Fearing a backlash resulting from the deaths today of Turkish jihad flotilla activists bound for Gaza, the Turkish government is moving to reassure Jews living in Turkey that they will not come to any harm, Turkish Press reports:
ANKARA – Acting Prime Minister Bulent Arinc of Turkey said on Monday that there was no hostility against Jewish citizens living in Turkey.
Arinc held a press conference in Ankara and said that a threat against Jewish citizens never took place in Turkey and 70 million Turkish people did not have hostility against Jewish citizens.
“I believe that the people who gathered in front of embassy (of Israel) in Ankara and Istanbul aimed to express their deep sorrow (over Israel’s attack on ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza). They will not make any harm,” he said.
Lyn Julius reviews Flight from Babylon by Heskel Haddad (Magraw-Hill, 1986, reprinted as Born in Baghdad) as told to Phyllis Rosenteur, a detailed account of the last years of the Jewish community of Iraq by an irrepressible man of action.
A cursory look at an online physicians’ directory tells me that Heskel M Haddad, New York-based opthalmologist and eye surgeon, is still accepting new patients. Clearly, retirement is not on the cards for this 79-year-old.
When he is 11, the anti-Jewish Farhud pogrom of 1941 changes his life. It turns him from Iraqi supranationalist to Zionist – swearing vengeance for his stabbed cousin and best friend Haron, who dies after public hospitals refuse to admit injured Jews.
From then on an active member of the Zionist underground, the brilliant Haddad receives both a religious yeshiva and a secular education, graduating top in the whole of Iraq aged 15. (He never does manage to avenge Haron’s death, saving an Arab from drowning instead.)
The book gives a fascinating overview of the antisemitism pervading Iraq at the time. Two hundred students matriculated each year from the only medical school in Iraq. Jews only constitute one percent, although more than half qualify for entry. Haddad is one of the ten Jews accepted that year. Strings are pulled to alter Haddad’s documents and make him four years older for entry.
The fear of the next Farhud hangs over the Jews of Baghdad. The Iraqi leadership has always used the Jews to take pressure off itself, staging phony rent-a-mob demonstrations. While Haddad likes Arabs, he could never trust them. His father is devastated to find Arab friends had decorated their house with Jewish loot from the Farhud. Haddad cannot even trust his funny and clever friend Rashid, who might blow the whistle on Haddad for being a Zionist.
The Jewish students are routinely beaten up by the Misilmin at exam time. They increasingly keep a low profile as tension builds up over the Palestine question. The government’s silent war on the Jews reaches absurd heights: Jews unpick Stars of David from their prayer shawls and stop wearing watches – then a ‘Jewish’ accessory. The slightest pretext could land them in jail. Eight thousand Iraqis are sent to Palestine to wage jihad, financed by money extorted from Jewish merchants. Jews are sacked from the Civil Service. The hanging of the wealthy anti-Zionist Shafik Ades sends shock waves through the community: even non-Zionists and Communists understand they have no future in Iraq. But by then, Jews must pay 10,000 dinars to leave the country.
When Haddad is forced to smuggle himself out of Iraq after being denounced by an informer, the book becomes an adventure story. Escaping into Iran, Haddad’s departure for Israel is delayed a few months: his medical skills are desperately needed. He treats Israel-bound lice-ridden Kurdish Jews from northern Iran with trachoma and dysentry.
The Iraqi government drives the Jews from Iraq, stripping them of their citizenship and property in a spiteful effort to overwhelm the struggling Jewish state with a seething mass of dependent humanity. The Arabs have the last laugh, writes Haddad, claiming all that confiscated Jewish wealth for themselves.
The complacency of Arabs in Israel angers him, their ‘casual and overnight acceptance of those freedoms we’d never won in centuries among them. Both sides had to want coexistence and the Arabs would not settle for less than a ruling role’.
Haddad finds his despairing family in an Israeli tent camp with its inadequate sanitary conditions and its rationed and revolting ‘Ashkenazi’ food. He becomes aware of prejudice against the Jews from Arab countries. All immigrants to Israel are refugees, but even the welcome given the destitute oriental Jews seems second-class. However, Haddad moves quickly to set up his family in an apartment and they start to rebuild their lives.
His father, a successful building contractor in Iraq, is turned down for a contracting job for not speaking Yiddish. The country is run by the all-powerful Histadrut union, with its fair share of blinkered bureaucrats. Haddad is stymied in his professional ambitions by his Ashkenazi senior at Hadassah hospital. Barely 21, he takes up a medical post in the US. He is also desperate to escape his warm-hearted, but unsuitable Ashkenazi girlfriend Ada.
Flight from Babylon is a detailed account of the last years of the Iraqi Jewish community. Thanks to the literary skills of Phyllis Rosenteur, who handles the narrative with sensitivity and colour, it’s a great read, all the more compelling for being non-fiction.
Ian Zachariah is one of the last remaining members of Calcutta’s Jewish community. (AP photograph)
Once a community of 5,000 founded by Jews from Aleppo and Baghdad, the 40 Jews of Calcutta will die out in 10 years’ time, according to Robert Hirschfield in The Forward. Although antisemitism was never a problem, a key factor explaining the exodus of Jews from Calcutta was insecurity resulting from Hindu-Muslim strife in 1947.
Nahoum & Son’s Bakery, in the labyrinthine New Market in central Calcutta, is the embarkation point for making contact with the city’s Jewish community. David Nahoum, its undisputed leader, said to be about 90 and in ill health, no longer sells plum cakes, greets visitors or gives interviews to reporters. The first two responsibilities have been outsourced to Mr. Hulda, Nahoum’s friend, business associate and a Hindu.
The Jewish community of Calcutta numbers fewer than 40. The average age hovers around 75. The three youngest members of the community, two brothers and a sister, are in their 30s, with the youngest, 35-year-old Mordechai Israel, in the process of making aliyah.
“We are a dying community. We know that,” said Ian Zachariah, a burly 66-year-old ex-ad man who worked in the Calcutta office of J. Walter Thompson. “We have another 10 years. Maybe a little more.”
The community began optimistically, wrapped in the mystery of the East. It started with Shalom Cohen’s arrival from Aleppo, Syria.
“He came over in 1784,” said Flower Silliman, who at 80 acts as the community’s unofficial historian. “He was the court jeweler of the Nawab of Oudh.”
Others followed from Aleppo and Jews from Iraq joined them. (This is a Baghdadi-Jewish community, the name given to Indian Jews who came from the Middle East.)
A light flickers in Silliman’s eyes when she speaks of the first settlers: “They were very adventurous. They were traders [her maternal grandfather was a trader] who traveled all over the East, cooking their own food on deck, because they ate kosher food and had to prepare it themselves.”
Silliman made an extraordinary journey of her own several years ago. She moved back to her native Calcutta after 30 years of residing abroad. (“It is home,” she said simply.)
Ever since the late 1940s, with India’s independence and the creation of the State of Israel, the migration of Jews from Calcutta, with the exception of Silliman and maybe a few others, has been irreversible. It’s hard to imagine the bustling community of 5,000 that existed in the city before World War II.
The terrible Hindu-Muslim carnage in Calcutta following the 1947 partition fueled Jewish insecurity. Many were also unsure what their place would be in the new, Hindu-dominated India.
But “antisemitism has never been a problem in India and we are grateful for that,” said Aline Cohen, 64, who took over performing the tahara (the Jewish ritual of purification in which a body is cleaned before burial) from women who had grown too old to minister to the dead.
If there is no place for Jews in the Middle East, there is not likely to be a place for Kurds, either. The message is widely understood in Kurdistan, finds Clifford May, writing in the Dedham Transcript. Not mentioned in his piece is that Israel aided Barazani’s fighters against Saddam, and Kurdish smugglers helped Iraqi Jews escape:
Six months after the collapse of Saddam’s regime, the Kurds erected a memorial on the edge of Halabja. It includes haunting photos; those of mothers clutching babies to their breasts as they died in the streets are perhaps the most heart-wrenching. A sign, in fractured English, gets its point across nonetheless: “Live and victory for all nations. Death for all kinds of racism.”
The result of this experience: Kurds see Americans as allies and also have empathy for Israelis and Jews. It makes sense when you think about it: Like Kurds, Jews are an ancient Middle Eastern people. Like Kurds, Jews have been targeted for genocide. Like Kurds, Israelis face an uncertain future among neighbors who range from merely hostile to openly exterminationist.
Students meeting with our delegation express admiration for Israelis’ courage – somewhat to the chagrin of their American professor. A Kurdish driver tells me there are two countries he’d like to visit: America and Israel. Why Israel? Because Israelis, like Kurds, have been persecuted yet have managed to survive, achieve and prosper. “We have no problems with Israel,” explains Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations. “They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them because Arabs hate them.” He notes that Israel is one of the few democracies in the region and that Kurds, too, are attempting to build durable democratic institutions. Kurdistan, Bakir adds, is sometimes called “the second Israel.”
Jews settled in this area as early as the eighth century B.C. Of course, Jews once lived throughout the broader Middle East, from Morocco to Afghanistan. However, after World War II and the founding of the state of Israel, Arab governments turned on their Jewish minorities. As recently as the 1940s, Jews constituted as much as a third of Baghdad’s population. By the early 1950s, almost all had been expelled. The Iraqi government forced Kurdish Jews into exile as well.
Kurds today appear to grasp this equation: If there is no place for Jews in the Middle East, there is not likely to be a place for Kurds either. The ongoing religious and ethnic cleansing of the “Muslim world” may be the biggest story journalists are not telling, political leaders are not highlighting and human right activists are not protesting.
Paul Berman, author of ‘The flight of the intellectuals’
‘A mishmash of Nazi ideas using Islamic rhetoric’: that’s how Paul Berman, in this interview with Guernica, describes the anti-Jewish ideology of the 1930s, spearheaded by the Mufti of Jerusalem, which primed the Arab world to abet the genocide of the Jews of the Middle East. Today we know this ideology as radical Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. Berman’s latest book,The flight of the intellectuals, argues that one of radical Islam’s key exponents, Tariq Ramadan, has, by suppressing the Nazi roots of the movement, seduced well-meaning western liberals into believing he is one of them: (with thanks: Eliyahu)
Paul Berman: The Germans had a research center at the University of Tübingen of orientalists, looking for ways to present the Nazi project in Muslim terms. German theoreticians and scholars were coming up with all kinds of ideas of their own, like, couldn’t they present Hitler as somebody perhaps granted a new revelation beyond Mohammed; or in relation to Shiism, couldn’t Hitler be presented as the twelfth imam? Of course, the Mufti didn’t think there was going to be a new revelation because that would be against Islam; Mohammed is the final prophet. But he did go along with recasting some German ideas in Islamic terms, the most important of these was how to think about the Jews. In the Nazi idea, we sometimes forget what Nazi antisemitism was. There were two aspects: one was biological. The Nazis were racists on biological grounds and the Jews were inferior. And the Germans wanted to exterminate these and other inferior races for the genetic good of the future of Aryan mankind. But there was another strand, which was paranoid, based on a paranoid conspiracy theory.
Jeff Herf is a great historian on this topic. The Nazis pictured themselves as under assault from the Jews. There was a danger that the Aryans, the German race, was going to be exterminated by the Jews, so the Nazis were fighting a war of self-defense against this gigantic Jewish conspiracy to exterminate Germany. The war against the Soviet Union and communism was really a war against Jews because the Soviet Union and communism were controlled by the Jews. On the other front, the Nazis were at war against the British Empire. The British Empire was likewise controlled by the Jews. This was another element of the conspiracy. When America entered the war it turned out that America too was controlled by the Jews. So Nazis were fending off in their own minds this gigantic conspiracy. Of course, the meaning of this is that the Nazis were picturing Jews as a supernaturally powerful and demonic force. So the Nazis had to massacre the Jews simply out of self-defense. This is why, as the war went worse and worse for the Nazis and they needed more and more to send troops to go fight the Soviets or the Western allies invading from the West, instead they sent forces to exterminate the Jews. This was their doctrine. Now they, in collaboration with the Mufti and other exiles, began to present this whole series of ideas in Koranic and Islamic terms. Herf was able to turn up the actual transcripts of the broadcasts which had never been seen before.
Guernica: Via the State Department?
Paul Berman: Via the State Department. The Germans had a vast short-wave radio propaganda system going on throughout the Arab world and no one has ever found the tapes of those broadcasts. And no one has ever found a German transcript. But Herf had the brilliant idea of checking around to see what might be available in the State Department archives. And there he found it. The American embassy in Cairo, under its Ambassadors Alexander Kirk and “Kippy” Tuck (laughs)—you can’t make some of this up, it was just beyond fiction—had supervised the transcribing into English of the Nazi broadcasts and they were regularly sent to Washington for analysis and then went into storage. It’s odd to think that no one has gone into them in depth until Herf. So we see the actual creating of this mad doctrine which I think was a sort of mishmash of Nazi ideas using Islamic rhetoric. The most important of the ideas is that the Jews are a demonic and supernatural force. The goal of the Zionist project in this picture was to destroy the Arab world and replace it with a giant Zionist state.
Guernica: Now this is all laid out in radio broadcasts. But is this the Mufti himself speaking in these broadcasts?
Paul Berman: Sometimes.
Guernica: And he rises, you write, to inciting genocide.
Paul Berman: Yes, the Mufti calls on the Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews.
Guernica: This happened especially during key turning points in the war, as when Rommel was waging his campaign in the North African desert?
Paul Berman: Exactly. As the Nazis invaded various countries they called on their supporters to rise up in support of them. The best known instance of this is one of the smallest instances. When the Jews were arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz, they were arrested by French police. This was a relatively small number of Jews, only 76,000. But the really mass instances of this took place in Eastern Europe, where the Nazis called on Ukrainian volunteers and other people to round up the Jews and massacre them or to send them off to the extermination camps. Now the whole program was to do the same in the Middle East, where there was a large Jewish population, maybe a million people, a chunk in Palestine, but very large and ancient Jewish populations in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and throughout the region. So the Nazi propaganda, mostly radio, but also leaflets, called on Arabs and Muslims to rise up and massacre the Jews. And the Mufti was especially virulent in his calls for this and issued these calls in an ancient Islamic language, sometimes quoting some hadith or scriptural traditions from Islam.
Guernica: Didn’t the Mufti even stop the Nazis from showing clemency to some children?
Paul Berman: Yes, the Mufti had a great prestige among the Nazi leaders and agitated forcefully and publicly in Europe to urge the Nazis to go further and kill still more people. There were a number of times when the Nazis were willing to allow some groups of Jews to leave Europe and escape to Palestine and a large number of children. The Nazis had wanted to do this as a kind of phony propaganda effort to show that they were nice (and anyway expected the Jews to be exterminated in Palestine by the Arabs, or by themselves when they eventually got there). And the Mufti agitated against this. The Mufti was calling successfully for the Nazis to show no clemency and instead send these Jews to Poland, which is to say to be murdered.
Guernica: So he’s a war criminal.
Paul Berman: Yes, he was a war criminal and you have to ask yourself, why was he so influential among the German leaders? When the Mufti spoke to the Nazis, the Nazis had reason to think that this is a man with real power potentially in the Arab world. The Nazis respected him, he was a genuine war criminal who was able to convince them to take a harder line. And one of the real reasons for the Mufti’s power and influence among Nazis was the support and fealty he was getting from the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna. So there were close connections and an ideological development.
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.