Month: February 2010

Kippa-wearing Jews feel safer in Djerba than Paris

The rubbish is piled high amongst the blue and white dwellings of Hara Seghira, the Jewish quarter of the Tunisian island of Djerba, but the locals are not worried. The government will do a thorough clean-up just before the holiday of Lag Ba’omer. That’s when thousands of visitors will flock to take part in the Hillula or pilgrimage in honour of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

It may surprise outsiders to learn that the Hillula at the Al-Ghriba synagogue, which legend has it is over 2,000 years old, has been a fixture of the Djerba tourist calendar only for the last forty years. The Hillula was initiated by the Tunisian government and is a major revenue-earner.

Tourism is the mainstay of Tunisia, sandwiched between its oil and gas-producing neighbours Algeria and Libya. The al-Ghriba synagogue is the main attraction on Djerba, a must-see on every tourist’s itinerary.

The 1,200 Jews who still live on the island around the synagogue and seven kilometres away in the Hara Kebira – the main Jewish ghetto with its 11 synagogues- are like highly-prized exhibits in the Tunisian shop window. A police station guards the entrance to the Hara Kebira. Keep the Jews safe and secure, so official thinking goes, and the thousands of German, French and even Israeli tourists to Djerba will keep on coming.

Jews visit the main Muslim town unmolested. They say the kippa on their heads is their insurance policy. They feel safer here than they would in Paris.

But tourist numbers have only been recovering in the last two years following the devastating al-Qaeda attack on the al-Ghriba synagogue in 2002, in which 21 people died. An explosives-laden truck positioned itself outside the main entrance so that the maximum number of Jews inside the synagogue would be killed. In the event, not a single Jew died – only German tourists and Tunisians.

The Tunisian government, under the long-term dictatorship of President Zine Ben Ali has taken draconian measures to protect the synagogue. You would not guess it from the tourist brochures, but the government keeps an iron grip on dissent and fundamentalism in the country. It was recently voted one of the most media-unfriendly of regimes by international reporters.

Journalist and academic Shaul Zadka, who gave a talk last week in London (arranged by Spiro Arkand Harif) about Jewish Djerba, was struck by the fact that the Jews who live on Djerba are free to visit Israel, although they must fly via Istanbul. The Jews of Djerba are increasingly devout but inward-looking.Whereas previous generations attended public schools and learned French and Arabic, the current generation is educated in the Jewish quarter’s Yeshivot and speaks fluent Hebrew as well as Arabic. They appear to behave as Israeli expatriates, glued to Israel radio broadcasts all day-long.

Jews are permitted to hold joint Tunisian-Israeli nationality. In the last elections, some 400 cast their votes in a polling station in west Jerusalem for the only presidential candidate, Ben Ali, who secured over 90 percent of the votes. Supervising the proceedings was the Tunisian ambassador to the Palestinian territories.

While Ben Ali is in charge, the Jews of Djerba feel secure. But the president is now 71. The Djerba idyll may not continue forever.

The photos by Shaul Zadka show the interior of the al-Ghriba synagogue.

Full text of Knesset Law passed 22 February 2010

The rights to compensation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran, 22 February 2010


The purpose of this Law is to protect the rights to compensation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran in the framework of peace negotiations in the Middle East.

In this Law —

“Refugee Jews from Arab countries and Iran” – who are any of the following:

(1) He is a citizen of Israel*, or lived there before the establishment of the state;

(2) He was a resident of Arab countries or Iran, and left mostly because he was persecuted on account of his Jewishness and his inability to defend himself against such persecution.

(3) He left property** he owned in his country of origin

**”Property” – land, assets, cash, rights, and other property seized by government order.

3. Negotiations to achieve peace
In negotiations to achieve peace in the Middle East, the government must include the issue of providing compensation for loss of property to Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran, including property owned by Jewish communities in these countries.

The Prime Minister is to be in charge of the implementation of this Law.

Signed by

Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister

Shimon Peres

Reuven Rivlin
Speaker of the Knesset

* Although the Law applies only to Israeli citizens, a mechanism is being sought to cover Jewish refugees living outside Israel, similar to that for Holocaust survivors resident outside Israel.

Purim and the obsessions of crackpot professors

Haman begging Esther for mercy, by Rembrandt

With the festival of Purim around the corner, Jews turn to Persia and tell the story of how the Jewess Esther and her uncle Mordechai saved their people from extermination by the wicked Haman.

Same story, different time. President Ahmadinejad has again just announced he is looking forward to a Middle East without Zionists.

In leftwing circles it’s become fashionable to downplay Ahmadinejad’s threats to annihilate Israel as just so much empty rhetoric, or a mistranslation of the Farsi. We are now seeing a breed of young (Ashkenazi) Israeli academics who see Marxist dichotomies and hifalutin’ theories of cultural dissonance where there is just plain old antisemitism.

This book, by professor Haggai Ram, at Ben Gurion university, reviewed here, is no exception:

Employ­ing the soci­o­log­i­cal con­cept of “moral panic,” Ram takes on the com­monly held notion that Iran and Israel are “nat­ural” ene­mies. Instead, Ira­nopho­bia sug­gests that Israel’s “moral panic” finds its roots in cul­tural anx­i­eties relat­ing to Israel’s pre­car­i­ous con­cep­tion of itself as essen­tially “West­ern.” Ram’s analy­sis argues that fear of Iran is in fact deeply con­nected to ten­sions gen­er­ated by the pres­ence of non-Western Jew­ish immi­grants in Israel. These groups are seen as call­ing into ques­tion the state’s Ashke­nazi (Euro­pean) “eth­noc­racy” and com­pli­cat­ing Israeli society’s per­cep­tion of itself as fun­da­men­tally Euro­pean and “mod­ern.” The con­cep­tion of Iran and Iran­ian cul­ture as essen­tially non-Western, as some kind of “Other,” allows Israeli soci­ety to con­ceive of itself and build an iden­tity in con­trast to that coun­try and its people.

Well I’m sorry, Ram, your theory rests on the false Marxist premise that Israel’s Mizrahi Jews want nothing more than to break away from their culturally-repressive Ashkenazi brethren in Israel and melt back into the surrounding Middle East landscape of corrupt and tinpot dictatorships. It’s easy for crackpot professors in the Israel and the West who have never heard the knock on the door in the middle of the night to disparage Israeli democracy as some sort of alien ‘western’ concept foisted on the natives against their will. But democracy and the rule of law and the protection of human rights mean a great deal to Mizrahi Jews in Israel who suffered in their countries of birth from the absence of such things.

Ram’s work seems to have nothing to say about Iran’s long tradition of Shi’a discrimination, enshrined in the Islamic Republic’s sharia law. Whether the Shah was Eastern or Western, the bottom line is that he was a good deal more tolerant of minorities than the Ayatollahs are nowadays. To trumpet the fact that there are 25,000 or 30,000 Jews in Iran today is nothing to be proud of. The truth is that 80,000 Jews got out when they could.

Eli Amir, brilliant chronicler of the Iraqi exodus

Eli Amir

Surprisingly few books about the Jews of Iraq in English have dealt in detail with the Taskeet, the period of the mass Jewish exodus from Iraq to Israel in 1950. All this is about to change, now that famous Israeli writer Eli Amir’s captivating novel The Dove Flyer has been hauled out of Hebrew language obscurity and published in English. In her review below, Lyn Julius hopes that the book will become a classic:

The Dove flyer by Eli Amir (Halban 2010, £10.99)

One wag once observed: if you want a book consigned to permanent obscurity, publish it in Hebrew.

Recent years have witnessed an explosion of books in English about Iraqi Jews. There was, Marina Benjamin’s ‘Last Jews of Babylon’ Violette Shamash’s Memories of Eden, Ariel Sabar’s In my father’s footsteps, Ivy Vernon’s Baghdad Memories, Mona Yahya’s When the Grey Beetles took over Baghdad, Naim Kattan’s Farewell Babylon. None, however, focus in any great detail on the period of the Taskeet – the forced exodus of the Iraqi Jews to Israel.

Eli Amir’s The Dove Flyer is the novel par excellence of the Taskeet. It came out in Hebrew as Mafriah hayonim as long ago as 1992, but British publishers Halban are to be congratulated for having dug it out of obscurity. The novel is set during the turbulent three years between the execution of Shafik Addas, the Jewish businessman on trumped-up charges, to the flight to Israel of almost the entire Jewish community in 1950- 51.

Kabi, the teenage, testosterone-driven narrator, is caught up in the turmoil gripping the Jews of Iraq following the first Arab-Israeli war. Hizkel, Kabi’s Zionist uncle and a key figure in ‘the Movement’ has just been arrested and thrown into jail, but Communists too are being hounded. The novel traces the increasingly desperate efforts of Kabi’s father, Hizkel’s brother, Abu Kabi, and Hizkel’s attractive young wife Rashel, to establish Hizkel’s whereabouts and get him released.

When consulting soothsayers and a dodgy kabbalist do not yield results, Rashel and Abu Kabi engage the services of Karim al-Huq, a Muslim lawyer. Al-Huq locates Hizkel, but Abu Kabi is forced to appeal to his wealthy relative Big Imari to use his influence with the Prime minister to secure Hizkel’s release. Abu Kabi has not spoken to Big Amari since the latter ‘stole’ Abu Kabi’s inheritance of rice fields, and that of another cousin, Salim Effendi, the headmaster of the Frank Iny Jewish school.

The feud with Big Amari is pivotal in propelling both men in opposite directions – Abu Kabi towards Zionism and fulfilling his dream of growing rice in Israel, and Salim Effendi – whose fantasy is to marry the famous Muslim belly dancer Bahia – to seek salvation in the universal Brotherhood of Man through Communism. By the end of the novel, both men find their dreams shattered.

Although The Dove Flyer is nominally fiction, the story is based on real people and real events. Eli Amir uses his characters as mouthpieces to rehearse the debates and attitudes current at the time. Even the names are symbolic: al-Hibaz, the baker, al-Huq, the lawyer, Rabbi Bashi, literally the Chief Rabbi , the Pasha, the leader. The Jewish singer Salima Murad is thinly disguised as Salima Pasha.

Abu Kabi argues the case for Zionism: ” a people without a land is not a people”. The Jews will no longer be whipping boys and slaves to the Muslims. “Tolerance is a form of discrimination”, he says memorably.

In contrast to the Zionists and the Communists, the old tobacconist Hiyawi, a devout Jew, is the nostalgic link with the Turkish past and beyond. According to Hiyawi, the Muslims have never forgiven the Jews for not converting to Islam. Their motive is envy – because the Jews were the first monotheists, who preceded the Muslims in Babylon. The latter envy the Jews because they are still there.

Kabi’s mother does not share her husband’s dream of Jerusalem, hankering for a bygone age of coexistence with the Muslims. The Dove Flyer of the title, Abu Edouard, represents the Arabised Jew, rooted in Mesopotamia for the last 2,000 years, who thinks Abraham’s first mistake was to have forsaken the Land of the Two Rivers for Canaan.

The dove is a brilliant conceit, an allusion to the people of Israel ‘like a dove longing for its redeemer’. Abu Edouard’s doves have carved out their niche in Iraq under Muslim protection. They are at home in his dovecote. By the end of the book, however, the Jewish doves are jostling for space with the doves of Abu Edouard’s new Muslim neighbour as the Jews leave Baghdad in their droves.

Conflicting Arab tendencies are to be found within a single Muslim family: Ismail is the nationalist rabble-rouser. His father is the Islamist Hajj Yahya, who incites the mob to murder the Jews in the 1941 Farhoud, while his wife Hurriyya, Kabi’s wetnurse, is determined to defend her Jewish neighbours. The lawyer Karim represents the moderate view, seeing minority rights as key to the construction of the new Iraq. When Abu Kabi tells Karim the Jews can’t be expected to live in constant fear as eternal scapegoats, Karim tells him: “ A homeland isn’t a hotel you leave because it’s uncomfortable.”

Rabbi Bashi is modelled on the character of Rabbi Sassoon Kedouri: Kedouri was deposed as community leader as a result of pressure from women whose menfolk were in jail, protesting at his spineless approach to the authorities. The Pasha is based on the character of Nuri al-Said, the pro-British Iraqi Prime minister. In the book, the Pasha argues that the hanging of Shafik Addas provided an outlet for Iraqi fury at their humiliating defeat in Palestine, and prevented the outbreak of a second Farhoud. Moreover, the Pasha claims that by sanctioning the Taskeet exodus, originally conceived as an exchange of population with the Palestinian refugees, he was doing the Jews a favour.

When Abu Kabi and his family finally get to their new Israeli home, a fenced-in tent camp by the sea, his ambition to grow rice is frustrated by bureaucrat after bureaucrat. He wryly observes that in Israel, a democracy, “you can say what you like but no one listens to you; in Iraq you can’t say what you want but whatever you do say is listened to.”

His anti-Zionist wife, who had no expectations of Israel left to dash, adapts better to the new reality than her husband. Among others washed up unexpectedly on Israel’s shores are the Dove Flyer’s Arabised daughter Amira, and Salim Effendi. The Zionists are more successful at spiriting out Communists like Salim than their own people – Hizkel is left behind to languish in his Iraqi jail while his wife takes up with the Muslim lawyer.

The book is a breathless and captivating Cook’s tour of Iraqi Jewish life, sensual and full of colour, from a cruise on the Tigris to a pilgrimage to Ezekiel’s tomb. From the quemar to the okra, the zingoola to the umba, the food alone is a dazzling feast. But the Jews live under the spectre of a second Farhoud, and the constant sense of anxiety that minorities experience in the Middle East.

In truth Jews like Eli Amir grew up in fear of Muslims. Kabi is taught by his father to avoid certain quarters, to use a Muslim name, to disguise his Jewish dialect. Baghdad is far from paradise: Kabi is almost beaten up in the cinema and almost sodomised in the Turkish baths. Even an audience alone with the king is not advised because of the latter’s reputation for paedophilia. In its brutal frankness, The Dove Flyer today almost appears politically-incorrect.

Amir’s answer to the Jewish dilemma – should we stay or should we go? – is an unfashionable Zionist one, but he is saying that Zionism too has its disappointments. The book is an indispensable read for anyone who wants to understand Arab-Jewish relations, warts and all, and deserves to become a classic.

Eli Amir will be in conversation with Danna Harman of Haaretz at the Sephardi Centre in London on Wednesday 3 March at 7.30pm. (See Hariffor details). Eli Amir will also be at Jewish Book Week on 4 March at 5.30pm.

Pro-Arab MPS urge UK resettlement of Yemeni Jews

Diane Abbott MP
With thanks: Rona

This blog has been closely following the trials and tribulations of the tiny Jewish community still in Yemen. Over the last year, scores have left. But concern about their persecution now comes from an unlikely quarter. On 22 February three Westminster MPs, Diane Abbott, Lynne Jones and Peter Bottomley filed an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the UK House of Commons, urging the resettlement of persecuted Yemeni Jews in the UK:

That this House is concerned that the small number of remaining Jews living in Yemen are facing ongoing religious persecution and systematic mistreatment which represents a critical threat to the health, safety and security of their community; notes that the United States administration has facilitated the resettlement of Yemeni Jews in the US for those with ties to that country; and urges the Government to follow this example and consider providing specific measures for those members of the group with ties to the UK who urgently need protection on humanitarian grounds.

These three MPs are not noted for being friends of the Jewish people. Peter Bottomley is a member of the Council of Arab-British Understanding and the Britain-Palestine All-Parliamentary Committee. Lynne Jones visited Syria last year and met Khaled Mashaal of Hamas. Diane Abbott has not been shy to speak up for Palestinians.

So why have these MPs experienced a sudden urge to show sympathy with Yemeni Jews? Notably absent from the EDM is any mention of Israel, which has taken in up to a hundred Jewish refugees from Yemen in the last year, some reuniting with relatives they had not seen for over 50 years. The EDM carries an implicit anti-Zionist message. It only considers as possible havens the US, where some 60 Jews have arrived in the Satmar enclave of Monsey in New York, and the UK, where the existing Yemenite community of Stamford Hill in London were preparing to receive their fleeing kin.

Clearly Diane Abbott, whose constituency encompasses the large Orthodox community of Stamford Hill, has come under pressure from Yemeni Jews already here to let more of their relatives join them.

Colour me cynical, but with a general election only weeks away, could this EDM also be a play for the Jewish vote?


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