Month: October 2011

Bat Ye’or: an Egyptian Jew in exile

Bat Ye’or has carved out an impressive name for herself as the pioneering researcher into ‘Dhimmitude’. Less well known is the saga of her exile from Egypt in 1956. In this interview with Jerry Gordon in the New English Review, she gives a graphic but lyrical description of her family’s dislocation. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

Jerry Gordon: Bat Ye’or, thank you for consenting to this interview.

Bat Ye’or: Thank you for inviting me.

Jerry Gordon: You were born and raised in Egypt. Could you tell us about your family’s heritage?

Bat Ye’or: I was born in a family of mixed heritage. My mother was French and grew up in Paris. Her mother, who was British, had married a Frenchman. They were emancipated and non-observant Jews, well integrated into French culture, counting among their family painters and writers. Members of my mother’s family were also living in Egypt and were prominent leaders of the Alexandrine Jewish community.The picture was very different on my father’s side. The Orebi were observant Italian Jews, who spoke Arabic, several other languages and were less Westernized. My grand-father received the title of Bey under the last Ottoman sultan. He died when my father was thirteen years old.Both families were related and belonged to the same educated and wealthy Westernized Jewish bourgeoisie, sharing the same social milieu. My mother loved reading and followed the cultural events in France. She gave us her taste for literature. We always had plenty of books at home. As far as I can remember, I was always reading.

After the Italian racial laws were decreed by Mussolini in 1938, my father requested Egyptian nationality that had been established only in 1924. Usually it was denied to Jews, but he did obtain it. He could hardly guess then, that less then 20 years later he would leave Egypt stripped of everything, including his nationality.

Jerry Gordon: What was it like growing up as a Jew in Egypt prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948?

Bat Ye’or: In my childhood we were more worried by the Nazi advance toward Alexandria and the war in Europe. In Egypt we knew about the extermination of European Jewry, my mother worried about her parents living in occupied Paris, wearing the yellow star. Her two brothers and uncles were hiding in the so-called free zone. When the Germans approached Alexandria, the populace around us grew menacing and we left Cairo and hide in the countryside. Later, after the war, the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalists triggered a wave of assassinations and violent demonstrations against the British and mainly against Jews. I only knew of the ordeals suffered by the Jews living in the poor quarters from my parents. We lived in a residential area, with many Europeans. We were protected children, going out only with our nannies and chauffeur.

My parents recommended that we never speak of Israel or of any policy even with friends. We had the feeling of being spied upon, even by our Muslim servant. Then when Jews were arbitrarily jailed or expelled from their jobs, or the country, a climate of fear and insecurity shrouded us. Violent pogroms erupted; mobs killed Jews in the street, raped Jewish women, vandalized Jewish shops, and burned Jewish schools and hospitals. All Jewish assets were sequestered, including those of my father. Jews were fired from administrative jobs and liberal professions. We lived with the fear that life could end at any moment.

During WWII, the Jewish Palestinian soldiers in the British army had trained the young Egyptian Jews for self-defense and as Zionists. Hence the Jewish quarter could be defended when attacked and young Zionists could clandestinely reach Palestine.

Jerry Gordon: After the Revolt of the Free Officers Movement in 1952 and toppling of the aristocracy under King Farouk I, were restrictions placed on the Egyptian Jewish community?

Bat Ye’or: The restrictions of 1947-48 were never totally removed. Jews could hardly find a job and were under police supervision. The anti-Jewish hatred became customary, especially with the arrivals of numerous German Nazi criminals who organized the anti Jewish policy of the new government. Jews were attacked and humiliated in public places and they could not answer or defend themselves. They found themselves at the mercy of anonymous denunciations. Young people realized they had no future in Egypt and many left for Israel or to study in Europe. The community was already organizing the last phase of its 3.000 years of history.

Jerry Gordon: What affect did the Israeli spy scandal, the Lavon Affair of 1954, have on the status of Egypt’s Jews and your family? It increased the animosity against the Jews, their segregation, isolation and close watch by the secret police. What happened to you and your family after the outbreak of the Suez Crisis and First Sinai War in 1956?

Bat Ye’or: The anti-Jewish apartheid system deepened. Jews were expelled from clubs, forbidden to go to restaurants, cinemas and public places. Many were immediately expelled from the country or thrown into jail. The secret police would come at night to arrest them. Others, like my mother, were under house arrest and their bank assets frozen. Their telephones were suppressed. Many Jews were isolated and could not communicate. Many left the country immediately, abandoning everything. I remember seeing their flats and beautiful villas ransacked. Each one was leaving in secret, fearing to be prevented from leaving their country which had become a jail.

Just before my mother was put under house arrest, I accompanied her to the bank where she quickly withdrew her jewels. We sold our flat for nothing since the pillage of Jewish homes had lowered prices. I choose twenty books among the hundreds we had and we sold all the rest. This was heart-breaking, as I always wanted to be a writer. I had accumulated many diaries since an early age, and later essays and literary criticisms. I realized that I was witnessing the agony of the Egyptian Jewish community and I made notes for a book. One night I burnt them all in the chimney. It was like dying. I knew we could only leave with two cases each and that the censors would read every piece of paper.

Families were dispersed in all directions. One sister went to London with her husband and child, another planned to go to Belgium, cousins went to Brazil, others went to Switzerland and France. As people were leaving secretly, I never knew whether I would be seeing them for the last time. I was living through the death of a world, not knowing if I would survive the next day. While the mob rejoiced in pillaging, I observed closely the inner destruction of family, friendships, bonds, society and the dignity and resolve of the victims.

By then, I had very few friends remaining. For me they belonged to a beloved and disappearing world that was dying with a part of my life, where everything being so transient also became so precious. In the last months preceding our departure, I walked alone throughout Cairo and Alexandria, their old quarters, their museums and every place that now was deserted of friends and family. For years I was fascinated by Egyptology, art and history. I knew I would never see these treasures again.

We left at night in secret. My father and mother could hardly walk. Thanks to a lawyer my father had at last sold a parcel of land. The proceeds from this sale, together with my mother’s jewels were sent out of the country through a clandestine channel. The Swiss consulate gave us a Nansen passport since Egyptian Jews were allowed to leave Egypt only on condition that they renounce their nationality and all their belongings in Egypt and never come back. We all signed such a declaration.

We had reservations on a KLM flight. We were kept at the airport for hours, our bodies searched, our cases emptied on the floor, insulted, humiliated and threatened by an Egyptian Sudanese officer who was cracking a whip (curbash) around us. My meager twenty Egyptian pounds were confiscated. Finally, they let us depart. We stopped at Amsterdam where my other sister came from Belgium, with her husband and baby to see us and tell us that money and jewels were safely deposited in a bank.It was strange to see them in an Amsterdam hotel. We were now refugees, homeless, stateless, in a world where we knew no one. We were full of apprehension on the threshold of a new life, where we would destroy our past to build the future. It was my first night in exile.
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Jewish pig farmer will put Tunisia to the test

Patrick Sebag, Tunis disco-owner and pig-farmer

If anyone is going to prove that Jews in Tunisia have a future after last week’s elections – it is Patrick Sebag.

While Sebag’s interests – pig-farming and distilling alcohol, among others – may be unusual to us, to the resurgent Islamists of the Ennahda party, winners of 40 percent of the vote, they will seem a red rag to a bull – breaking two Muslim taboos at once.

Yet according to an upbeat article in the Tunisian magazine Tunisie-Mag, Sebag, who owns one of Tunis’ top disco-bars and a tourist village, has chosen this critical time in Tunisian politics to announce that he will be investing 250,000 dinars in G’est Hotel, a new tourist village.

Another Tunisian-Jewish property developer active in Djerba, Gabriel Kabla is about to invest 150,000 dinars.

The article triumphantly declares that despite predictions of a mass exodus when the Arab Spring erupted, Tunisia is still home to some 1,500 Jews. This is all the more remarkable as the Jews are strongly identified with the deposed Ben Ali regime.

But Jews are attempting to engage with the new political reality. Not one, but two Jews have stood in the elections – Elie Trabelsi and Gilles-Jacob Lellouche. (Neither was elected.)

The article also reveals that the leader of the Jewish community, Roger Bismuth, has had discreet talks with the Ennahda party to seek reassurances that the Jewish community has a future.

This accounts for his mealy-mouthed pronouncements to journalists, trying to put a brave face on the election results.

It would be nice to share in Tunisie-Mag‘s optimism, but the Ennahda party intends to impose an Islamic state governed by Shari’a law. The Jewish entrepreneurs are secure in the knowledge that they can always decamp to France if things don’t work out. And Roger Bismuth would do well to remember Churchill’s words, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last”.
Read article in full (French)

Even after Gaddafi, no future for the Jews

David Gerbi praying in the Dar al-Bishi synagogue, Tripoli

The David Gerbi case demonstrated that one Jew in Libya was one too many. Elsewhere in the region too, the Arab Spring has so far been a bitter disappointment as far as the safeguarding of human and minority rights is concerned. Lyn Julius writing in The Jewish Chronicle says antisemitism is at fever pitch:

Two days after Yom Kippur, a man called David Gerbi was bundled out of Tripoli in a military plane. Was any hope that post-Gaddafi Libya could become a tolerant and pluralistic society flown out with him?

Gerbi, a 56-year old Jewish psychiatrist, had returned to his native Libya after 44 years of exile in Rome to assist the anti-Gaddafi rebels. His dream was to spend the high holidays praying in Tripoli’s Dar al-Bishi synagogue.

With the blessing of a local sheikh, Gerbi took a sledgehammer to the sealed entrance. The building had stood derelict since the remaining Jews were expelled in 1967, his family among them. The international news media captured the incongruous sight of Gerbi, wrapped in his tallit, praying amid the rubble.

Gerbi’s hurried exit had to be arranged by the Italian government after he received death threats. Hundreds of angry protesters gathered in Tripoli and Benghazi to call for his deportation. Crowds tried to storm his hotel. His crime? He had broken into an “archaelogical site” without permission.

Call him a hero or a madman, Gerbi showed that the Libyan National Transitional Council may not be ready to “walk the walk” of democracy, pluralism and human rights. To Gerbi, the international community’s huge investment in Libyan regime change had been repaid with duplicity.

What is shocking is that those calling for his deportation did not pretend to be only against Zionists. They shamelessly advertised their bigotry, holding signs that said: “There is no place for the Jews in Libya.” One Jew is one too many in a country that has done everything possible to be rid of them.

The Jews had a place in Libya long before the Arabs. The community goes back 2,300 years, predating Islam by a millenium. But, after hundreds died during the Second World War and in a devastating pogrom in 1945, more than 90 per cent of the 38,000-strong community fled to Israel. The remaining 6,000 Jews were driven out in 1967, their property confiscated by Gaddafi.

From almost one million Jews in Arab lands in 1948, only 4,000 remain. Antisemitism has reached fever pitch. Arabs are so unlikely to meet a Jew that satanic conspiracy theories flourish. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, this year has seen attacks on two synagogues and a raid on a wedding party on the island of Djerba, still home to 1,500 Jews. After this week’s election the Islamist Ennahda party is the largest single political group in Tunisia; a new constitution may well criminalise
normalisation with Israel.

The 2,500-member Jewish community in Morocco is a useful showcase for interfaith coexistence. But as in Bahrain, where King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa protects his country’s 36 Jews, the Jews stand or fall with the monarchy. In Yemen, the 250-member remnant is dwindling fast, its future tied to the precarious rule of President Saleh.

Those who had high hopes that the Arab Spring would usher in an era of freedom and tolerance for minorities should have learned from post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Iraqi Jews living in Israel and the West wished for nothing more than to be compensated for their lost property and a chance to visit.

One did visit Baghdad in 2004. Marina Benjamin observed in her book The Last Jews of Babylon: “In the postwar atmosphere of hatred and suspicion Jews were once again the bogeyman. Variously portrayed as friends of the foreign occupier, Zionist spies, or simply as individuals returning under cover of false identities to reclaim property stolen from them in 1951, the Jews were not to be trusted.” The antisemitism she witnessed in Iraq is now so virulent that there are desperate efforts to get the seven remaining Iraqi Jews out to safety after their names were revealed by Wikileaks.

In Egypt, where the “Jewish community” is now just a handful of old ladies, “Jew” is a term of abuse employed to smear political opponents or foreigners. In February, it was enough for the CBS reporter Lara Logan to be mistaken for a Jew: 200 men assaulted her, chanting “Jew, Jew” in Tahrir Square.

What begins with the Jews never ends with them. Middle East Christians are being targeted as never before – with or without the connivance of the authorities. In the latest violence in Cairo, 26 were massacred, mainly Coptic Christians. Joining the conspiracy theorists, Egypt’s Prime Minister said, ” There are hidden hands involved.” Translation: the Jews were behind it.

As far as the safeguarding of human and minority rights is concerned, the Arab Spring has been a bitter disappointment.The Gerbi case offered the interim Libyan government the chance to break with the Jew-hating past and reset Libya’s relationship with its Jews. So far, it has failed the test.

Read article in full

Did Libya deceive the West ? (JCPA)
Creating a place for Libya’s Jews by R. Abraham Cooper (National Post)

Shabi puts positive spin on ethnic cleansing

Counting the results of the Tunisian ballot earlier this week.

Rachel Shabi, author of Not the enemy, has something of a reputation for pushing the myth of Jewish-Arab coexistence – an idyll, she believes, cruelly shattered by Israel’s creation. Perhaps she was not the best person for The Jewish Chronicle to ask to report on the aftermath of the Islamist victory in the Tunisian elections. My ‘fisking’ appears in italics:

“They naturally have a majority,” says Tunisia’s Jewish community leader, Roger Bismuth. “But more important is what is going to happen in the next few weeks.”

As the Islamist Nahda party secured about 40 per cent of the vote in Tunisia’s historic elections this week, the country’s tiny Jewish community was wondering what this means for them.

These were the first free elections in Tunisia, and the first in the Arab Spring after a string of uprisings brought down reviled dictators earlier this year.

Now, the Nahda party will need to form a coalition with secular, centre-left parties – and already has pledged to put in place a democratic system that will safeguard minorities.

Oh yes? How can a democratic system safeguarding minority rights be compatible with Shari’a law?

Among a national population of just over 10 million, Tunisia’s Jewish community stands at around 1,500. Once it was 100,000, but Israel’s creation in 1948 and Tunisia’s independence from French rule in 1956 together resulted in a Jewish exodus.

It was not Israel’s creation which resulted in a Jewish exodus – it was the Arab response to Israel’s creation, scapegoating their innocent Jewish citizens. It was not Tunisian independence, per se, it was the deliberate policy of Arabisation and marginalisation of the Jews.

Tunisia’s remaining Jewish community is relatively well-integrated. Shoppers at a kosher butcher in Tunis wear conspicuous Hebrew-lettered jewellery; the store bears both Hebrew and Arabic lettering and has been owned by a Muslim family since the early 1950s.

This example does not illustrate coexistence and interfaith harmony as Ms Shabi would have us believe, it’s simply a desire to grab a share of the profits. In almost all Arab and Muslim countries from the late 1940s Jews had to have Muslim business partners, by law. Presumably the Jewish partner in the Kosher butcher’s business departed Tunisia leaving his Muslim partner in charge.

Along the road, the Grand Synagogue is still functional, although it has a shrunken congregation, whose prayer-song does not make full use of the acoustics of the giant, bright blue- and-orange dome.

Security outside the synagogue was increased earlier this year, after a crowd of extremists demonstrated there, chanting anti-Jewish slogans.

This was not the only anti-Jewish incident. Two synagogues have been attacked during the Arab Spring.

Immediately after the revolution that brought down former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Israel wanted Tunisia’s Jews to migrate. But the suggestion did not generate much enthusiasm. “People living in Tunisia now don’t want to go,” says Mr Bismuth, who is 85. “I love to live here and will never leave my community. We are very attached to our country and want to remain normal citizens.”

Roger Bismuth is dhimmi-in-chief of the Jewish community. Would you really expect him to say anything else?

Most of Tunisia’s Jews live on the island of Djerba, whose Jewish history, including one of the oldest synagogues in the world, is carefully preserved.

There is a good reason for the preservation of the Djerba synagogue – it is the island’s only tourist attraction.

Another community, in the port town of La Goulette, near Tunis, is home to the country’s only Jewish candidate in the recent elections: Jacob Lellouche, representing the Republican People’s Union (UPR), a small, leftist party.

He did not win a seat in the new assembly, which is mandated to draft the country’s constitution and set an election date within a year. “But I am really proud to have participated,” says the 50-year-old, who owns a kosher restaurant in La Goulette. “Now we all have a lot of work to do, to get Tunisia on its feet.”

Mr Lellouche, who is secular, does not believe that politics and religion go together. Still, he says: “I’m not afraid of Nahda, there is nothing to worry about, not yet.” He is setting up a project to teach young people traditional skills, and says: “If minorities want to be part of Tunisian society, they have to be involved.”

Mr Lellouche’s initiative is commendable, but are the Tunisians listening? Neither he nor his party got elected to Parliament.

This community, proud of its long history in Tunisia, hopes it will continue. “We are brothers and big friends,” says Albert Chiche, who runs a Jewish retirement home, of relations between Muslims and Jews. “We celebrate each other’s festivals, we hug. We hope that this will not change.”

Albert Chiche could have said, ‘we hug, but the embrace is squeezing the lifeblood out of us.’ The Jewish community in Tunisia is one percent of what it was, and any attempt to put a positive spin on this massive exercise in ethnic cleansing is disingenuous.

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Jews flee Indonesia: ‘The Islam is very bad’

Saul and Alfred Abraham fled for their lives

This story from the Jewish Journal of LA is two years old now, but I am posting it to put on record the rise of antisemitism in Indonesia, ‘ the world’s most populous Muslim democracy’. The community in Surabaya was founded by Iraqi Jews. There are only two dozen, intermarried, Jews living there now: (with thanks: Andrew)

Last October (2009), when Muslim extremists threatened to burn down the only synagogue still standing in the Republic of Indonesia, Saul Abraham, 69, the synagogue’s caretaker, and his younger brother, Alfred, 66, fled the country.

“We left the same night,” Saul said, in the LAX lounge with his Los Angeles-based relatives, waiting for the flight that will carry the brothers off to what they believe is their only real haven: Israel.

Fearing for their lives, the brothers, both retired technicians, booked the first flight to the West Coast via Singapore without any time to pack or say goodbye to friends in their native Surabaya. They were welcomed in Los Angeles by their eldest brother, Jacob (real name withheld upon request), an L.A. resident since 1976, and sister Lily, 67, an L.A. resident since 1990. Lily decided to move to Israel, too.

‘The Islam is very bad there,” Alfred said of Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Saul and Alfred are fluent in Dutch and Indonesian and proficient in Arabic. They speak some English and no Hebrew. Jacob, a retired lawyer, served as the family’s unofficial spokesman and translator. The Muslims never torched the 60-year-old synagogue and the million-dollar property on which it is situated, Jacob said. Indigent Indonesian Jews who are housed on the property protested. The Muslims are expected to leave the synagogue alone in part because it is now under the care of an assimilated Jewish couple whose children are intermarried. An estimated 25 to 30 Jews live in Surabaya today.

Read article in fullBeing Jewish in Indonesia

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