Month: November 2009

Partition plan unleashed flight from Arab lands

The UN resolution to partition Palestine exactly 62 years ago unleashed violence and harassment of Jews living in Arab countries. It was the first stage in the ethnic cleansing of the region of its 900,000 Jews. Three Egyptian Jews recall those dark days for Lela Gilbert of the The Jerusalem Post:

‘All I can remember… is the element of fear,” Joseph Abdel Wahed writes, reflecting on the events of his 12th year. “People in the streets would mock us with the famous Arab insult, Ya yahudi ya ibn el kalb [Jewish son of a dog], or even more ominously Idbah el-Yahud [slit the throats of the Jews].

An antiquities employee...

An antiquities employee performs restoration work on the Ben Maimon synagogue in Cairo in August.
Photo: AP

“This really scared us because there was nowhere to hide. Many of us did not have travel papers and even if we did, the Egyptian authorities wanted to keep us as hostages and not let us out. After the revolution of July 1952, their attitude changed and they were only too glad to kick us out, but not before confiscating everything we owned – our businesses, farms, hospitals and homes and bank accounts.”

From 1948 to 1968, between 850,000 and 1 million Jews fled or were expelled from their homes in Arab countries, including Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Some Jewish refugees refer to the shattering events as their Nakba, borrowing the oft-repeated Arabic word for “catastrophe.” Others, particularly those who once lived in Egypt, call it the “second exodus,” relating their experiences to the biblical Israelites’ miraculous flight from Egypt. Most of these refugees, now in their sunset years, feel blessed to have escaped Egypt and grateful to have made their way to Israel with little more than the shirt on their back and – if they were fortunate – one suitcase.

Joseph Abdel Wahed and Levana Zamir, also from Egypt, now live at opposite ends of the world. But for both of them, the events of May 14, 1948 were, indeed, catastrophic. That was, of course, the day when Israel proclaimed its independence and declared itself a nation, on its own land as bestowed by the UN partition. To put it mildly, the response across the Arab world was anything but congratulatory. Wahed was 12 years old; Zamir was 10. Although they weren’t acquainted at the time, they both lived in or near Cairo.

Levana Zamir

These days, Zamir speaks of her experiences in her breezy, sunlit Tel Aviv apartment, surrounded by colorful décor and a collection of fine art. In a quiet voice she explains that she, her parents and her six brothers were once part of an affluent community that, for generations, had enjoyed an elegant lifestyle that she describes in her book, The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt, published in cooperation with the University of Haifa.

Then the “catastrophe” struck.

“On May 14, 1948,” Zamir recalls, “we were sleeping. All of a sudden, exactly at midnight, people were knocking very, very hard on our door. We woke up and I saw 10 Egyptian officers in their black uniforms. I wasn’t afraid because my parents were there and my mother was smiling to comfort me. But the soldiers opened everything. They went through everything. They were searching for something, but we never knew what.

“The next day I went to school [she attended a Catholic elementary school]. The headmaster of the nuns came to me and said, ‘They took your uncle to prison!’ My uncle lived in a big villa. He, my father and another brother owned one of the largest printing businesses in Cairo. I rushed home and asked my mother, ‘Is it true? Is he a criminal?’ My mother told me, ‘He’s not a criminal. It’s only because we are Jews.’ So then it was even more a trauma for me. I thought to myself, ‘I am also a Jew! I too could go to prison!'”

Eighteen months later, when her uncle was released from prison like many others – on the condition of permanent expulsion – Levana and her family fled Egypt, leaving behind their sequestered assets and possessions.

Zamir describes her childhood world – before those terrible events – in nostalgic vignettes, illustrated with fading photographs. It was a way of life cherished by her parents, an epoch of almost fairy-tale quality. The affluent Jews of Egypt, like those of Iraq, Iran and some other cosmopolitan Muslim lands, were well connected with royalty. They enjoyed beautiful villas, social prestige and the best of food and education, so much so that they were able to overlook their dhimmi status vis-à-vis their Muslim friends and neighbors. Today, serving as president of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, Zamir works tirelessly to fulfill her dream of restoring warm ties between Egyptians and Jews.

Today Wahed lives in California, in a small town called Moraga, east of San Francisco. He keeps in touch with scores of other Jews from Arab lands and works with the Jimena organization he founded (, seeking to provide recognition to those Jewish refugees and their families.

“I was 12 years old in May 1948,” Wahed says, “living in Heliopolis [a Cairo suburb]. I remember the words of Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, talking about the founding of Israel. He said, ‘This will be a war of extermination that will be likened to the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.’ The very next day, the Egyptian army [and four other Arab armies] headed toward the new State of Israel to ‘throw the Jews into the sea.’ It was supposed to be a slam dunk, but they lost.

“By then everything had begun to unravel and our previously secure lives in Egypt had fallen apart. The Jewish section of Cairo, the Haret el-Yahud, was bombed [frequently] until 1949, killing and wounding many innocent Jews. Accompanying this were the usual assaults on our synagogues and on Jewish individuals. The authorities sometimes played a part in these assaults, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which began in the late 1920s under the leadership of Hassan el-Banna. In 1967, about 400 Egyptian Jews, including my uncle and other relatives were thrown in concentration camps. They were treated harshly and forced to commit sexual acts. They were released in 1970.(…)

“Immediately after the UN approved the partition resolution on November 29, 1947,” (Yossi) Ben-Aharon says, “Arabs attacked the Jews throughout the Middle East, including Palestine. Yet, since 1949, the Arab states, together with Palestinian organizations, have mounted an intensive propaganda campaign, based on a rewriting of history, in an attempt to shift responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue onto Israel. They describe the events of 1948 – and the estimated 762,000 Arab refuges – as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ by Israel.

“The facts of history point to the opposite: ethnic cleansing was perpetrated by Arab governments against their Jews, as witnessed by the fact that 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab countries, while more than 4 million Arabs continue to live in geographic Palestine, including more than a million in Israel. Now, 60 years after the events, the time has come for the historical facts to be recognized and for justice to be done.”

“We Jews who were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world did not get one penny from the UN,” Wahed adds, “while the Palestinians have received over $50 billion [including funds from the European Union] since 1950. They still are receiving financial assistance.”

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The Jew from Kuwait

Over the years, scores, or possibly hundreds, of Jews have married Muslims: their children are then lost to Judaism. A conspiracy of silence seems to surround the issue, but now and again one comes across articles such as this remarkable story from Aish. Mark Halawa found out that he was ‘halachically’ Jewish, but his Muslim background left him unprepared for such a shocking discovery. (With thanks: Lily)

“Growing up in Kuwait, I had the best of everything. My father owned a successful construction company, and provided us five children with amenities like piano lessons, swimming, calligraphy and trips all over the world. Although we were Muslims like everyone else, we were totally secular and my father always aimed to shield us from religious people whom he described as crazies.

“I grew up being told that Israelis and Jews were the lowest type of creature in existence, put on Earth only to kill us Arabs. In math class the teacher would say, “If one rocket killed X number of Jews, how many would six rockets kill?”

“My father was rabidly anti-Israel. He was a product of Nasser’s school of thought: secular from a Muslim point of view, yet deeply dedicated to the idea of pan-Arab unity. Israel, he believed, was an American proxy in the post-colonial Middle East.

“My father was a supporter of the PLO since the 1960s when Yasser Arafat (who founded the PLO while living in Kuwait) was raising money from wealthy Palestinians working in Gulf States. As an engineer, my father participated in a program where the engineering association in Kuwait would deduct money from his monthly salary to be sent directly to the PLO. He insisted that war and resistance was the only way to deal with Israel.

“In the summer of 1990, when I was 12 years old, our lives changed completely. We were on vacation when Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. My father’s business — along with much of the country — was ravaged. Our savings became worthless pieces of paper. We could not go back to Kuwait, so we immigrated to Canada. My father did manage to sneak back in for a few days to retrieve important business documents that would later be useful in recovering compensation from a United Nations fund.

“Praying in the Dark:Of my family, I’m the only one who stayed in Canada. My father never really adjusted to life in the New World, and he had good business contacts back in Jordan, so my parents returned there. All my siblings also moved back to the Middle East. One brother runs a successful company in Jordan, two brothers are studying in Egypt (one dentistry and the other business), and my sister lives in Dubai where she works in the banking industry.

“One evening in 2003, I was studying at the university library in London, Ontario, when I happened to notice an older man. From his chassidic garb, he looked like a religious Jew. My curiosity was aroused, so I approached him and asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“With a gentle smile on his face, he said, “No, but I like to dress this way.” I didn’t know whether he was joking or not. All the religious people I had come across in the past were pretty scary. Are Jews supposed to be funny?

“His name was Dr. Yitzhak Block, a retired professor of philosophy. We exchanged a few words and then he asked about my background. My family history is pretty complex, and I get a headache every time I have to explain it all. So I simply told him that I’m an Arab from Kuwait, and mentioned that my grandmother from my mother’s side is Jewish.

“My mother’s parents met in Jerusalem when my grandfather, an Arab from the West Bank, was serving in the Jordanian army fighting the Zionists. He was 18 years old and my grandmother was 16. Her father ran a school in Jerusalem — the same school where she would jump off the wall to meet my handsome, uniformed grandfather. They fell in love, got married, and lived for a number of years in Shechem (Nablus).

“After my grandfather was discharged from the Jordanian army, the family moved to Kuwait, where oil profits were fueling huge business and construction projects. That’s where my mother met my father and got married.

“Knowing about my grandmother’s Jewish background always made me curious about Jews. Whenever we were on vacation in Amman, Jordan, I used to constantly watch the Israeli channel — when my parents weren’t around. My favorite was the Israeli national anthem, and I would stay up late waiting to hear them play it at the end of the TV transmission.

“Standing there in the university library, this religious Jew, Dr. Block, looked at me and said, “In Muslim law, you’re considered Muslim, since the religion goes by the father. But according to Jewish law, you’re Jewish, since Jewish identity is transmitted by the mother.”

“My head started to spin and memories of my childhood in Kuwait began to surface. I recalled how my grandmother had a funny name on her documents, Mizrachi, which I never heard before. She also had a small prayer book with Hebrew letters, and she prayed in the dark crying. (I thought the Wailing Wall was so named because crying was a part of prayer.)

“Aside from a vague family legend, my grandmother never mentioned anything about being Jewish — but now the pieces were fitting into place. I thanked Dr. Block for the conversation, and ran home to tell my roommate what I heard. He smiled and said, “So you’re a Mus-Jew!” I was not amused.

“I went to my room and called my mother. She rebuffed the story, saying, “Don’t listen to people like that. We are Muslims and that’s that.”

“I decided to call my grandmother myself and bring up the subject.

“I beat around the bush a bit — after all, she’d been denying it for the past 50 years — and then finally blurted out, “Grandma, are you Jewish?”

“She didn’t answer the question directly, but she started crying and spoke about the years of Arab-Israeli conflict. She told me how her brother Zaki had been killed in Jerusalem before the rebirth of the State. To me that was sufficient confirmation of her Jewishness and I decided to leave it at that.

“Over the next few months, I avoided the whole issue of Judaism, mainly for the sake of not upsetting my mother. Besides, I was just finishing university, and career was my main priority. I was content with telling myself that I belonged to a mixed-faith family.

“Streaming Tears:About a year later, I was rollerblading one day in my neighborhood when I took a hard fall and badly sprained my wrist. The road was smooth so I couldn’t figure out why I had fallen. I couldn’t stop thinking that it seemed like a push from Above. These thoughts caught me by surprise, since I wasn’t into spirituality and I never had any religious connection. I was a bodybuilder, had tons of friends, and was on the heels of a successful career as a foreign exchange trader. So why had this happened?

“Because my wrist was heavily bandaged, I was forced to take off work for a few days. Dr. Block had mentioned the name of his synagogue, so that Saturday morning, I decided to go check out the scene. I was hesitant at the thought of everyone being from European background and me the only Middle Easterner, but I decided to go anyway.

“I called a cab and got dropped off at the synagogue. As I walked in, the first person I saw looked Indian. He shook my hand, said “Shabbat Shalom,” and handed me a kippah. Then I saw a black man which really surprised me. And Dr. Block was there, too.

“I was handed a prayer book, shown the proper page, and before I knew it everyone was singing, V’Shamru:

“And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel, it is a sign forever that in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”

“Something hit me and I felt as though I knew this song. I just stood there taking in the sounds, the smells and the sights. Everything felt whole and perfect. It was the opposite of everything I’d ever heard about Jews or Judaism. At this point my tears were streaming in freefall.”

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Record numbers of Turkish Jews moving to Israel

An unprecedented 600 Turkish Jews are expected to flee harrassment and resettle in Israel in 2010, the Jewish Agency has predicted. Taking their cue from the antisemitic pronouncements of Prime Minister Erdogan, Turks are no longer as tolerant as they once were. David Bedein of the Philadelphia Bulletin writes:

Jerusalem – A nervous Rabbi recently appeared at The Bulletin’s bureau in Jerusalem and related that the small Jewish community in Turkey feels threatened by the new Islamic resurgence and by the new Turkish alliance with Iran.

As a result, there is a a significant increase in the number of Jews leaving Turkey and immigrating to Israel.

One hundred and thirty five immigrants from Turkey have made the journey this year, compared with 108 in 2008.

The Jewish Agency predicts that, by the year’s end, some 200 immigrants will have come, nearly twice as many as in previous years.

The assessment is based on the fact that, for the first time in many years, Jewish Agency representatives are being swamped with calls. As of now there is a 100 percent increase in those expressing interest in immigrating to Israel, inquiring as to their rights and obligations – and for the first time, a long list of Jews hoping to relocate their businesses from Turkey to Israel.

Most of those asking to register as new immigrants explain that this is due to the new extremist attitudes towards Jews in Turkey.

One of those who have registered, a 39-yard-old father of four who did not give his name, is the owner of a large and prosperous shop in the capital. The man decided to sell his business and move to Israel.

“We are being harassed, Turkey is no longer the same Turkey. They listen to the words of the prime minister and refrain from setting foot in Jewish shops. Turkey is falling into extremism,” he explained.

He said that many of his Jewish colleagues were leaving for the West, not only to Israel, and others were considering doing so.

“We anticipated that the number of people interested in moving to Israel was going to rise, but we didn’t anticipate that there would be such a large number of people who wanted to immigrate and so swiftly,” said a senior Jewish Agency executive. He said that 600 Jews were expected to immigrate to Israel from Turkey in 2010, which is an unprecedented number.

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Nazi hate propaganda still poisoning the Arab world

The Mufti of Jerusalem meets Adolph Hitler

After the fall of Hitler, the Arab world never went through a process of recanting its sympathy for Nazi ideas. There is mounting evidence, Jeffrey Herf observes in The Chronicle of Education, that the antisemitism rampant in the Middle East has its roots in a toxic mix of Nazi hate propaganda and Islamist elements.

At 8:15 p.m. on July 7, 1942, the Voice of Free Arabism played a remarkable program titled, “Kill the Jews Before They Kill You.” The broadcast began with a lie: “A large number of Jews residing in Egypt and a number of Poles, Greeks, Armenians, and Free French have been issued with revolvers and ammunition” to fight “against the Egyptians at the last moment, when Britain is forced to evacuate Egypt.” The broadcast continued:

“In the face of this barbaric procedure by the British we think it best, if the life of the Egyptian nation is to be saved, that the Egyptians rise as one man to kill the Jews before they have a chance of betraying the Egyptian people. It is the duty of the Egyptians to annihilate the Jews and to destroy their property. … You must kill the Jews, before they open fire on you. Kill the Jews, who have appropriated your wealth and who are plotting against your security. Arabs of Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, what are you waiting for? The Jews are planning to violate your women, to kill your children and to destroy you. According to the Muslim religion, the defense of your life is a duty which can only be fulfilled by annihilating the Jews. This is your best opportunity to get rid of this dirty race, which has usurped your rights and brought misfortune and destruction on your countries. Kill the Jews, burn their property, destroy their stores, annihilate these base supporters of British imperialism. Your sole hope of salvation lies in annihilating the Jews before they annihilate you.”

This broadcast, which combined secular political accusations with an appeal to the religious demands of Islam, was unusual only insofar as it explicitly voiced genocidal intentions that were merely implicit in other declarations about the venality and power of the Jews. Two German historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, recently uncovered evidence that German intelligence agents were reporting back to Berlin that if Rommel succeeded in reaching Cairo and Palestine, the Axis powers could count on support from some elements in the Egyptian officer corps as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Mallmann and Cüppers also show that an SS division was preparing to fly to Egypt to extend the Final Solution to the Middle East. The British and Australian defeat of Rommel at the Battle of El ‘Alamein prevented that from happening.

How was Nazi propaganda received by Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East? Research into this question has begun, but much more remains to be done by scholars who read Arabic and Persian. It is clear, as Meir Litvak and Esther Webman point out in their important new book, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (Columbia University Press), that the revulsion for fascism and Nazism that greatly influenced postwar politics in Europe was not nearly as prevalent in the Middle East. In a June 1945 report, the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, determined that “in the Near East the popular attitude toward the trial of war criminals is one of apathy. As a result of the general Near Eastern feeling of hostility to the imperialism of certain of the Allied powers, there is a tendency to sympathize with rather than condemn those who have aided the Axis.” The OSS concluded that there was no support in the region for bringing pro-Axis Arab leaders like Husseini and Kilani to trial.

In the first months after the war, as the scope of the Jewish catastrophe in Europe was being revealed, Arab and Islamic radicals showed no sign of reconsidering their hostility to Zionism. On June 1, 1946, the OSS office in Cairo sent a report to Washington about a statement made by Hassan Al-Banna to the Arab League on the occasion of Husseini’s return to Egypt. Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, celebrated Husseini as a “hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle. … There must be a divine purpose behind the preservation of the life of this man, namely the defeat of Zionism. Amin! March on! God is with you! We are behind you! We are willing to sacrifice our necks for the cause. To death! Forward March.”

Banna’s hope that Husseini would “continue the struggle” indicates that Banna perceived the battle against Zionism as a continuation of Nazism’s assault on the Jews. Sayyid Qutb, another extremely influential member of the Brotherhood, incorporated anti-Jewish ideas from Europe to forge a new jihadist ideology. In his essay from the early 1950s, “Our Struggle With the Jews,” which became central in the canon of radical Islamist texts—the essay was republished in 1970 and distributed throughout the world by the monarchy in Saudi Arabia—Qutb argued that Jews are implacable enemies of Islam. As such, Qutb wrote, Jews merited “the worst kind of punishment.” Qutb claimed that Allah had sent Hitler to earth to “punish” the Jews for their evil deeds. In so doing, Qutb justified, rather than denied, the Holocaust. This paranoid analysis, in turn, influenced the authors of the charter of Hamas, which blends Islamist fundamentalism with the Nazi ideology of mid-20th century Europe. The Hamas Charter holds Jews responsible for the French and the Russian Revolutions, World War I and World War II, as well as the founding of the United Nations—all of which were, Hamas argues, orchestrated for the purpose of furthering Jewish world domination.

Many decades and events stand between World War II and contemporary expressions of radical Islam. Yet the transcripts of Arabic-language propaganda broadcasts offer compelling evidence of a political and ideological meeting of minds between Nazism and radical Islam. The toxic mixture of religious and secular themes forged in Nazi-era Berlin, and disseminated to the Middle East, continues to shape the extreme politics of that region.

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Mumbai’s Jews : defiant but vulnerable

The spirit is one of defiance in Mumbai’s tiny Jewish community on the first anniversary of the savage jihadist murders of six Jews – in India, a country with little history of antisemitism. Rhys Blakely reports for The Times: (with thanks: Lily)

The ten Islamist gunmen who stormed the city a year ago today were told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of Gentiles. The wreckage of the only Jewish target — a centre that had offered visiting Jews kosher food, prayer and a place to sleep — bears witness to their ruthlessness.

Bullet marks still pock the wall where the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife, Rivka, the young couple who ran Nariman House, were found. Halfway up the central stairwell a grenade has blown away the side of the building. Shrapnel has left deep scars in the masonry. Some rooms are almost untouched while others have been obliterated by automatic gunfire. Not a single window remained intact.

Amid the rubble there are reminders that this was a family home. Crayon notches mark a door frame where Rivka had recorded the height of her son Moshe, 2, who survived, rescued by his Indian nanny. On the floor the couple had made their living quarters, the Holtzbergs’ shoes remain neatly stacked in a rack.

“This was a beautiful, vibrant place,” said Shloime Coleman, 22, a rabbinical student from Stamford Hill, London, one of many who volunteered to come to Mumbai after the attacks to help continue the work of the ChabadLubavitch movement, the Hasidic organisation that ran Nariman House. “It was turned upside down.”

The five-storey building became a war zone after two terrorists, named by police as Abu Umar and Babar Imaran, broke in at about 9.45pm, armed with AK47 assault rifles and grenades. The following dawn a squad of elite commandos were sent in to flush them out and save the hostages inside — an operation that would stretch for two terrifying days and end in failure.

Six foreigners, all Jews, were murdered in the house and three Indians were killed outside. Altogether 166 victims died in the Mumbai attacks, which have been blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group.

A year on, the spirit at Nariman House is one of defiance. Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 33, the New Yorker sent to rehabilitate the centre in the wake of the atrocity, says there was never any doubt that his organisation would continue to have a presence in Mumbai.

“The attacks left a hole in our lives,” he said. “It will take time and patience to heal but we are standing in the front line against the War on Terror. We have a way of life that sanctifies life above everything. They do not.”

No decision has yet been made about whether Chabad-Lubavitch will move back into its former home. It is possible that another site will be chosen and its location kept low-key. Either way it is certain that tight new security systems will be put into place.

Mumbai’s Jews, who number only about 5,000 in a city of 18 million people, are a vulnerable speck in the cosmopolitan whirl. Scattered around Mumbai, however, are relics to show how they helped to build India’s commercial capital. For more than a century the most important has been the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. A grand colonial building in the heart of Mumbai’s financial district, its flaking turquoise façade stands testimony to how a handful of Jews helped to shape modern India.

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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.