express their ideas. Everyone wanted to touch me. I felt I was in a safe environment.”

“Majid attended the weekly musicians’ gatherings he had first heard of in Beirut, and he met Elias Shasha, Abraham Salman, and Alber Elias, now in their 80s, who had performed in Baghdad in the 1940s. They invited Majid into their homes and told him stories that recreated the lost Iraqi world of their youth.

“When Majid asked Elias Shasha to close his eyes and remember his life in Baghdad, he said, “I remember the beautiful days, beautiful hours, beautiful places. The Tigris and the Euphrates, the boats, the fish, my friends. It’s very difficult. Love for the homeland is undeniable. I can’t ignore I was born in Baghdad, I am an Iraqi.”

“Majid also spent time with musician Yair Dalal. He is filmed performing, and teaching young Israelis who are enthralled by Arabic music. The son of Iraqi Jews, Yair is a celebrated performer on the world music circuit. A virtuoso oud player, violinist, singer, and composer, his music is a haunting blend of Jewish and Arabic influences.

“In recent times Yair has discovered the generation of older Iraqi Jewish musicians and brought them back into the spotlight. Passionate about peace initiatives, he was immediately pleased to participate in the film. As part of the project, Majid and Yair hope to stage a concert that brings together Jewish, Muslim and Christian musicians united in their mutual passion for Iraqi music.

“I have asked myself many times,” says Majid, “if I am doing the right thing. But meeting these people and listening to them, has strengthened my conviction. These musicians and composers gave us such beautiful music, and loved Iraq. When I met them in Ramat Gan, they were like people I knew. We shared a lot of history.

“There is a bond I feel with them that I feel with all exiled Iraqis. It is very moving the way they recall cities like Baghdad over half a century later. They were victims of politics. We were all victims.”

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Donations welcome here

Eurocentric intellectuals ignore Arab antisemitism

Amos Elon in his younger days (Photo: Jerry Bauer)

“The Arabs bore no responsibility for the centuries-long suffering of Jews in Europe.Whatever their subsequent follies and outrages might be, the punishment of the Arabs for the sins of Europe must burden the conscience of Israelis for a long time to come.”

These words belong to the Israeli writer and journalist Amos Elon who died earler this week. Press obituariesall over the world have been quoting them as if Elon said something brave and revolutionary.

One must not speak ill of the dead, but Elon’s statement simply isn’t true.

Today Jews around the world celebrate Shavuoth. Exactly 68 ago, a terrible pogrom broke out in Baghdad over the festival’s two days. After two days of rioting, looting and destruction, 180 Jews were dead, thousands injured, homes and shops had been looted and thousands of pounds’ worth of damage done. This pogrom had nothing to do with Zionism. It happened eight years before Israel was established.

The pogrom, known as the Farhoud, was the Iraqi Jews’ Kristallnacht. It followed a pro-Nazi coup in May 1941 instigated by the Mufti of Jerusalem.

Let’s call a spade a spade: there was widespread sympathy in the Arab world for the Nazis and the Mufti of Jerusalem was a steadfast ally of Hitler.

Following the unsuccessful pro-Nazi coup which he organised in Iraq, explained in detail here, Haj Amin el Husseini arrived in Europe and was officially received by Adolf Hitler on 28 November 1941 in Berlin.

From his office the Mufti organized radio propaganda on behalf of Nazi Germany; espionage and fifth column activities in Muslim regions of Europe and the Middle East; the formation of Muslim Waffen SS and Wehrmacht units in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Western Macedonia, North Africa, and Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union; and set up schools and training centers for Muslim imams and mullahs who would accompany the Muslim SS and Wehrmacht units. He would spend the remainder of the war organizing and rallying Muslims in support of Nazi Germany.

The Muslim Brotherhood (Gaza branch: Hamas) founded in Egypt in the early 30s was directly inspired by Nazism, and instigated anti-Jewish riots.

Arab complicity with Nazism is just for starters; there were the centuries of humiliation, sporadic violence and forced conversions which Jews suffered in the Muslim world.

The late Amos Elon is sadly typical of a number of Eurocentric intellectuals in Israel who are frankly ignorant or misinfomed about Jewish history in the Arab world. This was never the idyll of coexistence they believe it to be.

King of Morocco acknowledges Holocaust

Arab and Muslim leaders need to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust in their own countries and follow the example of the King of Morocco, Warren Miller comments in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

The leader of an Arab Muslim nation recently made some remarkable statements about the Holocaust – remarkable for their courage and respect for historical truth. In a largely unreported speech at the Royal Palace in Fez, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI called the Holocaust “one of the blots, one of the most tragic chapters in modern history.” The king added, “Amnesia has no bearing on my perception of the Holocaust, or on that of my people.”

The remarks offer a stark contrast to the willful amnesia now commonplace in parts of the Muslim world, where denial and distortion of the Holocaust have become widespread.

Among the most notorious examples is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the systematic murder of six million Jews a “myth,” and whose government sponsored a conference of Holocaust deniers in 2006. Meanwhile, through Arabic translations of revisionist literature and the indulgence of much of the state-sponsored Arab press, some Muslim Arab leaders have sought to make Holocaust denial a tool against Israel and the West.

But in a few places in the Islamic world, there is now a willingness to look truthfully at the past and comprehend what befell European Jewry more than six decades ago. Last year, the predominantly Muslim European nation of Albania commemorated its first Holocaust Remembrance Day. And now King Mohammed has shown real leadership by publicly acknowledging the Holocaust. He should be emulated as well as applauded.

The federal commission I head works to preserve the memory of the Holocaust – both the cultural legacy of the thousands of communities that were destroyed and the historical record of what happened to them. We try to preserve the lessons as well as the evidence of the event, so modern societies will understand that allowing prejudice and hatred to flourish can only lead to barbarity.

In both of these areas, King Mohammed’s speech presents an important opportunity. It provides a starting point for Morocco and its neighbors to explore more fully the fate of Jews across North Africa during World War II. Some officials in the region still maintain that the Holocaust did not affect their countries. Although Jews in North Africa largely avoided the genocide their people suffered in Europe, they faced painful persecution.

King Mohammed’s grandfather, Mohammed V, managed to diminish application of the Vichy government’s racist laws toward Moroccan citizens of Jewish faith. But thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe were placed in French-controlled detention and slave-labor camps in Morocco, as they were in Algeria and Tunisia. Many of these Jews, as well as some Arabs and Berbers, were forced to work under cruel circumstances, with insufficient food and in unbearable climatic conditions. The nations of North Africa must come to terms with this legacy.

The king’s speech also offers an opportunity to leaders of other Muslim nations: They can choose historical truth over falsehood, and the respect of civilized nations over ostracism.

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Farouk Hosni backtracks on anti-Israel ‘hyperbole’

In the latest instalment of this ongoing saga, front-runner as the next director-general of UNESCO Egyptian ex-minister Farouk Hosni, yesterday announced that he ‘regrets’ his remarks denigrating Israeli culture, according to Reuters:

PARIS (Reuters) – Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, a candidate for the top job at the United Nations culture agency UNESCO, apologised on Wednesday for calling for Israeli books to be burnt.

Hosni’s bid for the post of UNESCO director-general provoked the anger of a group of intellectuals who accused him of anti-Semitism in a French newspaper column last week.

Writing in the same newspaper, Le Monde, Hosni said he regretted his words, adding that they had allowed detractors to associate him with things that he found hateful.

“Nothing is more distant to me than racism, the negation of others or the desire to hurt Jewish culture or any other culture,” he wrote.

Philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, film director Claude Lanzmann and Nobel Peace Price laureate Elie Wiesel last week quoted Hosni as saying he would burn Israeli books and calling Israeli culture “inhuman”.

“Let’s burn these books; if there are any, I will burn them myself before you,” they quoted Hosni as telling a member of parliament who had confronted him about the presence of Israeli books in Egyptian libraries last May.

Hosni told media at the time he had meant the comments as “hyperbole”.

UNESCO will elect a new director-general in October and Hosni, who has been nominated by the Egyptian government, was viewed as a front-runner to become the Arab world’s first head of the Paris-based organisation.

However, Levy, Lanzmann and Wiesel urged other countries to block his candidature, saying Hosni had a record of denigrating Israeli culture.

“Israeli culture is an inhuman culture; it’s an aggressive, racist, pretentious culture that is based on a simple principle, stealing that which does not belong to it and then claiming it as its own,” they quoted him as saying in 2001.”

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Haaretz: Netanyahu withdraws objection to Hosni (with thanks: Roger)

Times article

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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

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.