Month: October 2009

America’s ‘secret’ mission to save 60 Yemeni Jews

The father of murdered Moshe Al-Nahari outside the courtroom with his burka-clad daughters (AFP)

Feature by Miriam Jordan for the Wall Street Journal on the not-so-secret rescue of 60 Jews from Yemen and their resettlement in Monsey, New York, USA. With the emigration of these Jews, who have neither seen a multiplication table nor an alarm clock, a 3,000 year-old pre-Islamic Jewish presence in Yemen is coming to an end (with thanks: Shaul):

MONSEY, N.Y. — In his new suburban American home, Shaker Yakub, a Yemeni Jew, folded a large scarf in half, wrapped it around his head and tucked in his spiraling side curls. “This is how I passed for a Muslim,” said the 59-year-old father of seven, improvising a turban that hid his black skullcap.

The ploy enabled Mr. Yakub and half a dozen members of his family to slip undetected out of their native town of Raida, Yemen, and travel to the capital 50 miles to the south. There, they met U.S. State Department officials conducting a clandestine operation to bring some of Yemen’s last remaining Jews to America to escape rising anti-Semitic violence in his country.

In all, about 60 Yemeni Jews have resettled in the U.S. since July; officials say another 100 could still come. There were an estimated 350 in Yemen before the operation began. Some of the remainder may go to Israel and some will stay behind, most in a government enclave.

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Moshe Nahari, murder victim, dancing at a wedding (Reuven Schwartz)

The secret evacuation of the Yemeni Jews — considered by historians to be one of the oldest of the Jewish diaspora communities — is a sign of America’s growing concern about this Arabian Peninsula land of 23 million.

The operation followed a year of mounting harassment, and was plotted with Jewish relief groups while Washington was signaling alarm about Yemen. In July, Gen. David Petraeus was dispatched to Yemen to encourage President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be more aggressive against al-Qaeda terrorists in the country. Last month, President Barack Obama wrote in a letter to President Saleh that Yemen’s security is vital to the region and the U.S.(…)

President Saleh has been trying to protect the Jews, but his inability to quell the rebellion in the country’s north made it less likely he could do so, prompting the U.S. to step in. The alternative — risking broader attacks on the Jews — could well have undermined the Obama administration’s efforts to rally support for President Saleh in the U.S. and abroad.

“If we had not done anything, we feared there would be bloodshed,” says Gregg Rickman, former State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Mr. Yakub says the operation saved his family from intimidation that had made life in Yemen unbearable. Violence toward the country’s small remaining Jewish community began to intensify last year, when one of its most prominent members was gunned down outside his house. But the mission also hastens the demise of one of the oldest remaining Jewish communities in the Arab world.

Jews are believed to have reached what is now Yemen more than 2,500 years ago as traders for King Solomon. They survived — and at times thrived — over centuries of change, including the spread of Islam across the Arabian Peninsula.

“They were one of the oldest exiled groups out of Israel,” says Hayim Tawil, a Yeshiva University professor who is an expert on Yemeni Jewry. “This is the end of the Jewish Diaspora of Yemen. That’s it.”

Centuries of near total isolation make Yemeni Jews a living link with the ancient world.

Many can recite passages of the Torah by heart and read Hebrew, but can’t read their native tongue of Arabic. They live in stone houses, often without running water or electricity. One Yemeni woman showed up at the airport expecting to board her flight with a live chicken.

Through the centuries, the Jews earned a living as merchants, craftsmen and silversmiths known for designing djanbias, traditional daggers that only Muslims are allowed to carry. Jewish musical compositions became part of Yemeni culture, played at Muslim weddings and festivals.

“Yemeni Jews have always been a part of Yemeni society and have lived side by side in peace with their Muslim brothers and sisters,” said a spokeswoman for the Embassy of Yemen in Washington.

In 1947, on the eve of the birth of the state of Israel, protests (now there’s a euphemism – ed) in the port city of Aden resulted in the death of dozens of Jews and the destruction of their homes and shops. In 1949 and 1950 about 49,000 people — the majority of Yemen’s Jewish community — were airlifted to Israel in “Operation Magic Carpet.”

About 2,000 Jews stayed in Yemen. Some trickled out until 1962, when civil war erupted. After that, they were stuck there. “For three decades, there were no telephone calls, no letters, no traveling overseas. The fact there were Jews in Yemen was barely known outside Israel,” says Prof. Tawil.

Read article in full

Reuters piece

Haaretz article

Jerusalem Post

Rescuing Yemenite Jewry (UJC)

Beware neighbours who turn into monsters

Arab-Jewish coexistence projects are all the rage – there is no shortage of them in Israel. But dialogue must be balanced and each side must recognise one another’s pain, argues Lyn Julius in The Jewish Chronicle.

At the National Theatre in London, Our Class is telling the story of the 1941 massacre of the Jews of the Polish village Jedwabne — all the more painful for being true. What makes the play so hard to watch is that the murderers and victims knew each other. Catholics and Jews sat in class together, flirted, shared dreams and aspirations. Eventually, though, deep-seated antisemitism and prejudice caused one half of the class to turn on the other.

The idea that familiarity leads to mutual respect underpins the work of some 30 Arab-Jewish coexistence projects in Israel alone. If Jews and Arabs talk to each other, live together, play music together — so the thinking goes — there could be peace.

Coexistence is not new to the Middle East. Jews and Muslims lived cheek-by-jowl for 14 centuries. Arab mythology holds that the Golden Age in Muslim Spain was a model for peaceful coexistence. But the relationship was not equal. Jews were subjugated, self-abasing dhimmis, exploited for their talents. They had to buy their physical security from the ruler of the day. Maimonides fled from fanatical Muslims, not Christians.

In modern times, Jewish-Arab coexistence broke down completely. Roughly half the Jewish population came to Israel not as refugees from the Holocaust, but fleeing Arab and Muslim antisemitism. A million Jews once lived in Arab lands. Today, their communities, predating Islam by 1,000 years, are almost extinct.

The periodic violence that has erupted in the Middle East has tested interpersonal relations to the hilt. Just as Righteous Gentiles saved Jews from the Nazis, some Arabs saved Jews: 300 Jews sheltered in 28 Arab homes during the Hebron massacre of 1929. Honourable Muslims rescued Jews from rioting mobs in Arab countries. While the authorities failed to intervene to protect Jews — or even incited the rioting — the friendly neighbour stood as the last line of defence.

But familiarity also breeds contempt, resentment and greed. Among stories of neighbourly betrayal in Hebron was the Jewish doctor murdered by his own patients. The Makleff family near Jerusalem was slaughtered by the Arabs they worked with. Jews terrorised by the 1941 Farhoud in Iraq (179 Jews dead) and the Libyan pogrom in 1945 (130 Jews dead ) recognised, among their assailants, the local policeman, butcher and milkman.

Yet there must be a place for coexistence initiatives. Projects such as Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra play a role in humanising Arabs to Israelis, and Israelis to Arabs — whose countries habitually demonise them. The cooperative village of Neve Shalom introduces Arabs and Jews to each other’s cultures.

Unless the dialogue is balanced, however, coexistence can become an exercise in Jewish self-abasement. It can lead to Jews suppressing their rights, identity and suffering while empowering Arab grievances. Jews may feel the pain of a Palestinian refugee and even “understand” terrorism, while there is no corresponding shift on the Arab side — because Jewish rights, suffering and the pain of expulsion of Jews by Arabs, may be ignored.

The prejudice at the root of rejectionism and terrorism can turn a neighbour into a monster. Only if we confront this unpalatable truth can people live as equals in true peace and mutual respect.

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J-Street leads nowhere on Jewish refugees

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has not heard about J-Street, the new, hip ‘pro-peace’ lobby group that claims to speak for mainstream American Jews. Sadly I must conclude that J-Steet have espoused the usual pro-Palestinian, Eurocentric distortions in the debate. These make ‘Israeli occupation’ and withdrawal from Jewish settlements in the West Bank the centrepiece of their agenda, not Arab rejectionism and incitement to hatred. They seem to espouse the principles of the Saudi peace initiative, complete with its ambiguity about ‘solving’ the Palestinian refugee problem with a possible ‘return’ to their homes in Israel.

I have looked in vain for any any expression of sympathy for the tragedy experienced by Mizrahi Jewish refugees driven out from Arab lands. On the contrary, we have this astonishing statement from Michelle Goldberg, extollling J-Street on the Guardian’s website Comment is Free:

How does a liberal justify the fact that a middle-class American, like me, has the right to become an Israeli citizen tomorrow, but that Arabs refugees born within its borders don’t? If you don’t believe in biblical claims, or in blood and soil nationalism, what’s left is the fact that history has shown the necessity of the Jewish state, and Israel is the only one there is, and that not all political ideals are reconciliable.

What grudging Zionism from Michelle Goldberg. The phrase ‘Jewish self-determination ‘ does not even figure in her vocabulary. How does a liberal weep for ‘Arab refugees’, but not the Jewish refugees that Arabs states persecuted and expelled – roughly half the Israeli Jewish population? History has certainly shown the necessity of a Jewish state for Jews fleeing antisemitism, not just in Europe but in the Arab and Muslim world. Goldberg, is like almost all similarly-aligned Jews on the Left, silent on what Israel has done to integrate these refugees, and what redress they deserve as part of a settlement of the conflict.

Beirut synagogue running out of restoration funds

A scheme to renovate Beirut’s last standing synagogue is running out of money. The project needs another £66,000, Josie Ensor reports for The Jewish Chronicle.

Maghen Abraham Synagogue, located in the former Jewish quarter of the Lebanese capital, was destroyed by Israeli shelling in 1982. It has been abandoned ever since, leaving Lebanese Jews without a synagogue building.

Renovation work began on the 85-year-old synagogue in August. The rusty padlocked gates were removed and benches once used for prayer were restored to their former state.

But now, the Lebanese Jewish Community Council (LJCC), the non-profit group in charge of the renovations, has been forced to appeal to the international community as funds run low.

“Your support for the synagogue is not merely a financial gesture, but a reaffirmation of your belief in Lebanon’s rich tradition of cultural pluralism and religious diversity,” said LJCC’s Aaron-Micaël Beydoun*. “Help us ensure we can continue with the renovation, be part of history and contribute today.”

Lebanon is officially estimated to have just 100-150 Jews, down from 24,000 in 1948 — although some believe the real count is higher, with many Jews afraid to identify as such. The synagogue’s last rabbi fled in 1997.

While there were once 17 synagogues operating in Beirut alone, there are now just four synagogue buildings remaining in the whole of Lebanon — all of them disused. Jews in the capital have spent the past 30 years praying in specially designated houses as they wait to have their places of worship restored.

The renovation project was first given the green light by the late Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri more than five years ago. It unexpectedly received the public support of Hizbollah, with a party spokesman welcoming the work.

Earlier this year Solidere, a major Lebanese construction firm owned by the Sunni Hariri family, agreed to pay $150,000 towards the renovations. This was part of a larger donation made to 14 religious groups to help them restore their places of worship.

But the LJCC is yet to receive the first of three promised payments.

Read article in full

*What is this gentleman doing on the Lebanese Jewish Community Council? Beydoun is not actually Jewish, but a Shi’a Muslim. However, he has been conducting a one-man campaignto revive the Lebanese Jewish community so that Lebanon can once more boast of its ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ – ed.

Two shot in Sephardi synagogue ‘hate crime’

Two Jews arriving for prayers at the Sephardi synagogue of Adat Yeshurun Valley, Hollywood, California, USA, are in stable condition following a shooting today. Police are treating the incident as a hate crime, the LA Times reports (with thanks: Heather):

Two worshipers at a North Hollywood synagogue were shot this morning in an attack Los Angeles Police Department detectives are investigating as a hate crime.

The shooting occurred at 6:20 a.m. at the Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic synagogue, at 12405 Sylvan St.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michel Moore said the shootings occurred in the underground garage of the temple. A man coming to the temple for worship parked his car in the lot and was approached by suspect who Moore said was wearing a black hoodie.

“Without any words,” Moore said, the suspect shot the man in the leg. Then the gunman fired on a second man who had arrived for prayers. That second victim was also wounded in the leg.

The gunman then fled from the garage. Witnesses called 911.

Moore described the victims as being in their 40s. He said both were in good condition.

Detectives are “working with [the victims] to understand more information,” Moore said.

Detectives don’t believe the motive was robbery, according to LAPD sources, who spoke to The Times on the condition that they not be named because the investigation is ongoing.

At about 7:40 a.m., Los Angeles police arrested a man near the synagogue but the sources say they don’t believe he was the gunman.

LAPD officials have alerted other synagogues around Los Angeles about the shooting, and police have stepped up patrols at Jewish religious institutions.

The sources said detectives are trying to determine the motive, and whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a larger group.

LAPD2

The scene at the Adat Yeshurun Sephardi synagogue (LA Times)

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Comment by Phyllis Chesler at Pajamas Media

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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.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.