Month: September 2010

Iranian blogger is jailed following visit to Israel

Hossein Derakhshan, sentenced to 19 years (photo: AP)

It’s a sad day for all those who are trying to build bridges between Israel and the Muslim world. Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (nickname Hoder), whose account of his trip to Israel in 2006 was featured on Point of No Return, has been sentenced to a draconian nineteen-and-a-half years – for ‘collaborating with foreign governments’. His blog ruminations have not always been critical of the regime – in fact some accuse Hoder of being an Ahmadinejad apologist. Nevertheless, Derakhshan will sacrifice the best years of his life for doing what is not a crime at all in most countries.

The Financial Times reports:

Iran’s most prominent blogger has been sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for allegedly collaborating with foreign governments.

Hossein Derakhshan, known as the father of Iran’s bloggers, was arrested two years ago when he returned to Iran after spending eight years living abroad.

The main reason for his arrest is believed to have been his visit to Israel in 2006, a country which Iranian citizens are banned from visiting.

Mr Derakhshan, who holds dual nationality, said he travelled there on his Canadian passport. But admitted on a blog post before his arrest that the aim of the visit was to try to connect the Iranian and Israeli peoples.

A website close to the government said on Tuesday that the Revolutionary Court, which deals with security charges, found Mr Derakhshan guilty of collaborating with “hostile governments”, spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime and launching obscene websites. The verdict is subject to appeal.

The US-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran described Mr Derakhshan as “a prisoner of conscience”, along with over 500 others who have been jailed for their opinions and writings.

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Do Israelis from Arab countries weaken democracy?

Now here’s an interesting thought: have citizens from countries with no democratic tradition weakened democracy in Israel? That’s certainly the opinion of two prominent Israeli writers of German-Jewish extraction, Tom Segev and the late Amos Elon – argues Seth Frantzman in The Jerusalem Post. There is a separate but related issue: should hardline Jews from the ex-Soviet Union be blamed for constituting an impediment to peace – an opinion recently voiced by Bill Clinton? Or could it be that immigrants to Israel from Arab countries and eastern Europe are the best guardians of democratic values simply because they know what it’s like to live under totalitarian regimes?

Elon, who was then living in “exile” in Italy because he had become estranged from the Israel that had provided him with fame and luxury, called the country a “quasi-fascist” state with “religious people [who] would be better off behind bars and not in politics.”

He complained that Israel was no longer a democratic Western country, and summed up his views with: “There was provinciality here. [in Israel]. There was this upstart’s arrogance.

I’m not surprised when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.”

Here Elon adds the category of Jews from “Arab countries” to the reasons why Israel became, in his view, a non-Western nondemocratic society. The argument over Israeli society’s lack of democracy thus tends to decline into the realm of blaming “others,” especially immigrants, for taking away the Western democracy that once flourished here.

But it depends partly on the background of the beholder. Segev was born in 1935 to parents who fled Germany that year. His first language was German, which his parents spoke at home. Elon too was born to German- Jewish parents; he explained to Shavit “my parents’ friends were all immigrants from Germany and Austria. The big library at home was all German… But they were really the first free Jews. And the first Europeans.

They built a civil society and believed obsessively in Bildung, which is self-improvement through the fostering of social concerns.”

From the perspective of Segev and Elon, who in many ways represent a very strong stream within elite Israeli society, the complaint can be boiled down to the fact that non-German Jews ruined their country. It is an extraordinary insult to the millions of Jews who have come here, especially considering that, far from being haters of democracy, many of them yearned to breath free in the undemocratic states they fled.

The Jews of the Arab countries, whether Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria or Iraq, were almost all firm absorbers of the latest Western ideas in the early 20th century. Some of them became ardent socialists before they became Zionists, if they became Zionists at all. The Jews of the Soviet Union, especially the refuseniks, were all democrats to the core.

There is a question that must be asked of those like Segev (Elon died in 2009 so he cannot be asked) who believe that it is the Jewish immigrants who came after 1950 that brought nondemocratic values with them.

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Iraqi Prime Minister’s grandson a kibbutznik

Nuri al-Said and his wife (far left). Their son Sabah wearing evening suit is seated. (Photo: Iraq the lasting love blog)
From the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department: the grandson of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, who did more to drive out Iraq’s Jewish community in the 1950s than anyone else, became an Israeli kibbutznik (according to an unconfirmed report, he later trained to be a combat pilot and fought in the Six-Day War) ! This piece in Time magazine dates back to 1958, the year when al-Said and the royal family were slaughtered in a bloody coup (with thanks: Niran):

Among Arab leaders, Iraq’s late Nuri asSaid probably led all the rest in the bitterness of his public excoriations of Israel. But fate appears to have played a last weird trick on the murdered Iraqi strongman. Out of Jerusalem last week came a strange story: Nuri Pasha’s only survivor may be a 16-year-old Jewish boy (he would now be 68 – ed) now living in an Israeli border kibbutz.

The boy’s mother, Nadia Maslia, told Israeli newsmen that she met Nuri’s only son, Sabah, in the early ’30s when her family of wealthy Jewish bankers in Baghdad often did business with the Pasha. Though Sabah, an Iraqi air force officer, was already married to an Egyptian heiress, he fell in love with Nadia and kept trysts with her in London and Lebanon. Finally he asked her to become, as Mohammedan custom allows, his second wife. They were married at Mosul in 1939, lived in Nuri’s household in Baghdad, and fled with the rest of Nuri’s family to Palestine when a German-backed army coup momentarily toppled his government during World War II. On their return to Baghdad, their son Ahlam was born in 1942. Though at first opposed to the marriage, Nuri Pasha used to dandle little Ahlam on his knee, kept his picture on his desk.

After World War II anti-Jewish sentiment grew in Baghdad, and Sabah’s Egyptian wife schemed successfully to get Nadia out of the house. In 1946 Nadia took her son and moved to the Jewish part of Palestine, which became Israel two years later. In Tel Aviv, where she bought a hotel and other property and sent Ahlam to a Jewish school, Nadia concealed her family connections even from her son until last week. Nuri’s grandson, by Judaic law a Jew because his mother is Jewish, is due to be conscripted into the Israeli army within the next two years. He may well be Nuri Pasha’s only descendant left on earth. According to Baghdad reports, all members of Nuri’s family, including Sabah, his Egyptian wife and their two children*, were slaughtered in last month’s bloody rising.

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*Sabah’s artist son Issam survived until the age of 50

Arabic TV focuses on rights of Jews from Arab lands

Jewish actor and producer Togo Mizrahi played a key role in pre-1948 Egyptian cinema

While western media and politicians have been transfixed by the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the Arab world has had bigger fish to fry during the current peace talks. There have been several discussions on the topic of Jews from Arab countries, especially on Al-Jazeera TV. The Qatar-based satellite channel has been broadcasting a Saturday morning programmecalled Melaf ( Le Dossier, or Factfile).The turning point has been the February 2010 Knesset Lawon the rights of Jews from Arab countries equating both groups of refugees. Interviewees now fear that the ‘right of return’ will not happen, and Palestinians will get nothing. Levana Zamir has summarised the Al-Jazeera programme of 9 September:

The programme began with a discussion with two experts on the Knesset law on rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries: Dr.Khayreya Ma’amour and Mr Mamoun Kayawer. They concluded that the Israeli law was not good news for Palestinian refugees: they thought it might be used to offset the property of both parties and affirm the exchange of populations. When asked the question: ‘Why has Israel just woken up now, after 62 years?’ the interviewees’ answer was that Israel wants an equation between Arab and Jewish Refugees.

Jews from Arab countries playing backgammon were filmed and interviewed in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Some said they left Iraq voluntarily, some complained about the discrimination they suffered on arrival to Israel. Although it was much reduced in their opinion, it still existed.

The interviewer responded by asserting the Jews of Yemen, for instance, were a source of cheap manual labour, etc.. He stressed that Zionism was a European movement that marginalised Oriental Jews.

Mr Moise Rahmani, a Jew from Egypt who today lives in Belgium and is a board member of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), stated explicitly that Jews were deported from Egypt in 1956. Nasser’s government passed laws dispossessing the Jews of Egypt and stripping them of citizenship. Many Jews were forced to leave.

Dr Ma’amour replied that she was not aware of such laws (!) and added that the cause was Israel’s 1956 invasion of Sinai.

An Israeli originally from Aleppo in Syria said that many Jews fled from Syria in 1947 after the UN Partition plan was passed. The Syrians torched synagogues, shops and homes. He was not allowed to leave Syria, fled to Beirut and from there went to Israel. He missed Syrian popular culture and Middle Eastern warmth.

The programme discussed various books on the Jews of Arab countries by non-Jewish authors.

Hassan II – et ses juifs by the French researcher Agnes Ben-Simon described how 100,000 Jews living in Morocco were allowed to leave for Israel after King Hassan II received
$ 1,200 per head. This book wanted to ‘prove’ that these Jews left of their own free will and that the King did not ransom the Jews, he just received financial help for his country.

A book in Arabic, Al – Yehud Phil Watan Al-Arabi, (the Jews in the Arab homeland) by Ali Ibrahim, described a number of persecutions, including the Farhud in Iraq.

In a lighter vein, the contribution of Jews from Arab countries to the Arab world was discussed. The experts mentioned that Egypt and Iraq had a Jewish finance minister. Dr Ma’amour added that the Jews of Egypt played a great part in the establishment of the Communist movement, whose newspaper was edited by Joseph Dwek and the politically-influential lawyer and writer Henry Curiel Raymond Dwek. Leila Murad and Togo Mizrahi played a key role in developing Egyptian cinema. All this came to an end in 1948.

Jewish refugees from Arab countries: is it an issue 60 years on? This event, at a London synagogue on Tuesday 12 October, will show The Forgotten refugees, a film made by the David Project. A Q&A will follow. Details on the Harif website.

Lebanese feel sympathy for Beirut Jewish exiles

A Lebanese audience, packing the hall to overflowing (and reportedly including a few Jews), recently saw a screening of Nada Abdelsamad’s BBC documentaryabout the old Jewish quarter of Beirut. The programme has had the curious effect of humanising Jews to a Lebanese audience. One Shi’a woman even confessed to feeling compassion for them! Magda Abu Fadil reports in the Huffington Post:

First came the book, then the documentary, on Lebanon’s Jews who pine for their birthplace, singers Fairouz, Sabah and Wadih El Safi, and recall their life before heading to Israel and beyond.

“Most of Lebanon’s Jews left quietly in stages to Israel and other countries; some returning as occupying troops during Israel’s onslaught in 1982,” Nada Abdelsamad narrates the opening scene of her BBC documentary “Lebanon’s Jews: Loyalty to Whom?” on a community that remembers its days there with fondness.

Some, like Elie Bassal, even kept their identity cards and officer uniforms in Lebanon’s security forces where they served with distinction.

Bassal’s son Jacques, who still has his own Lebanese ID card and driver’s license, shows off his father’s 65-year-old braided costume to a reporter with pride. Bassal had refused to move to Israel, instead choosing Canada as his destination.

For former neighbors and friends, there’s quizzical nostalgia about whether the Jews they knew in their youth were alive, and questions about what had become of their families — all set against the reality of the festering Arab-Israeli conflict and how it had torn them apart.

Moukhtar Itani, 95, remembers Elie Bassal (Abou Jebrayel)

Nanogenarian Moukhtar Itani said Beirut’s abbatoir was overseen by a rabbi called Salamon, and doctor Nassim Chams, dubbed “healer of the poor,” tended the sick.

Itani’s wife remembers how the Jewish neighbors she played with as a child suddenly disappeared and their house locked up, after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

“We sat at their doorstep and cried,” she said.

Another older Beirut woman shows the picture of her former playmate whose family decided to go to Israel.

The Jewish girl had asked her friend not tell anyone of the family’s destination, and like other families in the quarter, were missed by their neighbors.

The juxtaposed scenes from Lebanon and Israel enveloped in romantic Arabic music in the 47-minute film, are based on Abdelsamad’s book on Wadi Abu Jamil, Beirut’s pre-Civil War Jewish quarter.

The camera pans across remnants of civil war era pock-marked buildings in that neighborhood of the Lebanese capital where Jewish businesses and schools once stood, and where gentrification and stratospheric real estate prices have become the norm.

“I’m not Lebanese but I was born in Beirut, and raised in Beirut, and grew up in Beirut. Beirut made me,” said a Jewish man choking on his words. “I’m very emotional about it.”

He recalled how he left Lebanon on a one-way ticket with a “laissez passé,” travel papers.

He and countless other Jews were from families that settled in Lebanon from Iran, Iraq and Syria after 1948, but who, increasingly, felt uncomfortable amidst growing Arab resentment at Israel’s displacement of Palestinians to create a Jewish state.

During her research, Abdelsamad, a veteran BBC correspondent in charge of the Beirut bureau’s Arabic service, met Zach, a Jew who had left Lebanon following Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and had returned later in peacetime on a European passport.

But Beirut-born Marco Mizrahi, — whose father Salim was Jewish and mother Marie was Christian, and had left as a teenager — returned as a soldier with the IDF when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, partly searching for his old stomping grounds.

Marco Mizrahi (Abou Jebrayel)

“They called up the reserves from day one,” Mizrahi remembers in his Tel Aviv apartment.

He told his commanding officer he had no qualms about killing a Lebanese soldier, if it were a matter of life or death, even if he knew the enemy from his youth.

But as a fresh conscript in the early 1970s, Mizrahi admitted he hesitated to join Israel’s intelligence service Mossad that tried to recruit him for spying missions in Lebanon because of his knowledge of the language and country.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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