Month: June 2009

Reactions to Yemeni death sentence vary

After an appeals judge overturned the previous verdict and passed a death sentence on the murderer of Moshe Al-Nahari, many Jews are still preparing to leave for the US or Israel, although some say they will stay. The Yemen Times admits that minorities are not well tolerated (with thanks Binhaddou):

“Only a small number of misinformed people are not tolerant of religions other than Islam,” says Himyar Abdallah, a traffic police officer in Raida. “Most of us treat the Jews here as we would treat any other fellow citizens, with dignity and respect.”

“Reactions over the death sentence vary,” he adds. “While many are pessimistic, others are worried of violent reactions, especially after some people tried to attack the judge that passed the verdict.”

Many Muslim Yemenis do not differentiate between the Jews in Yemen and the Jews that occupy what has come to be known as Israel. During a performance at a recent graduation ceremony in Sana’a, a theatrical play promoting the unity of Yemen depicted a Jewish soldier as the source of conflict between Aden and Sana’a.

Often when tensions rise in Palestine or even in Iraq, the Jews of Yemen bear the brunt of conflict.

Increasing hostilities have prompted a number of Yemenis Jews to leave the country.

The latest three families, two were from Al-Nahari’s family making up a total of 17 people, which arrived in Israel the same day the death sentence was passed.

An estimated 300-400 Jews remain in Yemen, a country where minorities, including the Akhdam, are not very well tolerated.

Although the government boasts support and tolerance to the Jews, it has been slow to fulfill its promise of providing them with safe havens.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has proposed that the 45 Jewish families in the farming communities of Kharif and the nearby town of Raida in Amran governorate are moved 50 miles southeast to Sana’a, where they can be better protected. He has offered them free plots of land to build homes.

Abraham Yahya, leader of the Jewish community in Sana’a says, “I have been to many countries including the US and Canada, but I love my country.”

The same day a Yemeni appeals court handed a death sentence to Abdul-Aziz Al-Abdi for shooting dead Masha Al-Nahari in December. “All we want is the execution of Allah’s judgment,” he says.

Following threats to the Yemenite Jewish community, the umbrella body of North American Jewish Federation’s plans to evacuate almost half of Yemen’s Jewish community to the US over the next two weeks, according to The Jerusalem Post.

But the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Department director Eli Cohen used the opportunity to call on “all the Jews of Yemen to come to Israel and not to anywhere else in the world,” a reference to the United States.

Zionism is the ideology behind “aliya,” which means the immigration of Jews to the “Land of Israel,” not anywhere else in the world.

Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and offers citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world, including Yemen, although it continues to refuse the right of return of the Palestinian refugees forced from their homes during the fighting that saw Israel come into existence in 1948.

Freedom of religion and non-discrimination are fundamental principles to strengthening any society. Misinformed community leaders and mosque preachers, promote hatred towards Jews, unbeknownst to them that they are sowing seeds of hatred and discrimination in Yemeni society.

However, not all perceive the Jewish society in Yemen with the same contempt. Religious tolerance is sometimes evident as in the Muslim Charitable Society for Social Welfare when it provided the less fortunate Yemeni Jews in Amran with clothes and gifts for the celebration of Passover in April.

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‘I would be scared to reveal my faith’ – Syrian Jew*

Fuad Halwani prays at the last working synagogue in Damascus

The San Francisco Chronicle has this important feature by Brooke Anderson on the pitiful remnant of Syria’s Jews. The Syrian government needs to show it is treating its Jews well to gain favour with the US government, but few would publically flaunt their faith:

“Even though most of his friends and relatives have left, Albert Cameo says he will never abandon Syria.

“My family has always been here,” said Cameo, 68, a retired tailor and president of Syria’s estimated 200-member Jewish community. “It’s important for some of us to stay here to keep our traditions.”

Most Jewish Syrians left in waves after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the enactment of harsh Syrian laws barring them from owning property, withdrawing funds from bank accounts and traveling.

“If they had let Jews go back and forth, no one would have left,” said Joey Allaham, 34, who visited Syria last summer for the first time since leaving in 1992.

Like Allaham, who owns a chain of restaurants in New York, many Syrian Jews migrated to the United States. But others are scattered around the globe, residing in Europe, Israel and Latin America. Those who stayed behind say they did so because of advanced age, health issues, reluctance to move or unwillingness to face an uncertain future.

Today, a reporter must solicit permission from both the ministry of information and Syrian intelligence service to visit the lone functioning synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter in Damascus, which at its height had some 20 temples. The neighborhood is characterized by abandoned and dilapidated buildings and shuttered storefronts.

“It is very depressing to walk down the empty streets,” said Allaham.

Most Jews are elderly and many residents are Palestinians, some of whom still pay rent to expatriate Jewish landlords through the United Nations.

Ahmad Ghaneim, a Palestinian Muslim, says most of his Jewish neighbors left in 1992 after the late President Hafez Assad lifted a 45-year travel restriction on Jewish Syrians, which marked the last wave of Jewish emigration from the country.

“It was very difficult when they left because they were my good friends,” Ghaneim recalled. “When one family left, their relatives followed.”

On many Saturday mornings, a visitor can find as many as a dozen people praying at the lone synagogue under the protection of police security. And when Amin Halwani, a 53-year-old tailor, left a recent service with his skullcap still atop his head, a police officer reminded him to take it off to avoid attracting attention on the streets.

“Thirty years ago, life was difficult. If the police walked by our house, we trembled. That’s why people left,” recalled 70-year-old Rachel Cameo, Albert’s sister. “Now, they are here to protect us. Everything is easier.”

In a recent e-mail message, Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the United States, told The Chronicle that “all properties owned by Syrian Jews have been left untouched for when they choose to visit or return.”

Some observers see a political motive for the police protection and comments by the ambassador.

The government of President Bashar Assad – Hafez Assad’s son – is well aware that persecution of the nation’s remaining Jews could create international pressure at a time when he is seeking rapprochement with the United States and a possible peace deal with Israel.

To date, few Syrian Jews have accepted the invitation to return home.

Allaham says returning to Syria would be impractical for him and others who have established careers and families abroad.

And Ephraim Gabbai, associate rabbi at the Syrian congregation Magen David in lower Manhattan, says many are still afraid to return no matter what the Syrian government says.

“I would be scared to reveal my faith publicly,” he said.

Stanley Urman, executive editor of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a New York coalition of 27 Jewish organizations, says any peace agreement with Israel should include the issue of compensation for Syrian Jews who left clandestinely during the long travel ban. The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a group affiliated with Urman’s coalition, estimates the value of confiscated Jewish property throughout the Arab world at more than $100 billion.

“It’s a matter of principle,” said Urman. “Elements on both sides need reconciliation.”

In 2007, Urman’s group lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass House Resolution 185, which granted first-time-ever recognition to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The resolution affirms that the U.S. government must recognize that all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict be treated equally when negotiating peace agreements.

Meanwhile, Rachael Cameo hopes some Jews will return and help restore the Jewish Quarter to its former glory.

“In the afternoon, people would sit outside their front doors with coffee and sweets,” she recalled with sad nostalgia. “They would dress well just to visit each other.”

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*Associate rabbi Ephraim Gabbai, although himself of Egyptian and Iraqi parents, speaks for his US Syrian congregation

Iranian Jews in Israel demonstrate solidarity

Flag-(2) No, this show of support for anti-government protesters is not in Teheran, but the Israeli town of Holon, where demonstrators are somewhat safer. Note that the interviewee Kamal Penhasi estimates Jews in Iran to number no more than 17,000. Via Babylon and beyond blog:

The show of support was organized by Kamal Penhasi, the Iranian-born editor of Shahyad, the only Persian-language magazine published in Israel. “We speak from the throats of the entire Iranian people, whose voices are being silenced by the censorship of the regime that is killing people on the streets …we are part of the Iranian people and want to tell them we are with them. Enough of this regime; the Iranian people deserve their freedom,” he said at the demonstration.

Penhasi left Iran shortly after the Islamic Revolution. “I saw what happened in 1979; today’s events remind me of that revolution,” he said. “This is the great spark in the direction of the big revolution.” Penhasi says the regime likes to show that it is strong, but in reality it is crumbling from within. “The people of Iran want their freedom and have taken to the streets to prove it.” The young generation in Iran knows exactly what’s happening in the outside world, they view Israel as a second paradise on Earth after the U.S. in terms of freedom, he says. Acknowledging that “30 years of brainwashing” have damaged Iranians’ sympathy to Israel, Penhasi still believes it’s there.

Penhasi has been publishing Shahyad for 19 years. Each month, 2,000 copies of the magazine are printed and it is read by many others online in Israel and elsewhere, including Iran. Besides news and culture, the website serves Penhasi for outreach, for preserving the connection with Iran, keeping an open channel for information and dialogue and documenting the Jewish community’s history. Once, he undertook a project to document all the streets in Israel that have Persian- or Iranian-related names and posted them on the website. Iranians were astonished that the Zionist state has so many sites recognizing Iran.

And some repay him in kind, sending him information and pictures from Jewish sites such as cemeteries, including exclusive pictures from the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan. For years, he has collects documentation on the Jews of Iran, with hopes of one day establishing a heritage center. If only the many organizations of Iranian Jews in Israel were better organized and budgeted, this would be possible, he says sighing, envious of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center.

Many still have family among the 15,000-17,000 Jews still living in Iran. It’s not always simple and not always safe but there is contact. These days, Penhasi is more plugged in than ever — but not only with Jews. Phone, e-mails, chats — he has a constant stream of real-time news, some of it exclusive that he shares with the local press.

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Iranian Jewry ‘hostages’ in case of Israeli military action

A handful of Jews still live in Essaouira

Long feature article in the Jerusalem Post about Essaouira (Mogador), which once had as many Jewish as Arab inhabitants. Now it has fewer than 10 Jews, plenty of tourists, but no culture:

Josef Sebag says he has a fine life in his native Essaouira, though he has no friends here. This retail-artisan heaven for tourists on Morocco’s southern Atlantic coast is a town unique in the Arab world for its history of Jewish-Muslim relations.

Fortifications built by the...

Fortifications built by the Portuguese and then the Spanish in the 1500s.
Photo: Brett Kline

He is often in his casbah antiques and book store, just off the large main square and next to the hippest night spot in town. Sebag does not hang out in the rooftop Taros Café, but does spend a good amount of time in London, Paris and New York. Something about living in Western cultural capitals suits him. He has friends there.

Visitors come to see him, from France, Canada and Israel, but most tourists are not insiders in Essaouira, known as “Souira” to the locals. The Moroccan Arabs call him “el yahoudi” (the Jew) but Sebag says it is never meant nastily. He is as Moroccan and Souiri as they are, and they know it. His family has been in Morocco since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

His store is a must for British, Australian, American and French tourists, as well as for surfers from all over and for increasing numbers of Israelis, especially the ones born in Morocco who don’t come as part of organized tour groups.

Most Moroccan and foreign Arabs do not come to his store, though it has nothing to do with Sebag’s being a Jew. An exception is certain Arab authors who leave their poetry and prose with him, a sign of respect, as they know he carries few Arabic-language books.

“I know everyone born and raised here but have few friends,” he begins in French. “What can we talk about – art, literature? No, we can’t. The local people are more concerned about making money in their stores and restaurants than reading. Some do very well here in Souira, but many have never been out of Morocco.”

Sebag is one of some 4,000 Jews still living in Morocco, mostly in Casablanca, but that is another story. He and his ailing mother are two of perhaps four – or seven or eight, depending on whom you ask – Jewish Essaouira natives left from a community that has lived here since 1760.

Essaouira used to be an example of a small Arab town in which Muslims and Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together but socially segregated – and in peace. It was unique because there were almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term “minority” did not really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and everywhere in the Arab world.

Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen – local landed gentry and royal family clans – most urban-style import-export business was dominated by Jewish families.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to the vast forests around the town. But as an example, from the very beginning of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in Morocco.

Essaouira’s last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities, for Israel. The casbah’s well-off business leaders headed mostly to France and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on the edge of town, including Rabbi Haim Pinto, whose tomb thousands of Jews from abroad visit every September in a hiloula, a pilgrimage.

Today, real estate and tourism are booming in Essaouira, but the boom has little to do with the Jewish world, other than a few very active key players. The same is true for the music festivals, including the Gnawa Festival in June that draws up to 400,000 mostly Western visitors.

“There are leading Moroccan Arab families here making a lot of money with French firms in construction and tourism-linked activities in general, and that is grand for them and for the town,” Sebag says, “but let’s say that aside from the music festivals, culture is limited. Jews here were always a bridge between small-town Muslim society and the Western world. There were very few tourists here. Now the opposite is true. The Jews are gone, but Souira is a tourist center.”

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Mizrahi refugees, summed up in 26 words

David Shasha – a US Jew of Syrian origin – is considered an authority on Jews from Arab countries by ‘progressives’ such as ‘rabbi’ Michael Lerner of Tikkun. But Shasha’s views are superficial and unrepresentative, argues Israel Bonan. He should know: Bonan was forced out of Egypt in 1967 wearing a torn shirt and broken spectacles. Here’s his rebuttal to David Shasha’s “Why Jews left Arab Lands” a Progressive Sephardic view (Via Zionation:)

“Allow me to briefly introduce myself. My name is Israel Bonan, I am a Mizrahi Jew. I was born in Cairo, Egypt in the mid 1940s. I was expelled from Egypt in 1967, and left with a torn shirt on my back, and a pair of mangled glasses, broken intentionally, on my face, and with very little else.

“I am considered by any descriptive measure, a bona fide “refugee”, a designation echoed by the United Nation High Commissioner of Refugees UNHCR, on behalf of the more than 800,000 displaced Mizrahi Jews fleeing the Arab countries (expressed twice, in 1957 and subsequently in 1967). I currently reside in the Boston area in the US.

“I have been familiar with Mr. Shasha’s views for quite sometimes now, and I find it disquieting that his positions, which run contrary to the factual history of the era and the conventional wisdom of the Mizrahi community, or as he prefers to call us “the Arab Jews”, are taken as representative, when they are not.

“It never ceases to amaze me, that Mr. Shasha who likes to refer to himself as an Arab Jew, though born in the US, has such a meager understanding, of the history of the era and about what constitutes a refugee or to dwell with any depth about their lot. Be that as it may.

“I find that Mr. Shasha’s logic and the common thread in his writings, have always consisted of three major assertions; making his discourse monotonously predictable and invariably repetitive.

“One, life was always rosy for the Jews living in Arab lands and Israel’s creation, as a cataclysmic watershed event, is the only cause for disrupting such an idyllic life.

“Two, Israel as a product of an Ashkenazi culture, that is European by nature, has always suppressed, repressed and maligned the Mizrahi community and treated them as second class citizens; though they do represent, according to Shasha, the most effective group to undertake any peace initiative and dialog with the Arabs, having shared their culture, albeit without the author postulating any specific ideas as to the who, the why, the what, the when or for that matter, the how.

“Finally, and he shares that notion with his counterpart (and much quoted resource in his writings) Professor Yehuda Shenhav; that it is unconscionable nay, immoral, to compare the plight of the Mizrahi Jews with that of the Palestinian Refugees.

“Once again in the cited article, he did not disappoint, neither did he deviate from his usual template, but merely continued his revisionist approach to the Mizrahi historical narrative.

“Extremism by its very nature does not allow for a tempered view of events or for cogent reflective analysis. The end result is always black or white; so regardless of how carefully and temperately Mr. Shasha seems to preface his views, the end result is always the same … black or white, all or nothing.

“It is strange to note that in Mr. Shasha’s attempt at historical fairness and balance, he used the following 26 words, in an article of more than 3300 words: :

“Some arrived of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.

That was the extent of defining what really happened to the Mizrahi Jews in an article titled: “Why the Jews left Arab lands,” and you know what, Mr. Shasha is right!! Now if we can only take those 26 words and flesh them out a bit more with the historical facts of the matter, we get a totally different unfolding narrative that is not steeped in demonizing a country or a refugee class, or in cataclysmically defining some watershed events while glossing over others.

I took pains to chronicle my own personal Exodus ordeal, in “A Personal Exodus Story” after more than 35 years of silence. Shasha wrote:

It is curious that in a world that has largely ignored the voices of Arab Jews, the few we hear are filled with anger, resentment and hostility toward Arabs.

I invite Mr. Shasha to read it and to tell me, how much hate he can attribute to me vis-à-vis my Egyptian tormentors or Arabs in general, after reading it. By my accounting, none; yet I will let him be the judge. It is not hate, nor rancor or anger that motivates us to speak out as the “Forgotten Refugees”. It is done out of fairness not retribution, it is about justice after having our human rights trampled upon and above all to record our own history that should not be denied us.

In a co-authored article with Dr. Rami Mangoubi titled: “Zionism for the ages”, we rebutted the first two of Shasha’s stated positions and in my article titled: “The Banana Jews”I took Professor Shenhav to task in rebuttal to his article “Hitching a ride on the magic carpet” about the third topic you both share.

In a nutshell, and again I happen to agree with Mr. Shasha, the Jews of Egypt participated fully and in greater proportion to their numbers in all aspects of life in Egypt; they more than made their mark on the cultural and economic landscape of the country. Where we disagreed with David Shasha, is that he chose the watershed event of the creation of the State of Israel as the turning point without which life in Egypt (and ergo the rest of the Arab countries) would have remained idyllic.

Idyllic indeed, when law after law (as far back as 1869), before even Zionism was spoken of, was enacted to limit access to citizenship for the Jews of Egypt in the country of our birth. through successive Nationality decrees and laws (of 1929).

Idyllic indeed, when law after law was enacted, to economically ethnic cleanse the Jews and other minorities by passing the Company law (of 1947) to restrict Jews and other minorities from access to work in the private and public sectors.

Idyllic indeed, when the Nationalization law (of the mid 1950s) was enacted, to deprive the members of our community of their remaining assets and businesses. Lest I forget and be judged guilty of omission, many other minorities at the time also suffered through this ordeal.

We also touched on the issue of the class system that favored the Ashkenazi community over the Mizrahi community; only to find ourselves citing some top government leadership roles that are today studded and replete with Mizrahi Jews. Mr. Shasha, class struggles are just that, they are struggles to improve one’s status and to raise the ante for the whole country to improve, through an honest and thriving competitive spirit; and it will always will be and better be, a work in progress; for everyone’s sake.

In my rebuttal of the third point, I wrote at length of my experience and that of my parents’ experience and about what a refugee is, because it is not about being an armchair apologist or being a Monday morning quarterback. It is about the suffering experienced, the dislocation, the angst associated with what was left behind and for one having to start rebuilding a life in one’s old age. It is also about leaving behind a culture, a way of life and the familiar. Undoubtedly the older refugee generation has suffered, more so, than the younger one.

Are Mr Shasha and Professor Shenhav, neither of them refugees, being intentionally obtuse and blind to the fact that it is more than just assets and businesses that matter to a refugee, especially the ones who were left with nothing to call their own?

That takes me back again to the twenty-six words I alluded to earlier, and Shasha’s attempt to cover all the bases for historical completeness. In the process Shasha saw only what he wanted to see and felt what he could only touch; the rest to Shasha, remained conceptual, at arm’s length and clinically sterile.

As part of my public speaking educational campaign about the Mizrahi Jews “The Forgotten Refugees”, I always stress the fact that the Middle East narrative has been one-sided for far too long and that our history needs to be disseminated. I also never neglect to touch on the issue of the two refugee populations, as a study in contrasts; the same event (the creation of the State of Israel), that affected two classes of refugees, The Mizrahi Jews, the “Forgotten Refugees” and the Palestinian refugees and what became of them, after the fact.

They both started undeniably with a lot of hardships. The Mizrahi Jews who left for Israel, had to live in tents and ma’abarot (refugee camps), but not for long and in the process they helped and were part and parcel of creating a new country.

The Mizrahi Jews who were resettled elsewhere, invariably found the Jewish community at large eager to help, to get them started in their new life and they rebuilt their lives in the country of their choice.

On the other hand the Palestinian refugees, for the most part, were denied absorption in the Arab countries; they were left in camps as wards of the UN for over 60 years and they passed their refugee status much like an inheritance to the fourth generation. All this dehumanizing behavior on the part of their Arab brethren was simply for political expediency and never once did the Palestinian refugees’ dignity enter into anyone’s consideration.

This is my narrative, this is my parent’s narrative, this is the Mizrahi Jews’ narrative and we will not be denied our history. It is pathetic to hear Shasha suggest that he speaks for me or for the Mizrahi Jews; his perspective is flawed and does not add much value to the historical narrative of the era. Indeed, as Shasha wrote:

“Arab Jewish voices have today largely been silenced, and with that silencing has come the lamentable absence of a perspective that could allow us to see the Middle East in different ways.”

One last note, that is conspicuously absent from Shasha’s writings, save for the inherent braggadocio vis-à-vis the Arabs. I again happen to share Shasha’s notion, as I truly believe that the Mizrahi Jews are in a unique position to enhance the dialog between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

To resolve an ongoing feud, as ingrained in the Middle Eastern culture, both sides have to acknowledge and fully account for what they had done to each other. Admission and full accounting, is a prime imperative to reach a “sulha” or a sustainable peace. Yet we find the Arab governments in total denial about having harmed their Jewish communities.


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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

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