Month: January 2010

Iran’s Jews ‘did not face persecution’: Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher, elected British Prime Minister in 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran, has a reputation as one of the most pro-Jewish of politicians; Jimmy Carter has acquired a reputation as one of the least pro-Israel of US presidents. Newly-released documents show the roles are reversed: the ‘Iron Lady’ rebuffed Carter’s appeals to her to protect the Jews of Iran, denying that they were being persecuted. Yet over the next decade, more than two dozen Jews were executed, several jailed for spying, and four-fifths of the community have since fled the country. (With thanks: Frank)

In May of 1979, according to the files, which go online on Saturday on the Thatcher Foundation Web site, Carter appealed Thatcher for “urgent private representations” to Iranian authorities to assure the safety of Iranian Jews.

Thatcher refused, saying the British Embassy did not believe Jews faced organized persecution, and that intervention “could indeed make their position less secure.”

The papers also showed that the former British premier had also refused a more demonstrative response to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, saying it would do more harm than good.

The files cover the first eight months of Thatcher’s 11 years as prime minister, giving glimpses of her embarking on an ambitious domestic agenda to revive the economy and curb the unions, and engaging with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4.

They were made public by the Thatcher Foundation under rules that allow for keeping documents secret for 30 years.

On Nov. 14, Mr. Carter asked in a cable for “the strongest possible remonstration or action” to pressure Iran, suggesting that Britain consider reducing the number of diplomatic staff in the country.

Thatcher responded a week later that Britain had withdrawn some staff, “but we have not hitherto believed it wise to make a political point of any reduction, partly because we doubt whether the Iranians would be much impressed and partly because of the risk of retaliatory action against those remaining.”

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Remember 14 ‘spies’ hanged in Iraq 41 years ago

Forty-one years have passed since that terrible day in January when fourteen people were hanged in Baghdad and Basra on trumped-up charges of spying and treason – nine of them Jews. It was an occasion for the Ba’ath regime to orchestrate wild popular celebrations under the gallows, while the 3,000 Jews remaining in Iraq quaked in fear. Lital Levin of Haaretz researches the newspaper reports of the time: (with thanks: Iraqijews)

Preparations for a public spectacle were made at night, just after Baghdad radio broadcast the verdicts on the defendants. Speakers were placed in the streets of Baghdad about a hundred metres of each other, people from the countryside began swarming into the capital. People took their places near Liberation Square to watch the executions. Thirteen bodies hung in the square in the end, eight of them Jews. Another Jew was executed in his hometown of Basra.

“Two weeks before, Israel had launched an appeal for help to the world,” declared a Ha’aretz editorialon 28 January 1969, following the hangings. “It was known then that death sentences had been issued against three Jews accused of treason and espionage; that out of seventeen defendants facing the same charge, eleven were Jews; that the risk of death hovered over the heads of more than three Jews and that the Iraqi government was planning to pass more sentences of this type. Today we have to state that our darkest fears have been realised.”

“The trial”, explained the (Ha’aretz) newspaper commentators, “was merely a revenge campaign against Israel dressed up in legalities”: it was revenge for the Israeli air force attack on the Iraqi Army on the Jordan border after it had shelled agricultural settlements in the Jordan Valley.

The bodies of five non-Jews hanging on the gallows were removed from the square, leaving the bodies of Jews displayed there. (..)

The next day the celebrations subsided. In Israel flags were lowered to half-mast and there was an outburst of condemnation worldwide. Iraq officially announced that the espionage trials would continue and more executions by hanging were to be expected. The Iraqi Information Minister at a press conference expressed the widespread fear of retaliation by Israel.

For a long time the Iraqi minister tried to explain to journalists that in fact there was no persecution against the Jews: “The Jews executed were hanged not because of their Jewishness but because they were found guilty of spying for Israel.” (..)

Israel demanded international intervention to stop the death sentences. The Iraqi Minister of Education declared to the crowd that “this was only the beginning”. The Iraqis, on the other hand, said it was “purely an internal matter.”

The British Foreign Minister said that he could not formally intervene as the executed were Iraqi citizens. On Baghdad radio the Chief Rabbi of the small Jewish community in Iraq, numbering around 3,000 people, said (obviously under duress – ed) that he “does not question the justice of the Revolutionary Court in Iraq.”

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Note: It is thought that only 10 (including 8 Jews) were hanged in Baghdad (Saht Al-Tahrir) while the other three (including one Jew) were hanged in Saht Um Al-Broom in Basra. The Jew was Ezra Naji Zilkha, the Christian was Zaki Zeito and the Muslim was Haji Jetta Baie Kokel.

Update: Samir Zeito, son of Zaki Zeito, contacted Point of No Return to say that he believed his father was hanged in Baghdad, not Basra. He and his family have since moved to Sweden. He was four at the time and still seeks to know why his father was murdered.

Remembering the horror: names of the Jewish martyrs

Canada pulls the plug on UNWRA

This week, the most momentous news to come out of the Middle East in a long time slipped out, virtually unnoticed: Canada’s decision to stop funding the Palestinian refugee agency UNWRA. If other western nations follow suit and UNWRA is forced to cease operating, Arab states will be forced to sette the Palestinian refugee problem one way or the other – either by jihad or resettlement. Hopefully it will be the latter, and the Jewish refugee issue will be thrust to the fore as a model of integration. Jonathon Narvey blogs at the National Post:

We learned this week that Canada is the first Western nation to pull the plug on UNRWA, the United Nations-run relief operation for Palestinian refugees of the West Bank and Gaza. The government has been quick to clarify that relief is still on the way. It will now be dedicated to specific projects like food aid; hopefully with enough oversight to prevent mismanagement and inadvertent support to a terrorist organization.

The government’s move is also a not-so-subtle indictment of a broken refugee support program that has arguably only perpetuated Palestinian misery and held up the Middle East peace process. As we look forward, the international community might take a lesson from the other side of the border from the UNRWA camps to Israel, which may fairly take the title of most successful refugee camp in modern history.

When someone uses the phrase, “refugees” in the context of the Middle East, we typically think of the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. The common narrative also holds that when we talk of Jewish refugees, we’re talking about white, European Jews who escaped the Holocaust to seek some measure of safety not only in the Holy Land, but also in the USA, Canada and elsewhere. But these narratives overlook a movement of nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab countries during those same years, roughly equivalent in number to the original Palestinian refugees. They were largely persecuted, second-class citizens set upon by their neighbors and governments.

“We call these people the forgotten refugees,” says Regina Waldman, founder of JIMENA, an organization seeking recognition for these people in the context of an overall settlement in the Middle East. Waldman was herself a refugee from Libya in 1967, surviving anti-Jewish riots and other violence that claimed the lives of her friends and neighbors before escaping the country. Waldman wants to see a regional peace deal that puts Palestinians’ claims “on an equal footing with the Middle Eastern and North African Jews”.

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See video’d interviews with Gina Waldman during her tour of Canada (With thanks: Sacha)

Reclaiming the keffiyeh for the Jews

If the Pope can wear a kippa, why can’t a Jew wear a keffiyeh? In fact Jews in Arab countries have always worn them, Rapper Diwon tells Ruth Eglash of the Jerusalem Post:

It might be considered by some as a symbol of Palestinian “resistance” or solidarity, but for a group of young, hip US Jews, wearing a keffiyeh – especially one with blue embroidered Stars of David – is just as much their right as anyone else’s.

“We did have some negative comments [about the keffiyeh] when we initially sent it out to our mailing list,” Erez Shefar, founder and director of Shemspeed, a Jewish music label and promotion company that started selling the traditional Arab headdress about two weeks ago, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

“I think people tend to view Jews as Eastern European and often forget that ‘Arab’ Jews are also a massive part of our nation,” continued Shefar, a.k.a. Rapper Diwon, whose family on one side originates from Yemen and Ethiopia and on the other from Brooklyn, and pre-state (Israel) .

“Jews indigenous to the (Middle East) , such as my family, have worn some variation of the kefyah [cap/kippa] and keffiyeh [head/neck scarves] for thousands of years,” he said.

“The original purpose of the scarves was to provide protection from the sun and sand. When it comes to religious observance, the Muslim tradition of head covering originates from the Jewish tradition,” Shefar said.

However, he is not oblivious to the fact that this new “Israeli keffiyeh,” which has been selling fairly well, has already engendered controversy among some who feel it might be inappropriate for Jews to use it as a pro-Israel symbol.

“We have had some Arab friends take offense to our new scarf-remix,” acknowledged Shefar. “We have some Muslim rappers who have taken part in our Hip Hop Sulha series, which is a Jewish and Muslim reconciliation concert series featuring Hip Hop groups from around the world. We are having a concert in February and one of the performers has actually backed out because of these scarves.”

In an attempt to put people’s minds at ease, Shefar this week released a press statement to clarify the historical facts and to provide some context.

“As a Jew, I am not offended by the pope who wears a ‘kippa,’ and in the same respect, I don’t feel there is any reason for anyone to take offense to a Jewish person wearing a version of the keffiyeh, which they also identify with,” he said in the statement.

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At least 160 Tunisian Jews sent to Nazi camps

Sylvain Shalom (AP)

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Deputy Prime minister Sylvain Shalom explains in this Jerusalem Post report how his family in Gabes suffered under the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. At least 160 Tunisian Jews were deported to the European death camps. Shalom is pressing the case for compensation for North African survivors.

“Every family knows the pain, and my family included – my wife’s grandfather and grandmother and seven of their eight children were taken away and murdered. Paula, my wife’s mother, may her memory be blessed, succeeded in escaping into the forests and joined the partisans, which saved her life.

“My mother also succeeded in escaping from the Nazis. When the Germans invaded Tunisia, they very quickly arrived at the town of Gabes where my forebears had lived for many generations. The community in Gabes was required to provide forced laborers every day. The Germans set up an improvised labor camp near the airport. My mother’s uncles were also taken there.

“My family’s story is similar to many other stories of Holocaust survivors in Poland and in Austria, and of course also in Tunisia and Libya. Fortunately for us, the Germans did not succeed in activating SS forces in Tunisia for the extermination of the Jews and the total destruction of the communities and their institutions.

“However, they did start to implement the horrific process of the Final Solution. Seventy-seven transports left Tunisia for the Auschwitz, Sobibor and Buchenwald extermination camps. We now know the names of at least 160 Jewish victims from North Africa who were on these transports and there are many others whose names and traces remain unknown.The Nazis planned to exterminate all the Jewish communities in Tunisia and Libya by the same methods that we know they used in Auschwitz.

” That they were unable to carry out their plans was not due to kindheartedness or humanity but only because they had to transfer some of their forces in Tunisia to reinforce the German forces fighting on the Russian front, and in particular for the Battle of Stalingrad. Had the Germans won at Stalingrad and at El Alamein, they would no doubt have also returned to complete their crimes in Tunisia.

“On Sunday, at a meeting of the cabinet we marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day and it was decided to establish an interministerial committee to deal with anti-Semitism. At the meeting I asked the prime minister to include in the committee’s terms of reference the subject of dealing with recompense and compensation for North African Holocaust survivors.

“International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not a case of just paying lip service. The resolution regarding this day is a dramatic turning point in the world’s attitude to the Jewish people, to its past and its future. But there is more. We must view this day as an opportunity not only for remembrance but also for steps that we take here in Israel regarding the Holocaust survivors.”

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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.