Month: June 2011

Dhimmi fear and confusion rule, except in Israel

Syrian Christian clergymen at a support rally for President Bashar Assad in Dearborn, USA

Terrified, angry and crazy: the vulnerability of ‘dhimmi’ minorities in the Middle East can make them behave in illogical ways – even when they no longer live in the region. Only the Jews of Israel have largely broken free of this affliction, Lee Smith argues thought-provokingly in The Tablet (with thanks: Eliyahu):

The pact of Omar, named for Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph after Muhammad, stipulated the various laws and restrictions under which non-Muslims would be allowed to conduct their affairs. Their relative freedom, or burden, depended on the disposition of the particular caliph or the local authorities, but their legal status was never equal to that of Muslims. They were protected people, known as dhimmis.

Some regional minorities, by dint of their temperament and accidents of geography, were able to defend themselves with some success. Lebanon’s Maronite and Druze communities, for instance, made their strongholds in the mountains where they could cut intruders to ribbons. It is well known that the Druze community tends to align itself with the local power regardless of whether they’re based in Lebanon, Syria, or Israel. Historically the Maronites are somewhat more stubborn, and perhaps one of the great tragedies of the Lebanese civil war is that in its aftermath large parts of this proud community under the leadership of Gen. Michel Aoun have aligned themselves with the country’s Shia militia, Hezbollah. Part of the reason for that is the Maronites’ historical fear and hatred of the Sunnis and the wish, as Aoun has explained, to be protected against them by the Shia. This is the same reason why those Syrian-Americans in Michigan rallied in support of Assad: They feared what the Sunnis might do to their relatives.

The price of being a dhimmi is not just physical fear but intellectual confusion and moral corruption. Arab nationalism is largely the work of ideologues drawn from Middle Eastern minorities like the Syrian theorist of Baathism Michel ’Aflaq, who was Greek Orthodox. Arab identity, at least in its earliest iterations, was largely a product of the minorities’ desire to hide their sectarian identities from the Sunni majority. The minorities believed they had a better chance of blending in as part of one massive super-tribe, the Arabs, when as Christians or members of heterodox Shia sects like Alawites they were vulnerable. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and Syria’s former president, embraced Arab nationalism in order to legitimize his rule over Syria’s Sunni majority and protect his Alawite community. The present uprising in Syria shows that the thread is starting to become undone—sectarianism is starting to rear its head, and the minorities are terrified of the mostly Sunni opposition in the streets of Syrian cities.

It is hard not to sympathize with the regional minorities and their fear. However, it is also difficult not to be appalled by their support for a regime that is slaughtering children. One picture from the Dearborn event shows three Christian clergymen in the front row, all of them evidently supporters of Bashar al-Assad, which is unfortunately a common position among Syria’s Christian clergy, Catholics, and the Orthodox. “Definitely the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad,” Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo told Reuters last month. “They hope that this storm will not spread.” The rather inconvenient fact for the archbishop is that Assad is trying to quell that storm by torturing and murdering people. The question is: What can be the point of preserving a Christian community if its values have been so thoroughly perverted? Or how many Sunni corpses is a church worth?

It’s not just Christians and Muslim minority sects who are afflicted with this moral sickness, but Jews as well. Jack Avital, head of the Sephardic National Alliance and a leader of the Syrian-Jewish community of North America, has been in touch with Syrian officials in Damascus and in the United States and seems to think Assad is an “honest guy” who is “protecting the minute Jewish community still in place in Damascus.” Avital thinks a regime that buries its opponents in mass graves is OK because in Syria “the Jewish community is doing well.” Compare this repugnant calculation to the position of all of Israel’s senior officials, from the prime minister and president to the defense and foreign ministers, who have condemned Assad’s massacre.

How did the Middle East’s Jewish minority escape this sickness? The state of Israel. Of all the Middle Eastern states carved up in the aftermath of World War I, Israel is the sole success story—politically, economically, socially, and technologically. Moreover, it has safeguarded the lives of a regional minority with minimal oppression of and maximum participation by other groups who are also citizens of the state. By establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine, Israel distinguished itself from other regional minority groups that succeeded in gaining control of a state while remaining minorities, like the Alawites in Syria, whose record has been one of stagnation, oppression, and plunder.

So, when it comes to the Holocaust, maybe the Arabs are right: The crimes of Europe need not justify the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. There is plenty of justification to be found in the Middle East. Without Israel, the region would lose its one success story—and the Jews of the Middle East would be yet another group of fearful, oppressed, and vulnerable dhimmis.

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Bracing for Arab revenge after Israel’s 1967 victory

Max Sawdayee z”l, author of‘All waiting to be hanged’

The Six-Day War, whose 44th anniversary passed a few weeks ago, had serious repercussions on the remnants of the Jewish communities in Arab countries. Max Sawdayee’s memoirs, ‘All waiting to be hanged‘, now uploaded
by his daughters to the Internet since his death in February this year, contain a detailed and moving record of those anxiety-filled days in Iraq. If Israel won, the Arabs would wreak terrible revenge – on the local Jews. And so it came to pass.

“A particular problem faces us Jews here, though it isn’t so grave yet. We do realise that the country persecuted us in times of stress, and punished us even when we had nothing to blame for. It has always been like that, since Babylon. But we must admit that when the enormous majority of our community emigrated to Israel in 1950 and 1951 according to a special authorization from the Iraqi government, it was time then to quit. We did not. We stayed behind. Consequently, everything concerning Israel that would have repercussions in the area was bound to affect us directly or indirectly. So we, the last of the adventurers, have got to take it. We have got to accept the consequences.

Monday, June 5, 1967: This morning I didn’t feel quite well. I’m rather disturbed. So I decide to leave for the office at a late hour.

Mother rings up at 9:00 a.m., tells me to turn on the radio, and hangs up.

The Iraqi news broadcast shrieks like a storm. ‘Today is the big day! It is the holy day!’ The tone is violent and martial. Stress is laid on such words and phrases as revenge, death, murder, ‘throw them into the sea!’ and so on. With stirring songs and martial music to fill the time; a stream of communiqués and commentaries, all of them extremely harsh. They howl about Zionists having started their evil aggression, and about Egypt already driving them back and causing them heavy losses and casualties. They speak of Arab aircraft having destroyed a large number of military targets and heading for Tel Aviv and Haifa.

So it’s war after all. The war that we all hated and were frightened of.

The Israeli broadcast is almost mute: martial music and a few short but vague communiqués of which nothing can be made out.

My wife returns from the market at 10 a.m., pale and alarmed. She has seen Jews returning from downtown and trying to get home quietly but quickly. Muslims, on the other hand, are jubilant, excited, with transistors in hand, and happily discussing the news. ‘We are winning! A couple of days and Israel is finished!’

I tell my wife not to worry, to get busy doing something and leave me alone with my transistors. I’d like to follow the news more closely for a while.

From the window I see little Jewish children running home without understanding what has happened; some are accompanied by their schoolteachers. I am glad to see my daughter back.

At noon Iraq is blazing with the flame of victory and expected revenge. High schools and universities close, workers flea their factories, employees stop working. The streets are crowded with people shouting and cheering. In their imagination Israel is about to disappear. It’s a matter of hours.

At 2:00 p.m. there is still no way to understand anything solid from Israeli broadcasts. They are vague all the time, while Iraqi and other Arab broadcasts are growing hysterical. They speak of a hundred and forty two Israeli aircraft shot down. But it’s already clear that the war is being fought mainly on two fronts – with Egypt and Jordan.

At 4:00 p.m. the situation reaches a state of commotion and tumult. I begin to gather all unnecessary papers and photographs in order to burn them. I also hide a sum of money, some of my wife’s jewels, and a number of personal papers and documents. Anything is likely to happen, I tell myself, loudly enough to let my wife hear me well. Finally, I hide my diary behind the bathtub.

Only at tea at 5:30 p.m., a little relaxed, can I truly realise that the war is being most seriously fought now. Only then do I begin to imagine how grave it is, what consequences it will have generally, and how it will affect us Iraqi Jews in particular. I get lost in deep thought, when my sister in law asks, ‘What do you think of this war, and what about us Jews here?’

‘What can I say of the war, my dear?! Tomorrow or the day after something may crystallise. As regards our community, it is of paramount importance how the Arabs will come out of the present conflict.’

The Jews here are surely worried but not yet afraid. In fact, the whole situation is still murky. The evening passes without anything being made clear. English, American and French news bulletins paint no definite picture. They simply repeat the two adversaries’ communiqués, adding vague and pointless commentaries.

At midnight I notice that my living room is saturated with smoke, my ashtrays filled with cigarette stubs, and my table occupied with several transistors. I’m awfully tired and hungry, and still completely ignorant of the outcome of the last day’s operations in the area. Israel continues its usual programs on the air, with martial music, while Arabic broadcasts blare and howl. I decide that this uproar leads nowhere. I go to sleep.

In bed I try to make an assessment of the situation because I’m overcome with the sleeplessness. First and foremost, what will our position be in this country? We’re living among fanatics and extremists, unfortunately, and with all sorts of parties and groups of various political trends. Whatever the developments of the coming few days, the rising passions do not bode well for us.

Tuesday June 6, 1967: The doorbell rings persistently. I jump out of bed. It’s 4:00 a.m. I open the door. Cousin dashes through.

‘What’s up, for heaven’s sake?! You’ve terrified me!’

‘Have you heard the latest news?’

‘No, what?’

‘The Israeli Chief of Staff Rabin and Air Commander Hod boast that they destroyed four hundred Arab warplanes!’

‘Oh Jackie, are you out of your mind? How can that be true?!’

‘I’ve just heard it myself.’ he says.

I can’t believe my ears. Nor do we feel comfortable about this piece of news. I wonder whether the BBC reports the same thing?

We sit down to chat for a while. My wife Sa’ida takes the car at dawn and goes to see neighbours and friends and to inquire how they feel. Nothing seems to be clear yet of all this mess of a conflict. When the hour comes for the first Israeli broadcast this morning, it speaks of Israeli forces having penetrated deep into Sinai in the south and the West Bank of the Jordan in the east, and of the feat of smashing the air forces of four Arab countries in about three hours. Can that be true?!

At 7:00 a.m. we hear Baghdad, Amman, Damascus and Cairo stations. They are all wildly abusing America and Britain for their ‘intervention’ in favour of Israel. Something has gone wrong. I cannot believe that America or Britain has intervened, nor would Israel see help at this stage.

Today I forbid my daughter from going to the kindergarten. She asks if I’m afraid for her. I reply, ‘Maybe, but I’d like you to stay at home and help me clean the ashtrays as I’m smoking too much.’ She understands, and agrees to take up the duty I’ve assigned her. However, she painstakingly tries to find out whether I’m afraid. Her query upsets me, but I assure her that there is no reason to be afraid.

My wife, like all other Jewish housewives here, does not go to the market this morning. She prefers to wait till the afternoon and see how matters develop.

Some Jewish businessmen are going to work today, in spite of everything. I myself consider it rather too risky.

At 10:00 a.m. a joyful spirit still prevails, and most Iraqis entertain the illusion that the war will end in an Arab victory within the next few days. Later on, I hear that riotous demonstrations against America and Britain take place in Baghdad, especially in front of the U.S.I.S. and the British Council.

Quite a few Jews send their children to school today. The children do feel the electricity in the air and feel a little worried, even afraid. It’s a pity. A spirit of fear has transmitted itself to them, despite parents’ endeavours to appear as though they are taking things easy.

At noon I feel bored by the uncertainties that have enveloped us for now the second day of the war. Against my will, I leave the house, if only to test the pulse on the streets of Baghdad. It should be of interest to see for myself how wartime Iraq looks. The first thing that arrests my attention is the extraordinary big newspaper headlines. Never in my life have I seen such giant titles and subtitles. And all speak of victory over the enemy.

‘We Have Won the War!’ ‘No More Israel!’ And so on. The papers are capitalizing on people’s passions. The faces I saw yesterday expressed faith and hope. Today they express hope and faith – more of the former than the latter. Some of them betray nervousness and doubt. One or two are listening to an Israeli news bulletin, though it is strictly forbidden by the government. Another even has the courage to announce what he has just heard from Israel’s radio, that Israeli troops have occupied some parts of the West Bank of the Jordan. But another quickly retorts, ‘It doesn’t matter. The big tanks of Egypt will teach them an unforgettable lesson!’

Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff, who led Israel to victory in 1967

I call on a friend. He and his wife are busy hiding some money and jewels upstairs. ‘Hey!’ I exclaim. ‘You’re one day behind schedule, my dear! I did that yesterday!’ While there we hear from a Baghdad broadcast that demonstrations have grown bigger, and that demonstrators are violently denouncing the U.S. and Britain, accepting the lie that those two powers are actually helping Israel. In consequence of this big lie it is understood that Iraq has decided to break off relations with the powers. At tea in the evening father and mother, as well as myself feel extremely sorry that the situation has so deteriorated. This portends a wave of persecution against us Jews.

At 7:00 a.m. Christian friend of mine comes to see me and says that the Iraqi H-33 Air Base has been hit hard by Israeli aircraft. This renders the situation still worse for us local Jews, as the war now involves Iraq directly as well.
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The lessons of the Farhud for the Middle East today

Mass grave for the Farhud victims

What lessons does the Farhud pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad hold for understanding the Middle East of today? Alex Joffe writing in Pajamas Media examines the influence of Nazism on the Arabs and concludes that such events as the Farhud were sparked by a lethal cocktail of religion and fascism:

Seventy years ago during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, June 1st and 2nd, 1941, Iraqis rampaged through the Jewish sections of Baghdad, killing between 100 and 600 individuals, injuring countless more, and looting whatever they could. This was the turning point in the history of Iraqi Jews, who had resided in Mesopotamia for over 2,500 years. In the decade that followed, the community was systematically disenfranchised, robbed, and largely expelled. What lessons does this hold for understanding the Middle East of today?

The pogrom known as the Farhud (“violent dispossession”) was conducted by Iraqis. On the first day the perpetrators were soldiers, policemen, and Baghdadis, and on the second, Bedouin from outside the city eager to claim their toll of Jews and share of loot. But the Farhud also came at the point at which the Nazi-inspired and supported coup against the pro-British Iraqi monarchy was destroyed. Like the Holocaust, it is an opportunity to examine the nature of hatred in past and present.

The question of the Nazi relationship with the Muslim and Arab worlds is far from new. Indeed, even before World War II, British and Zionist officials took note of the relationship between the “grand mufti of Jerusalem,” Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the Nazis. Long a thorn in the side of both, the mufti had been foolishly appointed by the British as the chief Muslim religious official in Jerusalem. In return, he schemed against them, the Jews, and Arab rivals from Palestine to Iraq, fomenting hatred and terrorism. Central to his ideology, and personality, was rabid hatred of Jews. Within days of Hitler’s ascent to power the mufti reached out to Nazi officials. His later record of Nazi collaboration is exceptional: conspiring against the British in Iraq after his flight from Palestine; broadcasting to the Arab world from Berlin; and raising Muslim SS divisions in the Balkans. Only by escaping to Egypt after the war with French help did he avoid a war crimes trial.

But how much were he and his minions actually inspired by Nazism? And, to the extent that he was the central Muslim figure railing against Jews and Zionism before and after World War II, how much was Palestinian and Arab opposition ‘”Nazi-inspired” or even a local manifestation of Nazism? Did this contribute to today’s “Islamo-fascism”?

Direct Nazi support for the mufti and for local fascists in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran was late, but when war came it was deep and pervasive. Money and arms flowed, and German forces entered Iraq from Vichy Syria in May 1941 to support the Sunni military officers who had launched the coup, with the encouragement of the German ambassador, Fritz Grobba. Incitement against the Jews of Iraq had been heightened by years of classroom propaganda by Palestinian Arab and Syrian teachers facilitated by the Minister of Education and Nazi enthusiast Sami Shawkat, propaganda broadcasts from Germany, and by semi-military fascist societies.

In return, there was extensive Muslim support for the Nazis, as subversives in the Middle East, SS troops in the Balkans, and through the mufti’s direct support for the Holocaust. It was he who went relentlessly from office to office urging Nazi officials not to barter Jews, including children, in exchange for goods but to send them to their deaths in Poland.

But do historical data show a widespread grassroots Arab desire to exterminate Middle Eastern Jews? This is impossible to quantify. On the one hand, as Robert Satloff documents in his book Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, there were many cases of North African Muslims sheltering Jewish neighbors from the Nazis. But on the other, far more soaked up Nazi propaganda broadcasts, Islamified by the mufti and others.

Many real and potential collaborators were spread throughout Arab countries. Most ominously, the Nazi Einsatzgruppe that would have followed Rommel into Egypt in 1942 planned to have local Arabs do most of the dirty work. Local collaborators in Europe had demonstrated an enthusiasm for slaughtering Jews that sometimes even shocked the Nazis, and there is every reason to think that this would have been the case in the Middle East. Indeed, the sheer bestiality of the Farhud (like the Hebron massacre of 1929), replete with senseless mutilation, shows that deep-seated hatreds were being played out, not simply to kill but to degrade Jews in the act of killing and in death itself. This can only be attributed to religion.

Numerous Nazis found shelter in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria, after the war, as well as employment in their security services and propaganda ministries. Some even converted to Islam, finding in it the fullest expression of their fascism. In this sense Nazism played a direct role in shaping the modern Middle East.

Three elements drew Arab and Muslim leaders to the Nazis. First was Muslim theological antisemitism, which meshed well with Nazi racist antisemitism. Muslims needed no lessons regarding Jew hatred. The Koran and other Islamic sources are filled with verses reviling Jews as filthy schemers and betrayers of the prophet and calling for their mistreatment and murder. The lengthy history of pogroms against Jews in the Arab and Muslim worlds shows these theological exhortations were taken seriously. New, however, was the language of Jews as vermin and the fantasy of a single global Jewish conspiracy. Treatment of Jews in Germany also emboldened Muslim anti-Semites who were encouraged to prepare their own attacks.

In the second place was local hatred of British and French imperialism, which for most Muslims had theological dimensions, since it entailed being ruled by infidels. Finally, there were local concepts of nationalism, which outside of Egypt were still mostly held by ambitious intellectuals, civic notables, and military officers. The ultimate prize of self-determination was power over others. All three elements remain in play today, sometimes masquerading as one another.

The Farhud shows that, despite Western desires, in the Middle East religion and politics have always inextricably linked.

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More articles on the Farhud

Jewish tales from Arab lands are universal

Victor Mature stars in the film Androcles and the Lion (1952) – a universal tale

Heard the tale about the lion with a thorn in its paw? Or the pound of flesh? Jewish tales from Arab lands are universal, writes Adam Kirsch in this book review in The Tablet :

Originally, these stories were told orally, in the humblest circumstances: “watching over a delivering woman, during condolence visits, on holidays and on the Sabbath. … On the trips men took to and from markets.” The generations of Jews who recounted them would doubtless be surprised to see them as they appear in this book, so formidably armored by scholarship. It’s not uncommon for a one-page story to be followed by eight pages of footnotes and commentary, and each tale is cross-referenced against the standard register of folklore motifs, The Types of the Folktale.

The lay reader will not be able to make much use of these motif codes (e.g., “D2188.2: Person Vanishes”; “N825.2: Old Man Helper”). But simply seeing them after each tale helps to drive home an important point about the universality of folktales. It is natural to read Tales From Arab Lands for insight into Jewish and Arab cultures or for a sense of connection with this part of the Jewish past; and the stories do yield some historical insights. Yet these Jewish stories—whether they are about the Baal Shem Tov, or King Solomon, or some venerated Moroccan rabbi—are usually close cousins of folktales told in other parts of the world, from Scandinavia to Japan. Just as humanity’s language instinct allows us to invent thousands of different languages from the same basic elements, so our story-telling instinct leads us to adapt the same narratives to every climate and culture.

Take, for instance, the brief story of “Rabbi Shelomoh the Lion,” about a Moroccan tzaddik known for his exceptional piety. Once it happened that a fight broke out between local Arabs and Jews, and Shelomoh was chased by some Arabs into a dark cave. When he entered, he saw a lion with its foot raised in the air; fearlessly, he approached and pulled a thorn out of the lion’s foot. In gratitude, the lion protected Shelomoh and even let him ride on his back.

This story may shed some light on the historical animosity between Morocco’s Jewish and Arab populations. But it is also, unmistakably, a retelling of a very famous legend from ancient Greece, “Androcles and the Lion.” The notes show that a similar story was told about Saint Jerome, the early church father, and also about the 12th-century rabbi Samuel ben Kalonymus of Speyer, who was said to have befriended a leopard. It says something about the strange epistemology of folktales that the man who recorded “Rabbi Shelomoh the Lion,” one David Buhbut, claimed that it was a story about his own grandfather and took place just 50 years in the past. Surely, we think, he could not have literally believed this? But then, ancient Roman writers also recorded the Androcles story as true history.

A number of the shorter tales in this volume are so plainly moral fables that the question of fact hardly arises. Take the second tale in the book, “Reciting Psalms,” which was recorded by Bajah Cohen, a woman from Tunisia. (Each narrator is named and given a brief biographical note, a gesture that seems designed at once to honor the teller, vouch for the tale’s authenticity, and prevent the reader from taking it as a timeless, placeless folk product.) “Once upon a time,” the story begins in classic style, there was a Jewish storekeeper so poor that he couldn’t afford to buy food for his family. Instead, he spent all day in his shop reciting psalms, and when his wife nagged him, he would merely reply, “One must trust in God!”

The night before Passover, as he sat reciting psalms, a customer came into his shop. Before leaving, he touched one of the rafters in the ceiling: “The poor man looked at the rafter, and behold, it was entirely gold.” Naturally, the customer had been Elijah the Prophet, there to reward the Jew’s piety and make it possible for him to celebrate Pesach. The moral of the tale could not be more straightforward: Trust in God will be rewarded. In particular, it drives home the potency of the psalms, which as the notes point out was a democratic gesture. “Because of the familiarity of the psalms through the synagogue service, Jews who were not learned in any other aspect of the Jewish tradition knew them.”

Other tales cross the border from pious homily to superstition and folk magic. “The Holy Book” is a suite of stories of about the Zghair, a particularly sacred Torah scroll cherished by the Jews of Derna, in Libya. A boy dies, but his body is placed next to the scroll, and he miraculously gets up and starts to walk. When a child is born, at any time of the day or night, the Zghair knows and immediately tells the shammash what name to enter in the community register. Rather charmingly, “sometimes the Zghair felt like being read,” so it would switch places with the other scrolls in the ark, “push to the front of the line, and the shammash had to use it that Sabbath.”

Such stories, one feels, could be a hundred or a thousand years old—indeed, the Jews of Derna believed that the Zghair was written in Jerusalem at the time of Ezra, in the 6th century BCE. Yet the folk tradition could also evolve with the times. One pointed story, set “before World War I,” describes how some rich American Jews came to Derna and tried to buy the Zghair. They put it on a ship for New York and kept close watch over it, but when the scroll’s case “was brought with pomp and circumstance to the magnificent synagogue in New York,” it turned out to be empty: The Zghair had magically returned to Libya, where it belonged. Alas, the time came when the Jews of Derna themselves had to leave, but at least they took the Zghair with them: It is now in a synagogue in Netanyah, Israel.

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Keep repeating the message about Jewish refugees

Harif’s campaign for Jewish refugees from Arab lands at the ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ festival in London should be duplicated all over the world and its message repeated. The effect could be revolutionary, Michelle Huberman writes in her Jerusalem Post blog, Clash of Cultures:

As I sat in one of the tents sipping coffee with an Ethiopian lady roasting coffee beans over an open stove, I pondered why Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and other Arab states don’t hold ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ weeks of their own. Of course Arab countries are not Scandinavia or Benelux, as we have seen from the savage murder of ‘Arab Spring’ protesters by ruthless Arab dictators.

But when the Palestinians left in 1948 and arrived in the neighboring countries they became political weapons. Instead of giving them citizenship and helping them integrate with their Muslim brothers, these states left them languishing in squalid refugee camps. Not even supplying them with water and electricity. Their oil-rich brethren could have solved the problem at a stroke, but 63 years on, the lot of the Palestinians has not improved. Imagine if they’d been made citizens and helped to set up own businesses? It is an eternal mark of shame on these countries. I can never understand why the keffiyah-wearing Palestinian supporters are not standing outside these embassies demanding human rights for their Palestinian refugees. But they are only interested in exploiting Palestinian suffering to blame Israel.

I remember once taking a wrong turn when I was on a business trip in Paterson, New Jersey in the USA. I felt like I was in the Gaza Strip. I had stumbled upon a community of Palestinian Arabs who were now all US citizens. They ran all the local shops and restaurants: the Ramallah cafe, the Gaza Souk, etc. They prided themselves on their Palestinian hospitality. Surely this is how it should have been in the Arab countries? A community that should have been helped to its feet and welcomed as part of the ethnic make-up of the host country. If pressure had been put on these countries the Middle East could have been so different today.

I shared these views with some of the visitors who stopped at our booth. Our organization Harif, had taken a small stand backing directly onto the Thames. We hung a poster advertising the Middle East’s 870,000 Forgotten Jewish Refugees. The stand was decorated like a Jewish Middle Eastern home with a mixture of Moroccan and Syrian furniture that I had schlepped out of my house in the early hours of Sunday morning. The sound of Algerian Jewish music playing softly in the background was drowned out by the beat of the ethnic bands playing on the grass near us. In the center of our stand we had a beautiful old Syrian door, bearing a large mezuzah that is the focus of our campaign.

As the tourists and visitors to the event thronged along the Thames, they were greeted with dozens of small stalls like ours representing various communities that have found refuge in the UK. Most were very friendly and into the spirit of the event. As they stopped to find out more on our stand they were presented with one of our Harif mezuzot. We had painstakingly made these by inserting into clear tubes a scroll of facts and statistics about Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. The Mezuzah is our campaign symbol for Jewish homes abandoned all over these countries and we were happily distributing them to those with an enquiring mind.

Niran Tirman, born in Baghdad, points to the Mezuzah at the centre of the Harif campaign

One of our not so pleasant visitors was a hostile man from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. “You’re changing the narrative!” he spluttered, churning out robotic slogans about ‘Ethnic cleansing and Palestinian land stolen by the Zionists.’

Well yes, we are changing the narrative. Not many people are aware about the Jewish refugees amongst us from the Arab lands. Nearly one million left these countries after 1948. The rest went mostly to Israel, mostly the poorer ones. Others who could went to France, Canada and the USA. Around 20,000 were taken in by Britain and were helped here by the Central British Fund, now known as World Jewish Relief.

This man came back later with his troublemaking friends from the PSC, and their shouting soon caused a small crowd to gather round. But unfortunately they couldn’t win the debate with us as my colleagues on the stand were born in Iraq. They were able to tell them firsthand of their experiences of living there and squashed theories of Zionist conspiracies in Baghdad.

The rest of the visitors were interested and happy to listen to us. The man from the Moroccan Tagine stall said how much Moroccan Muslims missed their Jewish neighbors. An elderly Arab couple stopped by to say hello. A Sudanese Muslim girl and her Iraqi-Indian companion, who had worked with refugees, were genuinely fascinated by Jewish refugees from Arab countries and requested a copy of our film The Forgotten Refugees.

A refugee who had to flee Rwanda lingered to say what a struggle it was to get her children interested in their African roots. My colleague Lyn Julius told her that it would be her grandchildren that would want to know more. In fact we were experiencing this on our stand. Numerous young people stopped by and confessed that they had a Jewish grandparent but knew nothing about Judaism. They wanted to find out more about their roots and our stand gave them a good opportunity to touch base.

Everybody knew about Jewish Holocaust refugees, but very few of the public had any idea that Jews had lived for thousands of years in Arab counties and that 99% of these populations were expelled or had fled from them.

Harif are starting to change the narrative in the UK, but it’s a very slow process. Recently myself and Lyn Julius were invited onto a Christian TV channel, Revelation TV, on the weekly program entitled ‘The Middle East Report. ‘They devoted the full program to the topic. After the airing we were inundated with Christian groups wanting more information.

I want to appeal to Jerusalem Post readers around the world to duplicate what we are doing at Harif. Join festivals for ethnic groups, and use the relaxed atmosphere to educate people on the Middle Eastern background of 50% of Israelis.

As Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon wrote this week on his Facebook page, “Kol Hakavod to Michelle Huberman for spreading the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands in London. The issue is finally gaining traction all over the world.”

Thank you Danny for those kind words. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and embassies around the world are no doubt working to change the narrative. But it’s also up to every individual who cares about Israel to keep repeating this message because the effect can be revolutionary.


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

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.