Now derelict synagogue in Tripoli(Photo: Martin Beek)
The grandparents and parents of today’s rioters were certainly not immune from “the longest hatred,” as a New Zealander’s account of a pogrom in Tripoli shows. It took place in revenge for Israel’s stunning victory over Arab armies in the Six Day War. Joanne Holland worked as a secretary in Tripoli from 1966-68; some time after returning to London, she shared her reminiscences with a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle. Via Daphne Anson :
The pogrom she witnessed entailed a score of murders and the burning to the ground of Jewish homes and businesses. Miss Holland had known only one Jew, a refugee doctor from Germany, before she went to work in Libya, and there she befriended a number of Jews.
She recalled that one Jew, who having hid in his house for about a week, ventured outside to discover the fate of the shop he owned. Arabs recognised him and gave chase, so he ran towards a police car, expecting assistance. Instead of rescuing him, the police ran him over.
One evening, a jeep-load of armed police led by a colonel led two families from their home on the pretext of taking them to the airport so that they might reach safety. The families were, in fact, driven out into the desert, where he and his men murdered them all – thirteen persons including two young children. The colonel later explained that he had “wanted to avenge my Arab brothers” (i.e. for Israel’s victory in the Six Day War).
Armed police stood idly by while Jewish-owned shops were broken into, looted, and set alight. Such premises included a restaurant-cum-liquor store; Arab rioters ran up and down the street swigging the drink from the stolen bottles, and going back for more, while four armed soldiers with grins on their faces looked on.
A Jewish family who barricaded themselves in their apartment for over a week were shocked when their Arab neighbours, whom they’d lived alongside for 30 years, attempted to gain entry and set the place ablaze.
Children as young as eight were among the mob, and Miss Holland was “horrified to see women, under normal circumstances never seen, except occasionally peeping out from behind their veils, standing by and watching the destruction and murder with apparent glee.”
What particularly struck Miss Holland when the pogrom occurred was the unwillingness of westerners stationed in Tripoli to intervene and try to help the Jews being hunted down. What also shocked her was the apathy of contacts in London, to whom she recounted what she’d witnessed. “[T]hey seemed bored and showed no interest,” she said. “Many Britons still had some romantic concept of the Arabs. How wrong they were.”
She had the distinct impression that in Libya westerners “were madly competing with each other in appeasing the Arabs and expressing their deep sympathies with them in their hatred for Israel and the local Jewish community,” to use the phraseology of the Jewish Chronicle reporter (JC, 21 February 1969).
“Then, for the first time,” she told him, “I could understand how the Nazis got away with murdering millions of Jews, for people were just not interested in helping them.”
The Libyan authorities had finally permitted Jews to leave Libya on temporary travel documents, which prohibited them from taking their belongings or more than £20 with them and would not permit them to return after being away for four months. Those that departed were herded together at dawn by armed soldiers in the forecourt of a hotel, and were surrounded by hostile Arabs shouting and swearing.
Miss Holland herself was several times surrounded by Libyan crowds, and spat at, and once, when visiting a Jewish family, she was almost killed by Arabs wielding iron bars and knives.
Zenga zenga started out as a joke at Colonel Gaddafi’s expense by an Israeli musician. Now it has become an online hit and the anthem of the Libyan opposition. Ynet News reports:
“Gaddafi’s speech had all the makings of a hit,” says Israeli musician Noy Alooshe, 31, about his idea to combine an upbeat tune to the harsh statements made by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. “Repeating the words ‘Zenga zenga’, his unique outfit, lifting his arms up in triumph like he’s at a party – I just added some club music to it and thought it would be a funny joke.”
Alooshe’s “joke” has become very popular these past few days, with over 300,000 views on YouTube. The music clip – entitled “Zenga Zenga” – has become the Libyan opposition’s anthem and an instant online hit.
The music video combines lines from Gaddafi’s speech in which he vows to fight “inch by inch, home by home, alley by alley” – as the chorus for the song. The clip pokes fun at Gaddafi, showing minimally dressed women dancing in the background.
Writing in Community magazine Professor Harold Gellis gives this overview of the long but checkered history of the Jews of Iran, and ends on an optimistic note – in spite of threats by Muslim fundamentalists to destroy the tombs of Esther and Mordechai (above) at Hamadan:
The forced conversion of the Jews of Mashad in 1839, known as the Allahdad incident, stands as a watershed in Iranian Jewish history. After several hundred Jews in Mashad were killed in a pogrom, the surviving Jews converted en masse to Islam – though only superficially. The Mashadi Jews became the Marranos of Iran, adopting Islamic names and dress, but secretly retaining their Jewish identity. Eventually, they were able to emigrate to Israel and the United States. To this day, Mashadi Jews retain a distinct identity among Iranian Jews.
“The number of the Jews in Iran would have been much more if, in every generation, they would not have been persecuted and forced to convert to Islam,” says a knowledgeable source. After years of suspicion by the government, few Iranians are willing to go on record with criticism of the government or Islamic edicts out of concern for the wellbeing of family and friends who still remain in the country.
In the 20th century, with the advent of the Pahlavi regime, Jewish life in Iran took a turn for the better. Reza Shah Pahlavi prohibited the practice of mass conversion of Jews and liberalized repressive policies that had been in effect with regard to education, employment, and religion. But then, with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Reza Shah adopted discriminatory policies against the Jews, putting the sizeable community in danger once again. Fortunately, Reza Shah was deposed by the combined Russian and British occupation of Iran in 1941, and the threat against the Jews passed.
Iranian Jews’ Golden Age: Over the course of decades prior to the declaration of the State of Israel, thousands of Iranian Jews made aliyah to Israel. Many of these Jews were very religious and not exposed to 20thcentury modernity. They trekked on foot and camel from small ancient communities such as Yazd, Esfahan and Shiraz, with names such as Cohen and Shamian.
Other, more secular Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel in the aftermath of the declaration of the State of Israel and became leading figures in the government and army – Iranian Jews such as former Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, and former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Dan Halutz. There are now approximately 47,000 Iranian-born Jews in Israel today, many in Netanya, and 250,000 Jews altogether with Persian ancestry.
In 1948, there were still approximately 150,000 Jews in Iran. Under the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Jews of Iran enjoyed a “golden age.” The gates of the country’s professions, universities, and commerce were opened wide, and many Jews became prominent businessmen, doctors, and college professors.
Relations between Iran and Israel, though unofficial, were close. There were regularly scheduled flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran. Israeli construction companies, such as Solel Boneh, embarked on major construction projects building the infrastructure of Tehran, some of which were later co-opted by the present government. To this day, a Star of David can still be seen on the roof of Tehran airport, a symbol of a past Israeli presence in the country.
Israel sold weapons to Iran and trained the Iranians to use them. In return, the Israelis received oil and other raw materials. Israeli experts also trained their Iranian counterparts in other fields such as agriculture.
During the reign of the Shah, much of the country – including the Jews – became more educated and secular, especially in Tehran. While many continued to attend synagogue services on Shabbat, some would drive there. In Shiraz, the “Jerusalem of Iran,” the Jews were more traditional and religious. To this day, millions of Iranians, including government officials, listen to the Voice of Israel’s Farsi language broadcast to learn about what is happening in the world.
The Islamic Revolution: The golden era of the Jews came to an abrupt end in 1979 with the deposing of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews still remaining at the beginning of the Revolution, tens of thousands fled, mainly to the United States, to the enclaves of Los Angeles and Great Neck, and to other communities across the globe.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Rabbi Naftali H. Neuberger z.s.l, head of the Ner Israel Rabbinical Seminary in Baltimore, was personally involved in bringing dozens of Iranian Jewish boys out of Iran and enrolling them in the Rabbinical Seminary where they comprised a large percent of the student population. Many of these former students now serve in rabbinical pulpits in Iranian congregations in different parts of the United States.
Today, approximately 25,000 Jews remain in Iran. The vast majority of them live in the sprawling metropolis of Tehran, specifically in the northern neighborhoods of the smog-covered city which is surrounded by the magnificent Alborz mountain range. A small number live in Esfahan, Shiraz, and other cities.
In Tehran, there are still 18 synagogues, several kosher butchers, and a Jewish hospital with a mostly Muslim staff and clientele. Altogether, there are 25 synagogues in Iran.
The Jews of Iran can attend universities, and become doctors and dentists. They can celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but only in the synagogue. They cannot bring the Torahs outside and dance in the street on Simhat Torah. They can have mixed parties, which are forbidden for Muslims.
In return for their safety, the Jews must demonstrate hostility to Israel, keep their schools open on Shabbat, and not build any new synagogues. But despite these restrictions, the Jews view themselves as loyal citizens of Iran, and see Iranian Muslims as their good friends.
According to an Iranian Jew who speaks in synagogues, Persian Jews loyally love Iran. “In Iran, you won’t find Jews who do not have a lot of Muslim friends,” he says. “Despite what many think, a majority of Muslims in Iran today have no problem with Jews or Israel. However, much of the government, as you know by now, has a different opinion which is shared by some Iranians.” There is even a token seat reserved for Jews in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, in accordance with Iran’s constitution. The post is currently held by Dr. Siamack Morsadegh, a prominent surgeon.
The spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Iran is Chief Rabbi Hacham Yosef Hamadani Cohen. He was preceded by Hacham Uriel Davidi Khansari z.s.l. (Khansar, Iran1922 – Jerusalem, Israel 2006), both of whom have commanded respect from the Iranian authorities.
Why do the Jews stay in Iran? “It’s hard to sell your house and store,” says a former Tehran resident with family still residing in Iran. “Here, in America, you have to begin life from scratch. There they have everything. They get used to living there.”
And so the tomb of Mordechai and Esther continues to stand guard over the remaining Jews of Iran, a symbol of the miraculous survival of an ancient Jewish community and a reminder of the dichotomy that characterizes Iran’s relationship with the Jewish people.
“The Muslims of Iran recognize that the tomb of Mordechai and Esther is holy,” says a Jew whose family once lived in Hamadan. “Even if the authorities want to demolish the tomb, the ordinary people will never let it be destroyed.”
Colonel Gaddafi destroyed an 130-acre Jewish cemetery in Tripoli and built over it, casting the graves into the sea, while the international community stood by. Libya’s ancient Jewish synagogues were allowed to fall into ruin or be turned into mosques, Libyan Jewish leader Meir Kachlon tells Israel National News. He hopes the dead will take revenge on the cruel dictator: (with thanks: Lily)
“My feeling is not good,” said Meir Kachlon, Chairman of the World Organization of Libyan Jews. “The people that I knew are ruled by a cruel leader who supposedly does everything to help them but really hurts them, and the proof of that is in the fact that he hired mercenariesto kill them. That’s what hurts me.”
Kachlon said that he believes the opposition on Libya isn’t strong enough, and that in order to rebuild the country, those opposition leaders who fled from the country will have to come back and take it upon themselves to renew life in Libya.
“The problem is Europe and the United States, who are very slow,” said Kachlon. “There’s no one to help the Libyans. In Egypt they told Mubarak to step aside. They haven’t said that to Qaddafi yet. It’s the oil and the holdings there that are really talking, and I feel that Qaddafi is in control of his money and his oil. He will stand by his word: if they don’t listen to him there will be genocide in Libya.”
He noted that before Qaddafi took over, Libya had ancient synagogues, all of which are gone and some of which have become mosques. But the worst part, he said, is the ancient Jewish cemetery in Tripoli.
“There was a whole cemetery in Tripoli, 130 acres in size, on top of which buildings were constructed, complete with roads and everything,” said Kachlon. “Qaddafi crushed all the graves and threw them into the sea. The world was silent. When they saw him doing it, nobody asked: ‘What is he doing to that cemetery? Why did he destroy the Jewish cemetery?’”
Mazin Latif is a journalist who visited the contested shrine of Ezekiel at al-Kifl (Kefel) at Hilla, south of Baghdad, in 2010. He found the site in bad condition: marble panels on the walls had been removed, the Sefer Torah in the synagogue adjoining the tomb was missing, and the Jewish books deposited in the shrine’s library had been stolen. With thanks to Mrs Eileen Khalastchy for kindly summarising Latif’s article for the As-Sabaah newspaper.
Lately, a lot has been said about the shrine of Kefel or what is called by the Jews ‘the shrine of the Prophet Ezekiel.’
The shrine is of great importance to all Jews, but in particular to the Jews of Iraq to whom ownership was given by the Ottoman Sultan Abdel Hamid.
The Jews used to visit the site yearly to pray and hold big celebrations. They used to slaughter and distribute the meat to the poor. The men in charge and the rabbis used to pray daily there until the mass exodus of the Jews from Iraq in 1951.
The village of Kefel is situated about 20 miles south of the town Hilla. In the Kefel is buried the Prophet Ezekiel z”l. The prophet Ezekiel is said to be a Cohen (descendant of the High Priest) from Jerusalem. Another seven Cohanim are buried there.
According to the Jews, the Prophet Ezekiel is mentioned in the Torah. The tomb of Ezekiel used to be covered with an expensive carpet and a hand-embroidered cloth. King Yehoyachin built a fence around the tomb with the help of many Jews.
The Jews bought the land near the shrine where they built a market and houses to be used by the Jewish guardians of the shrine and by the Rabbis in charge.
In 1860, the Muslims claimed the shrine and all the buildings around it for themselves. With the help of the Daniel family and and after many inquiries to Istanbul, the Ottoman authorities decided that the shrine belonged to the Jews and that the minaret did not belong to a mosque as the Muslims claimed.
The Muslim story claimed that the Prophet is an Arabic prophet descended from the Prophet Isma’el (Yishma’el). They lost their claim.
The Muslims from Hilla visit and pray in Kefel as they believe that the Prophet is a great one and mentioned in the Koran.
The minaret of the shrine is in a very bad condition and is supported by wooden poles to prevent it from falling.
The Jews used to own large libraries in their homes. When an owner died, all his books went to the Kefel library. After the mass exodus in 1951, all the books were kept in wooden boxes and covered with bricks. In the Seventies, someone destroyed all the boxes and the Hebrew books were scattered in the streets. As for the marble tablets that decorated the walls with the Hebrew inscriptions, they were stolen and sold to collectors who are interested in Jewish art.
Lately, after my visit in 2010 to the site, unfortunately what I saw was heartbreaking. Most of the Hebrew writings on the walls were erased. The tomb of Daniel was also in bad condition as well as the tombs of members of his family.
I did not see anything indicating that the site had a mosque or any sign of a Muslim site.
Unfortunately the Jewish shrine is in a very bad shape. Also there was no sign of the Sefer Torah the Jews used to pray with.
I am writing what my conscience dictates. I pray for a free Iraq true to its motto (Religion for God and the Homeland for all).
I ask the President of Iraq, the government, and all the people in charge to look after and preserve Iraq’s true heritage.
Mazin Latif is an active Baghdadi journalist and writer specialising in Iraqi Jewish affairs. The article was summarised by Mrs. Eileen Khalastchy of London from an article in the As-Sabaah Iraqi daily newspaper ( Iraqi Information Net 13 February, 2011) http://www.alsabaah.com
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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