Month: April 2010

Lebanese Jews will not return to Beirut

Construction work goes on apace at the synagogue in Wadi Jamil, Beirut (La Presse)

Who is Isaac Arazi? The mysterious head of the Jewish communal council in Lebanon and instigator of the reconstruction of the Beirut synagogue has finally stepped out of the shadows for this interview with the Canadian magazine Cyberpresse. But Arazi’s pipe-dream of rebuilding not just the Beirut synagogue, but the Jewish community in Lebanon, is greeted with scepticism both at home and abroad:

At the heart of the ancient valley of the Jews, between the deluxe new sand-coloured buildings, the synagogue, Maghen Abraham, is still standing. Since 2008, Isaac Arazi, an old man with glasses as thick as bottle bottoms, who directs the Lebanese Jewish Communal Council, is working against all odds to get the renovation of this last vestige of the neighborhood organised.

“It was desolate. And you see, Solidere (the property development company) is a jewel of the Middle East.'”It’s silly to leave a ruined synagogue among these beautiful buildings, “he says.

But the ambition of Mr. Arazi does not stop there. The real purpose of the renovation project, he says, is to rebuild the Jewish community, and even persuade some expatriates to return to Lebanon. Lebanon’s Jewish population is now estimated at 200 or 300 people (even this is an exaggeration – ed). “In 10 years”, he promises, “it will be large.”

Nada Abdelsamad, a journalist who recently published a book on the history of the Jews of Lebanon, is skeptical. “The synagogue was once very active. But after the reconstruction, will this be working synagogue or a tourist attraction? ” she asks.

If the question arises, “says Abdelsamad, ” it’s because Jews are the object of a general feeling of antipathy in Lebanon. And this will not disappear as long as Arab States of the region are at war against their neighbor Israel.”

In 2008, when Mr. Arazi announced plans for reconstruction, the tension was also palpable. The Lebanese particularly feared the reaction of the radical Islamist group Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of the Jewish state.

Against all expectations, a spokesman for the organization allayed fears by saying: “We respect Judaism, just as we respect Christianity. “Our only problem is Israel’s occupation. ”

In Canada, expatriate Selim Sasson admits that the Lebanese Jewish diaspora is bored with Wadi Abu Jamil and its synagogue.

So much so that some years ago the synagogue they attend in Montreal was named Maghen Abraham after its Beirut Siamese twin. But nostalgia for Mr.Sasson stops there.

“Maghen Abraham, he says, ” is like a gravestone.”It’s over. It’s been 40 years since we planted our roots elsewhere. It’s very difficult to even think of returning to Lebanon. ”

Under the sun of Beirut, Isaac Arazi still dreams of a happy tomorrow. “When the renovation of the synagogue ends, I hope that the Lebanese Jews abroad will come and see for themselves. Maybe they will change their minds, ” he said.

Read article in full (French)

The ‘nakba’ of Morocco’s Jews

Dina Gabay: we left in the night and rushed to the ship (photo: Jerusalem Post)

Timed to coincide with the Palestinians’ imminent ‘Nakba’ day, Lela Gilbert’s piece for the Jerusalem Post is a sobering reminder of the sufferings which Jews of Morocco endured. Since February, however, Moroccan-born Dina Gabay’s’s rights to compensation, like those of all Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran, have been enshrined in Israeli law:

Imagine a frightened six-year-old girl trying to catch her balance in the stifling and cramped hold of a violently tossing ship. She is not alone on the turbulent sea – her parents and sibling are nearby. But fear is in the air, along with the sight and smell of terrible sickness. The child understands little about her circumstances. She is aware that she is going to a place called Israel, where three of her brothers now live. She realizes that she is saying good-bye forever to her Morocco home. But that’s all she knows about her journey.

Meanwhile her present misery, and that of her beloved family, eclipses all else. The girl’s name is Dina Gabay. The year is 1955. Dina, her parents – Avraham and Rachel – and the family are fleeing ever-increasing dangers in their town of Sefrou, near Fez.

Only in later years did Dina come to appreciate the constant pressure her parents had endured before their departure. There were small things—insults and ceaseless intimidation. For example, her father, who owned a large and successful butcher shop, was at the mercy of local thieves, who sometimes simply walked into his business and demanded that he give them whatever they wanted – at no cost. “Not once and not twice,” Dina explains, “but whenever they wanted something. These were our good Muslim neighbors, you know?”

Avraham knew better than to argue. “If you said something they didn’t like, you were in danger,” Dina recalls. “Most of the time everybody got along. But when you are in a lower place in society, you don’t dare to stand up for yourself.”

There were bigger threats too, including mysterious disappearances. First her father’s best friend vanished. Then one of Dina’s cousins, a remarkably beautiful 14-year-old girl, also disappeared, never to be seen again. In the Moroccan Jewish community, such things weren’t exactly unusual. And they happened more and more frequently after 1948, when Israel declared itself an independent state. At that moment, the centuries-long, low-grade oppression Jews experienced in their role as dhimmis under Muslim rule was ignited into ugly confrontations, humiliation and random attacks. These episodes sometimes exploded into full-blown pogroms in which hundreds were killed or wounded.

An article in Commentary magazine published in September 1954 described the difficult circumstances of Morocco’s Jews during the early years of Dina Gabay Levin’s life. “In disputes with Muslims, or on civil commercial and criminal issues among themselves, Jews are almost entirely subject to Islamic courts… even under the best of circumstances [the courts] regard Jewish litigants as unclean, inferior beings.”

While Dina’s family felt increasing pressure from the surrounding Muslim community, Morocco itself was in political upheaval over French colonialism. As has often happened in anticolonial independence movements, Jews were stigmatized as enemies of the surging nationalist factions. Again, they paid the price.

In 1954 and 1955, Morocco’s Jews were attacked by pro-nationalist forces in Casablanca, Rabat, Mazagan and Petitjean, with numerous deaths and injuries. Throughout the country property was seized, and arsonists attacked Jewish schools. In the five years following Israel’s independence, around 30,000 Jews made aliya; the numbers increased in subsequent years.

Historian Heskel M. Haddad wrote, “The major cause of the Jewish exodus from Morocco is the two pogroms that occurred in 1948 and 1953. Within a few years, several thousand Moroccan Jews immigrated to Israel. But mass immigration of Jews from Morocco occurred in 1954 when it became clear that France intended to grant Morocco full independence. Tens of thousands of Jews left Morocco, thereby betraying the typical anxiety of Jews in an independent Arab country.”

“We left all of our property,” Dina remembers, “our house and my father’s business. We couldn’t take anything with us. We left in the night and rushed to the ship. All kinds of people were fleeing. In fact some of those that went to Israel were wealthy. My uncle, for example, was very rich. He was a carpenter and had a large factory. He had also built a school for Jewish children, which he owned. When he decided to go, he left everything behind – his home, his factory and the school.”

AS IN many Jewish communities that fled hostility in Muslim majority nations in the 20th century, numerous Jews who left Morocco had been leaders in their communities; they were wealthy, successful and comfortable in their way of life. Doctors, lawyers, merchants and bankers were among the frightened masses that sailed away from their homelands. The day of their departure has often been described as their Nakba – the Arabic word for catastrophe that is often used by Palestinian activists to describe Israel’s Independence Day. In their catastrophic departures from their homes – many families had lived in North Africa since the 15th century and some even before – most of the Jews of the Maghreb lost everything but the clothes they wore. In a stunning riches-to-rags reversal, they found themselves among the poorest of the poor.

After the terrible voyage – she can’t remember how long it took but it seemed interminable – Dina and her family were taken from the ship to a squalid tent city – one of many ma’abarot, where tens of thousands of refugees from the Maghreb were kept in almost unlivable conditions upon their arrival in Israel. The young nation, not yet 10 years old, was ill-prepared for such an influx of displaced people. The Gabay family felt utter desolation. “Every night we just wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to run.”

A Jewish Agency report describes the ma’abarot of the time.

The structure of the camps was essentially similar: Families lived in small shacks of cloth, tin or wood, no larger than 10 square meters to 15 sq.m. each. Other shacks housed the basic services: kindergarten, school, infirmary, small grocery, employment office, synagogue, etc. The living quarters were not connected to either water or electric systems. Running water was available from central faucets, but it had to be boiled before drinking. The public showers and lavatories were generally inadequate and often in disrepair. A paucity of teachers and educational resources severely hindered the attempts to provide the camp children with suitable education. Work, even relief work, was not always available.

There were tens of thousands of Moroccans in the ma’abarot, but they weren’t the only ones. A wholesale exodus was under way across the Maghreb. Soon the vibrant Jewish populations of North Africa would dwindle to almost nothing.

In 1948, Algeria had around 140,000 Jews. By 2008 there were none.

In 1948, Libya had more than 35,000 Jews. Today there are none.

In 1948, Tunisia had as many as 105,000; today there fewer than 2,000

And as for Morocco, there were around a quarter of a million Jews in 1948. Today there are fewer than 6,000.

DESPITE THEIR trauma, however, many Moroccans distinguished themselves in their new Israeli society. Author Yehuda Grinker wrote of them, “These Jews constitute the best and most suitable human element for settlement in Israel’s absorption centers. There were many positive aspects which I found among them: First and foremost, they all know [their agricultural] tasks, and their transfer to agricultural work in Israel will not involve physical and mental difficulties. They are satisfied with few [material needs], which will enable them to confront their early economic problems.” (…)

For over half a century, the flight of more than 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands has led to controversy both inside Israel and internationally. More Jews were forced to flee from Muslim persecution than the approximately 762,000 Palestinian Arabs, who left their homes in the newly declared State of Israel. The full story has rarely been told, except among dedicated organizations like justiceforjews.com, jimena.org, and the David Project, which produced a powerful documentary, The Forgotten Refugees in 2005. For reasons too complex for brief analysis, Israel did not, as one writer tactfully said, “put the catastrophe that overtook the Arab Jews on its international public relations and national agenda…”

But all that changed in February. After years of effort, and by a majority of votes, a bill to seek compensation for Jews from Arab countries was passed in the Knesset. Zvi Gabay (no relation to Dina Gabay Levin), a reporter for Yisrael Hayom, writes, “For the first time since the establishment of the state the rights of the Jews from Arab countries are receiving legal recognition in Israel. Up until now, Israeli administrations have chosen to ignore the issue, even as the topic of the Arab refugees and their rights have been front and center on the public dialogue in Israel and the world, under the code name the ‘right of return.’ The time has come to rectify the situation.”

According to the bill, a “Jewish refugee” is defined as an Israeli citizen who left one of the Arab states, or Iran, following religious persecution. The landmark declaration – long awaited by those who lobbied for its passage – specifies that the question of compensation must be included by the government in all future peace negotiations.

Dina Levin, like so many others, finds this turn of events very gratifying. She says, “The new declaration is a very important historical step for the people of Israel, especially for the Jewish communities from Muslim nations. I hope this bill will be put into action and will not stay only as a declaration. That way, finally there will be justice for the tremendous number of Jews who left their property behind in the Muslim nations when they immigrated to Israel.”

Read article in full

Bibi asked to prevent erosion of Moroccan heritage

Portraits of hospital founder Haim Benchimol and his wife Donna grace the walls of the Jewish old people’s home in Tangiers (Courtesy Diarna)

Following the unexpected demolition of the Benchimol hospital in Tangiers, the Israeli ministry responsible for Jewish property claims in Arab lands has asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, to ensure that there is no further erosion of Jewish heritage in Morocco, Arutz Sheva reports (with thanks: Noam):

Moroccan Jews fear the local cemetery might be next on the chopping block, after a former Jewish hospital in Tangiers, Morocco was abruptly razed by authorities.

Bulldozers arrived at the Benchimol (Ben-Shimol) Hospital very late Friday night in the midst of the Passover holiday, and by morning the buildings were leveled. “It’s by order of the governor,” the wreckers told the guard, who had no way to stop them. The hospital, which was built in 1889, has been abandoned for about a decade. Though it was known as the Jewish hospital, members of all religions were treated there.

Dr. Leah Ness, Deputy Minister for Pensioner Affairs, has turned to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to ensure that no further action will be taken against the dwindling Jewish community in Morocco. The Ministry of Pensioner Affairs oversees the recovery of stolen Jewish property left in Arab countries.

The two-square kilometer (500 acres) hospital complex was built by Chaim Benchimol, a translator for the French Consulate in Tangiers and a member of the Jewish Community Board. According to various reports, the land is owned by the Benchimol family, while the hospital itself was owned by the Jewish Community.

Read article in full

Ynet News reprint of Shalomlife post

Yemeni Jew is targeted for unwanted haircut

Jews living in Sana’a (photo: Rachel Straecher)

The 70 Jews living in in the Yemeni capital of San’a say they are perfectly happy under the protection of the President – but there is little the President could have done to stop a bigoted policeman from interfering with one Jew’s sidecurls. The Yemen Observer reports, via VosizNeas: (with thanks: Daniel)

Heron Bin Salem, 22, a member of the Jewish community, was awaiting his cousin in front of al-Mustakbal School when an officer along with four security members approached him, “trying to get rid of his unfamiliar look,” Yahya Yousif, the head of the Jewish community in Sana’a told Yemen Observer.

“The officer looked at my cousin and said, ‘I do not like your look (meaning the long curls) and Heron said ‘I am a Jew from Sa’adah.’ The officer, however, got even more angry and said ‘We do not want Jews here,” Yousif said.

The long curls running down the side of their faces characterize Yemeni Jews.

The police held down Ben Salem and tried to cut off his hair.

“The security grabbed Ben Salem’s arms while the officer, armed with a large stick, grabbed his head. Then some people and I intervened and managed to break it off,” Yousif added. The officer was identified as Rashad al-Masri, who is working as the deputy director of al-Nasr police station.

Yousif expressed his thanks to the Minister of Interior, Mutahar Rashad al-Masri who, upon reporting the abuse, took the required measures. (We are not told what these were – ed)

Read article in full

Tourist hotels to be built near shrine of Ezekiel


The battle to save the shrine of Ezekiel from being converted into a mosque may be won, with the revelation that three tourist hotels are to be built in the nearby town of al-Kifl in central Iraq.

Baghdad-born Professor Shmuel Moreh received the news in a letter from a friend. The letter says that the people of al-Kifl are happy that the hotels, presumably for pilgrims, will be built. The letter also affirms that the authorities will work with UNESCO to preserve the Jewish character of the shrine.

It is not known on what information the friend has based his letter, but Professor Moreh deems him an influential man with connections.

Professor Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has been spearheading a public campaign to preserve the shrine. Point of No Return has played its small part by setting up a petition requesting the immediate intervention of UNESCO and other western bodies. The petition has attracted over 280 signatures.

The latest campaign to save the shrine follows news reports that the Shi’a waqf, which is in charge of restoration work, wished to turn the site into a mosque, although a Shi’a Ayatollah has since denounced the plan. Fears for the future of the site were raised in January when it was revealed that workmen had accidentally painted over Hebrew inscriptions above the tomb.

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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.