Month: October 2010

Appeal in Halimi case opens in Paris

Ilan Halimi
A Paris court has begun hearing the appeal of 18 people convicted in the 2006 kidnapping, torture and murder of a young French Jew of North African origin, Ilan Halimi.

Gang leader Youssouf Fofana chose to withdraw an appeal against his conviction and life sentence in February 2010.

The appeal started on Monday and is expected to continue through mid-December. It will be heard behind closed doors because some of the defendants were minors at the time of the crime. The press and media will be banned from the court. At the request of one of the defence lawyers, prospective members of the jury with ‘Jewish- sounding names’ were rejected.

Ilan Halimi, 23, was held captive for more than three weeks. He was found naked, handcuffed and covered with burn marks near railway tracks in the Essonne region south of Paris on February 13, 2006 and died on the way to the hospital. In 2007 his body was taken for reburial in Jerusalem.

The case shook France for its callous brutality, but the French Jewish leadership and Halimi’s mother Ruth criticised the court for downplaying its antisemitic nature. Like Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in Pakistan, Halimi was made by his captors, some of whom were recent converts to Islam, to recite that he was a Jew born to Jewish parents. The court was also criticised for giving some of the defendants over-lenient sentences.

See full report by Veronique Chemla (French)
For background on the original case see her abridged article inFront Page magazine(English).

The Azerbaijan exception – but for how long?

The synagogue in Quba

Azerbaijan is an exception: a welcome beacon of tolerance and coexistence in the general gloom of the Muslim world. But how secure are the Jews of this Shi’a Muslim ex-Soviet republic when the forces of radicalism are baying at the gate? Arye Tepper has written this feature in Jewish Ideas Daily:

Someone forgot to tell the republic of Azerbaijan that Jews and Muslims cannot live together in peace. Somewhere between twenty and forty thousand Jews reside in that Shiite country, which sits on Iran’s northern border and enjoys diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Israel. Can this last, and for how long? Jewish history in Azerbaijan goes way back. The majority of Jews in the country are so-called Mountain Jews, a community that believes it was exiled from the land of Israel after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. Whatever truth there may be to the claim, there’s no denying that Jews have been in the region for a long time: in 1990, archeologists found the remains of a 7th-century Jewish settlement close to the capital city of Baku.

In the early 19th century, a small number of Ashkenazi Jews also began settling in the country, and Baku’s oil boom in the latter part of the century drew in more—as did the anti-Semitic pogroms in Kiev, Russia, in 1904. The first branch of the proto-Zionist group Hovevei Zion, “Lovers of Zion,” was set up in Baku in 1891.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic fears pushed the majority of Azerbaijan’s then-80,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel and the West. Nevertheless, a substantial community, loyal to the regime, remained. In early October, Azerbaijani President Ilhem Aliyev and Israeli Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar attended the festive opening of a new campus at a Jewish school in the capital.

Whence Azerbaijan’s openness and tolerance? In the years immediately following World War I, the country established the first Islamic modern parliamentary regime in history, earlier even than Turkey’s. For a brief period, until this breath of freedom was snuffed out by Soviet occupation, Muslim women enjoyed the right to vote, Jews served as government ministers, and a Zionist activist was elected to parliament. This legacy, evidently never forgotten, was revived and refurbished after Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR in 1991.

Diplomatic ties between Israel and Azerbaijan were established in 1992, and the two countries’ strategic relationship was further upgraded with the end of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1994. During that conflict, which displaced over a million people and left 15 percent of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces supported by Iran, Baku asked for and received help from Jerusalem in rebuilding its military and supporting its cause in Washington; in return, it offered oil, open markets, and crucial intelligence cooperation.

And today? Despite Azerbaijan’s secular and tolerant character, a constellation of factors, including a bad economy and domestic corruption, has left the country vulnerable to the global appeal and reach of Islamic extremism.

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Perils of distorted historiography in Israel’s schools

What do most teachers and pupils in Israeli schools know about attacks and massacres against Jews in Muslim states in the 20th century? Nothing. But Israelis seeking a reliable depiction of the past cannot accept the portrayal of Jews as prosperous and happy in Islamic states until colonialism and ‘Zionist aggression’ ruined the idyll. Zvi Zameret explains in Haaretz why a particularly distorting history textbook giving the ‘Palestinian narrative’ has been banned in Israeli schools:

In the Farhud, the anti-Jewish riots in Iraq in 1941, 180 Jews were murdered and 700 were injured. In the course of violent demonstrations that flared in Egypt in November 1945, 400 Jews were hurt, and much Jewish-owned property was looted and damaged. Rioting in Libya, also in November 1945, was much more costly: 130 Jews were murdered and 266 were injured. The December 1947 riots in Syria left 13 Jews dead (eight of them children ) in Damascus, and 26 wounded. In Aleppo, 150 houses were damaged, five schools and 10 synagogues were torched, and there were dozens of Jewish casualties. At the same time in Aden, Yemen, 97 Jews were murdered and 120 were injured; some Jews who experienced these events deem them “the holocaust of Yemenite Jewry.”

These are a few of several dozen anti-Jewish attacks and massacres perpetrated in Arab states during the course of the 20th century. What do most teachers and pupils in Israel know about these events? Nothing. In contrast, ask an ordinary Israeli high-school class about the killings at Deir Yassin or about the Nakba, and there will inevitably be several pupils who know something about the subject.

History is not a competition between tragedies and catastrophes. But an Israeli who seeks a reliable depiction of past events cannot accept a mendacious historiography that portrays Jews as living prosperously and happily in Islamic states until Zionist colonialism and “Zionist aggression” ruined the idyll.

In both its 2003 version and in its updated 2009 printing, the textbook “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative” offers one of the most conspicuous examples of distorted historiography. In this book, Palestinians attack, often aggressively, and also blacken and misrepresent the Zionist movement. However, none of the facts mentioned at the start of this article merit mention in the text. Two supposed narratives are presented side by side in the book, but both are incomplete, ill-informed and misleading.

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Jewish intellectuals in the UK just don’t get it

The late playwright Harold Pinter

Daniel Greenfield of Sultan Knish takes eloquent aim at the British-Jewish literati – anti-Zionist to a man (and woman), with the notable exception, perhaps, of prize-winning author Howard Jacobson. Hypocrisy rules OK when the true natives of the Middle East are expected to surrender their rights to Arab colonisers.

What is interesting however, is that the likes of Harold Pinter make their ultimatum conditional on achieving a state of affairs that has never existed in the history of the Middle East for thousands of years.

If we take their demand, that “Arab and Jew live as equals in a peaceful Middle East” literally, then Israel can never have legitimacy until Saudi Arabia opens up Mecca to the Jews it slaughtered and expelled from there. Only when Yemen and Syria extend equality to Jews, and everyone tosses away their weapons, instead settling their disputes with nice and orderly chess matches or humus cooking contests, then Hilda Meers or Arthur Neslen of Al Jazeera, with his countless peace proposals that involve legitimizing Hamas, will stop by for a fireworks display and shed a tear for the dead.

Since then Harold Pinter has since gone to the great wastepaper basket in the sky, but the small petty malice of notable British Anglicans, Marxists and Quakers, who all turn out to be Jewish when there’s a petition slamming Israel to be signed, a boycott to be arranged, or a flotilla carrying vital supplies of aging anti-war activists to Hamas to be sailed, goes on.

Israel stole the land, they declare. Whose land did they steal? The land of the people who stole it from them. This reduces Arab grievances to a farce in which an angry burglar phones the police to report that the owner of the looted property he stole had broken into his house and took it back. (The only possible reply is that time legitimizes theft, in which case the only difference between a racist occupying colonialist entity and a native inhabitant is a few generations.) Common sense renders such outrage ridiculous, but to the moralizer, the man who takes back what is his, is just as bad as the man who took it from him. Even worse. To the moralizer, the original thief was deprived, while the homeowner is depraved. The thief only took what he needed, but the homeowner is the oppressor who took away a deprived man’s necessities, he should have just kept his mouth shut.

For over a thousand years, Jews in the Middle East were deprived of their land, their property and their lives. They were legal and social inferiors of the colonizers who had occupied their country. From the Arab mercenaries who fought for Rome, to the Bedouin bandits who raided the outposts of a decrepit Byzantium, to the Caliphs dreaming of glory and gold, they had lived under an occupation that makes the wailing of the Nakba into something laughable. And the moment they managed to gain their independence, they went from deprived to depraved. In an unprecedented turn of events, they became the occupiers of their own country. The settlers of towns and villages built over the ruins and remains of the old towns and villages where they had lived.

Suddenly the nation that had gained its freedom against the will and armed force of its British colonial occupiers, was deemed the colonizer and occupier. The state that curiously extended political and religious freedoms to minorities, in a region where such minorities are usually stamped out or herded into ghettos, became a racist entity. And one of the world’s oldest peoples were denounced as foreign interlopers, on behalf of a mythical Palestinian nation that had never existed at any point in history, as anything but a Greco-Roman designation for a portion of the territory on their maps.

And who are these racist Israeli Zionists anyway? Is it the Israeli Druze, Circassian or the Samaritan? The Israeli Armenian or the Israeli Arab? Of course not, it is the Jew. Of course it always the Jew. Was it the Jews who had lived there since the last massacre that wiped out their kind? Is it the Moroccan, Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews who fled oppression and tyranny to find refuge in a land where they were not required to bow to Muslim Arabs and accept them as their superiors? Was it the European Jews who fled the Holocaust to return to the land from which Arab mercenaries had expelled them to Rome, and were forced to fight the armies of General Sir John Bagot Glubb?

They, the occupiers of their occupiers. The colonialists of their colonizers. The slaves who had become masters of their masters, yet treated them with far more decency than they themselves had been treated. A crime which can never be settled, until the balance is restored, and the slaves again become slaves, and Arab and Jew are once again equal. As they are today in Saudi Arabia. Then finally Harold Pinter and the rest of the heavenly choir of West End immortals will wave the white and the blue. Because there will be peace. The peace of the slave. The peace of the dead. The butcher’s bill served to Israel for daring to be free. (…)

There will of course be no new dawn of peace and equality through the Middle East. The best testament to that can be found in the status of minorities through the Middle East and the Muslim world. When even the most moderate Arab Muslim countries cannot respect the rights of Arab Christians, let alone the rights of Zoroastrians or Kurds, when even among Muslims, Shiite and Sunni bar their teeth at each other, there will naturally be no peace. There may be the occasional treaty or handshake, but these are things that governments do to and with each other. It has to do with the basic attitudes of the man on the street, his culture and religion. His need to believe that however few rights he has, his way of life is still best.

And the best testament to Israel’s own status is this. After its founding, the vast majority of Jews in the Muslim world fled there. Today there are millions of Jews in Israel. And millions of Arabs. Because the Arabs for the most part stayed in a Jewish country, despite plenty of Arab countries they could have fled to. While the Jews fled the Arab Muslim lands as soon there was another option. Today Sudanese refugees from genocide in a Muslim war, cross through Egypt to get to Israel. It is almost as if Israel is actually not the worst place in the Middle East. Almost.

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Were Jews from Arab countries all refugees?

With thanks: Amie

Were Jews who left Arab countries all refugees? In countries such as Iraq and Egypt, where Jews wereby lawstripped of citizenship and property and expelled, there is no doubt that Jews were refugees. But what of Jews in countries where there was no state-sanctioned discrimination? Point of No Return consulted a human rights lawyer for her advice.

The UN Convention on Refugees was approved at a special United Nations conference on 28 July 1951. It entered into force on 22 April 1954. It was initially limited to protecting European refugees after World War II but a 1967 Protocol removed the geographical and time limits, expanding the Convention’s scope. Because the convention was approved in Geneva it is often referred to as “the Geneva Convention,” though it is not one of the Geneva Conventions specifically dealing with allowable behaviour in time of war.

What is a refugee? Article 1 of the Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol provides the definition of a refugee:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..”

UNWRA, created by UN Resolution 302 following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, was initially set up to care for Jewish as well as Arab refugees. Since Israel had very quickly absorbed Jewish refugees who were forced to flee their homes in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, UNWRA became – and still is – exclusively dedicated to the care of Arab refugees.

Jews who were made refugees in the 1950s and 1960s would have fallen within the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On two occasions, in 1957 and again in 1967, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determined that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees who fell within the mandate of the UNHCR.

“Another emergency problem is now arising: that of refugees from Egypt. There is no doubt in my mind that those refugees from Egypt who are not able, or not willing to avail themselves of the protection of the Government of their nationality fall under the mandate of my office.”

Mr. Auguste Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Report of the UNREF Executive Committee, Fourth Session – Geneva 29 January to 4 February, 1957.

“I refer to our recent discussion concerning Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries in consequence of recent events. I am now able to inform you that such persons may be considered prima facie within the mandate of this Office.”

Dr. E. Jahn, Office of the UN High Commissioner, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Document No. 7/2/3/Libya, July 6, 1967:

What of those who left because conditions were untenable rather than because of a government decree of expulsion? According to human rights law, there is no doubt that they would qualify under the current understanding.

The UNHCR Handbook, although not the law, is regarded as the authoritative guide to interpreting the Convention, states:

“although persecution is normally related to action by the authorities of a country…where serious discriminatory or other offensive acts are committed by the local populace, they can be considered as persecution if they are knowingly tolerated by the authorities, or if the authorities refuse, or prove unable, to offer effective protection.”

In a 2002 decision in the English courts, the judge gave the example of Jews being attacked in 1939 Germany by Brownshirt thugs and the authorities pretending such attacks were beyond their control. The judge stated that this was what the drafters of the 1951 convention would have had in mind when choosing the wording they did.

At a recent screening of the film Forgotten Refugees, a member of the audience made an apt analogy with Employment Law by calling it constructive expulsion. In employment law you can sue for unfair dismissal not only if the employer sacks you unjustly, but also if conditions at work are so untenable and the employer does nothing to remedy the situation so that the employee can’t bear to stay on and leaves.

This applies to the very real fear that Jewish girls, for instance, were under threat of being abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Morocco and Tunisia. Following each Arab-Israeli war or colonial crisis, Jews found themselves under physical threat. They did not have confidence in the authorities, some of whom incited or even participated in anti-Jewish disturbances, to protect them.


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.