Month: February 2012

The Guardian’s Afghan sugar-coat

Jewish cemetery in Herat, Afghanistan

If there was an Oscar awarded for ‘chutzpah’ (cheek), Nushin Arbabzadah’s article yesterday on the Guardian ‘s website Comment is Free would probably win it hands-down. The ‘story of the Afghan Jews is one of remarkable tolerance’ belongs in the realm of fiction, rather than on a newspaper of record. You might as well say water is not wet. Hitler was not evil. There was no historic antisemitism in Afghanistan.

The author builds a fantasy that Jews were pretty much like other Afghans – conservative, patriarchal. Because of their cosy isolation, Afghan Jews were shielded from antisemitism. Antisemitism was something, Nushin implies, that came from the outside.

The piece begins with the author’s own personal experience of Jews during the era of the Soviet occupation, a time when only a few hundred Jews still lived in Afghanistan. Nushin had a clever, blond Jewish classmate whose household was accused of immorality for letting a man into the home (presumably a Shabbat goy) on Shabbat. The inference is that such religious bigotry had suddenly sprung out of nowhere to prepare the ground for the fundamentalist era of the Taliban.

Then Nushin drops the bombshell: the Afghan antisemitism she witnessed was not representative.

“From a historical perspective, the story of the Afghan Jews is a tale of remarkable tolerance. It may seem hard to believe today, but historically it was Afghanistan to which Jews turned to when escaping religious persecution in Iran and central Asia. It was in the dusty, ancient cities of Herat and Kabul, to the west and the east of Afghanistan, that they found freedom to practise their faith without getting murdered in the process. A community of leather and karakul merchants, poor people and money lenders alike, the large Jewish families mostly lived in the border city of Herat, while the families’ patriarchs travelled back and forth on trading trips, moving between Iran, Afghanistan, India and central Asia on the ancient silk road.”

Thankfully, a few Guardian commenters are quick to point out that as dhimmis, Jews had wear black turbans distinguishing them from Muslims and were subject to the usual strictures of sharia law, paying the jizya or poll tax in order to buy the protection of the authorities. Although Jews have lived in Afghanistan for 2,500 years, arriving as part of the Babylonian diaspora, they were wiped out in the 13th century by the Mongols and were never in Afghanistan in great numbers. Iman Allah Khan (1919 – 1929) worked to break the power of the religious authorities, but it was only under the relatively enlightened Nadir Shah (1929 – 33) that the jizya and discriminatory signs were abolished.

There was one brief demonstration of ‘remarkable tolerance’ in the 19th century: Nushin is correct that there was a short term influx of Jews fleeing from Persia, where the Muslim authorities had begun to aggressively persecute them and forcibly convert the Jews of Meshed to Islam, quickly bringing Afghanistan’s Jewish population up to 40,000. But all this changed in 1870 when many Jews left Afghanistan and the Muslim authorities enacted anti-Jewish measures.

Nushin then drops another bombshell:

The Afghans’ isolation from the rest of the world was a blessing in disguise for the Jewish community because being cut off from global political trends meant that ordinary Afghans were untouched by the raging, European-led, antisemitism of the early 20th century. Even at the height of the Nazi influence in Kabul of the 1930s, it was Afghan nationalism rather than antisemitism that led the government to introduce economic measures that bankrupted Jewish money-lending families.”

In 1933, following the assassination of Nadir Shah there was an anti-Jewish backlash and Jews were banished from most Afghan cities, limiting them to Kabul, Balkh or Herat. It is true that Nazi-inspired nationalism victimised the Jews in the Thirties (stripping them of citizenship, preventing them from settling in the north, and imposing swingeing taxes), but there is only one way to describe the Sh’ite riots in Herat in 1935 and other violence against the Jews until 1944, accompanied by incitement by Musim clerics, forced conversions to Islam, rape of women, girls and boys:

Good old-fashioned antisemitism, much of it religiously-inspired.

“The laws affecting the Jewish community were soon removed and in the following decades Afghanistan was the only Muslim country that allowed Jewish families to immigrate without revoking their citizenship first. When Afghan Jews left the country en masse in the 1960s, their exile to New York and Tel Aviv was motivated by a search for a better life but not because of religious persecution.”

Some 4000 out of 5,000 left in 1951 shortly after the foundation of the state of Israel, not in the 1960s, as Nushin states.

What ‘remarkable tolerance’: Afghanistan did not revoke emigrating Jews’ citizenship. Yet for years Jews had not been allowed to move from city to city, let alone leave the country.

The trials and tribulations of the remaining community did not cease. One can safely assume that persecution and discrimination were a key factor in their subsequent departure. In an echo of the Jizya, Jews had to pay a tax (harbiya) not because they were exempt, but because they were excluded from military service. In 1955, a young girl, Tova Shamualoff, was kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. After the Six-Day War the authorities had to call out the army to protect the remaining 300 Jews. Now there is a single, solitary Jew in the country.

Call that tolerance?

Cross-posted at CiFWatch

De Picciotto recalls his Egyptian youth

Maurice de Picciotto with his wife Sarine and three sons

Maurice de Picciotto is the president of his US synagogue – but he is also the Egyptian-born scion of a distinguished family, New Jersey Jewish News reports:

The family speaks French as their first language. In Jewish day school, de Picciotto also learned Hebrew, Arabic, and English and knew Ladino and Italian. His family can be traced back 11 generations to 17th-century Italy. In his youth, family members still held Italian citizenship, despite a proud record of having lived — and having achieved high diplomatic status — in other countries in the Mediterranean region.

De Picciotto recalls life in Egypt as rich and full — and interwoven with insecurity. The Jews lived with a perpetual fear of the tide turning against them, and there were waves of departure — in 1948 after the establishment of the State of Israel, after the Suez War in 1956, and after the Six-Day War in 1967. Jewish businesses were abruptly taken over by the military authorities — but often the owners were then asked to run them again, because the soldiers didn’t know how to keep them profitable.

On the other hand, de Picciotto said, the community was extremely affluent and lived in harmony with the groups around them. “There was no sense of friction based on religion,” he said. “We got on well.”

He recalled that the melodies in religious services in Egyptian synagogues reflected the influence of the surrounding culture, and the cuisine of the High Holy Days was an amalgam of traditional and Middle Eastern flavors. For their family, it still is, de Picciotto said, with an additional French aspect. “We go often to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to shop for ingredients, or to the Greek store in Kenilworth.”

His father, Isaac, served for a while as president of the coordinating body that led the Jewish community in Alexandria, managing and controlling its synagogues, schools, a hospital, three cemeteries, an old-age home, a summer camp, and a number of prime real estate holdings. He died in 1990, at Overlook Hospital in Summit, having come to the United States for a visit 10 years after his wife’s death.

De Picciotto went to Egypt a couple of years later with a group of other Jewish Egyptians, in an effort to bring out the community’s Torah scrolls. They were not permitted to remove them. “The government tried to take the sifrei Torah and place them under the control of the Ministry of Antiquities — they said they were national treasures,” he said, “but the community managed to keep possession of them.”

All 56 Torah scrolls that were used by the 12 to 14 synagogues in Alexandria are now stored at one synagogue. “I should have tried to bring them out while my father was still in charge,” he said.

These days in Cairo, de Picciotto said, the Jewish cemetery is in shambles. But in Alexandria — though there are only about 10 aging Jews still taking care of things — the community’s three cemeteries and numerous real estate holdings are still in good shape.

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An illuminating interview with the late Simon Levy

The Beth El synagogue, Casablanca (Photo: Alma Rachel Heckman)

Simon Levy founded the only Jewish museum in the Arab world – in Casablanca. A maverick academic, communist and ‘conscious pariah’, he died in December 2011. Thanks to Diarna website for this illuminating retrospective interview by Alma Rachel Heckman: Levy has some particularly interesting things to say about the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the war years under Vichy rule – including a rare mention of the forced-labour camps of Jews from Europe. The interview concludes with the reasons why Moroccan Jews left Morocco.

Simon Levy pointing out a display at the Jewish Museum

In Response to a Question about the Movement toward Moroccan Independence and Jewish Involvement:
The 1930s was the beginning of the independence movement, and simultaneously the coming of age for the Jewish youth that had grown-up after the establishment of the French protectorate. They had more contact with Europe than the previous generations because of their French education, and had direct contact with European anti-Semitism via French fascists in Morocco. Thus, they heard for the first time “sale juif”, or “dirty Jew”, in the streets of Morocco.

The Jews who supported Moroccan independence also demanded a classical Arabic education. In the traditional Jewish schools, students learned about religion, the Gemara, to read the Torah, cantillation and how to write spoken Moroccan Arabic (darija) using the Hebrew alphabet – Moroccan Judeo-Arabic – but not classical Arabic. Simon sighed that now, no one reads Judeo-Arabic, and that it is a lost body of literature and a lost culture.

And what about the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU)? Simon shouted and beat the table at this juncture: “The AIU only taught French” [not strictly true, AIU schools were predominantly in French with Hebrew lessons and often lessons in local languages]. According to Simon, the AIU was a French charity project that created “little French Jews” in foreign countries by its heavily Gallic education system. Students in the AIU schools “only had one tiny hour of Hebrew per week.” Simon went on to say that the AIU paved the way for French colonization in Morocco and the entrenching of an educational and political system based on “the superiority of Europe.” In this way, the AIU “destroyed Moroccan Judaism.”

In the 1930s, those Moroccan Jews that invested in the nascent independence movement wanted to be “truly Moroccan” alongside their Muslim compatriots, but there were other forces “working over” Moroccan Jews: the AIU, France and its cultural values, and Zionism.

On Morocco under Vichy Rule

The Nazi regime never occupied Morocco, but rather controlled the Vichy French who did. In autumn 1940, Mohammed V signed the “Statute of Jews” into law. The Jews were astonished that the king could sign such a document, and protested.

The “Statute of Jews” stated that Morocco’s Jewish residents were no longer either subjects of king Mohammed V or of France, but that they were now “a separate category.” Jews were forbidden from practicing professions that they had traditionally occupied, including commerce, were barred from many educational opportunities and from other activities that were still allowed to Muslims and French people. Further, the numerous Jews that had moved out of the mellahs long ago and were now living in the Ville Nouvelles were required to move back into the mellahs, resulting in massive over-crowding, sanitation problems, and scarcity of resources. With this law, Jews were now Morocco’s “pariahs” rather than the king’s ahl al-dhimma or protected people.

Simon illustrated this with a personal story, relating that his uncle had built a nice, big house in the Ville Nouvelle of Fez in 1937. With the arrival of the war, he and his family were crammed into a single room in the mellah. This “hyper population” of the mellahs happened in every Moroccan city. Simon mused, “When I was young [during the war years], I remember standing on a balcony in the mellah of Fez. The streets were so over-crowded that the people were obligated to walk very, very slowly, in baby steps.” (Simon got up from his desk and demonstrated a slow, belaboured shuffle.)

On the Vichy Camps

Simon encountered regiments of forced workerswho were sent to the region of Fez to build roads and other infrastructure projects. For all of the cruelty inflicted upon them, they were allowed to attend Synagogue services, where they interacted with the Fassi Moroccan-Jewish population. Simon looked at his hands and said, “I remember throughout the war a certain Mr. Stern, who had led an easy life in France and was sent to work on the roads in Morocco.”

Simon’s father invited many of these forced-labor French Jews to the family’s home for Jewish holidays, where Simon observed the Ashkenazi way of celebrating Chanukah.

In November 1942, the Allies landed in Morocco for Operation Torch of the North Africa campaign. The arrival of the Allies “was the deliverance of Moroccan Jews from the German threat,” sighed Simon, who mentioned that Morocco had been lucky as compared to Tunisia, where the Germans had had a foothold and a prolonged presence. Simon added, “This period of French and European racism fundamentally changed the outlook of Jewish Moroccans. Jews had lost their jobs and their possessions, as well as their rights. After the war, it was different. This explains the wave of emigration from Morocco in 1948.”

On post-1948 Waves of Jewish Migration from Morocco

In 1956, the year Morocco won its independence, life for Jewish Moroccans seemed quite good. There was Dr. Benzaquen, a Jewish minister in government, for example. However, more and more Jews were leaving Morocco for French educational opportunities, and were not coming back. During the war in Israel in 1956, Jewish community leaders adopted an anti-war stance “against the invaders.”

In 1964, the justice system of Morocco was “Arabized,” meaning that from then on, lawyers would have to work in Arabic. For the Jews who had graduated through a thoroughly Francophone educational system, this meant they were out of work. As a result, almost all Jewish lawyers left Morocco for elsewhere, including Simon’s own brother.

In 1967, Morocco’s Jewish community took no official position on the Six-Day War. When the Arab coalition suffered what was perceived as a humiliating loss on the military, political and international levels, Moroccan Muslims announced a boycott against Moroccan Jewish businesses in a “simplistic mind set” that equated all Jews with Israel’s military and political powers. The boycott lasted between 2-3 months, but the long-term effects were irreversible: the social and political climate in Morocco made Jews no longer feel safe. Many Jews left Morocco as a result, including Simon’s nephew, a doctor whose patients boycotted his practice. Even after this “ignorant boycott”, Simon estimates that about 30,000 or 40,000 Jews remained in Morocco.

The post-1967 steady drain of Moroccan Jews to France, Canada, Israel or the United States, was also on account of desires to attain a French education and upward mobility, as well as to reunite with family members who had already left.

On Moroccan Muslim Awareness of Jewish History

“In 2004 and 2005, [the museum] commemorated the Casablanca bombings of May 16, 2003. We visited schools in order to explain that Morocco is not a country in which we kill each other. In one school, it was clear that all of the students but a small selected group had been excused for the day. These students had been groomed by their teachers with the proper answers to a variety of questions. As soon as I asked them to respond on their own, to deviate from the script, they said things along the lines that they approved of the terrorists, that they were now in heaven having worked for God. We brought them to the museum, and hopefully we opened their minds a little.”

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Hebron Jew dies without getting his property back

Yaakov Castel (right), one of the last survivors of the 1929 Hebron massacre.

Hebron is usually portrayed in the media as an Arab city with an inconvenient minority of aggressive Jewish ‘settlers’. But Yaakov Castel, who has just died, was proof of a centuries-old Jewish presence, according to Arutz Sheva. His failure to regain his property is more proof that the Israeli authorities are reluctant to uphold the rights of the original, predominantly Sephardi, property owners in ‘Arab’ areas for political reasons. (With thanks: Michelle-Malca)

Yaakov Castel, one of the last remaining survivors of the 1929 Hevron massacre, passed away on Thursday morning. His dream of restoring his family’s home in the city remained unfulfilled.

Castel survived the brutal massacre of Hevron’s Jews at the hands of an Arab mob as a young child. His father, Rabbi Shlomo Castel, was murdered.

Survivors of the massacre were expelled from Hevron by the British. When Jordan seized control of the city in 1948, their homes were given to Arab families.

Israel’s return to Hevron in 1967 did not lead to survivors’ return to their homes. Instead, Israeli authorities decided to treat the properties as abandoned land. Jews who moved into the Castel family’s home in Hevron’s marketplace were expelled at the order of the Supreme Court. (My emphasis – ed)

Castel fought a lengthy legal battle to get his property returned.

Yaakov Castel owned an ancient copy of the Book of Esther which had been read on Purim by Hevron’s Jews. Eleven years ago he donated the scroll to the Hevron museum, which chronicles the city’s Jewish history.

Castel also owned a book detailing his family’s rich history, which has included more than 500 years living in Gaza and then Hevron following the expulsion of Jews from Spain. At the time of the Hevron massacre the family had been in Hevron for generations.

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The future of Hebron’s Jewish past by Melanie Phillips (Jewish Chronicle)

Babylonian music ensemble may be forced to fold

The future of the Mizrahi orchestra, which plays music from the Babylonian diaspora in Israel, is looking increasingly bleak as public and other sources of funding dry up. Report in Haaretz (viaJIMENA):

The Mizrahi Orchestra, an ensemble of devoted musicians seeking to preserve a nearly lost genre of traditional ethnic classical music, may be approaching its finale. The ongoing lack of government and other funding that has already shrunk the size of the orchestra in recent years is now threatening to shut it down completely.

“There is no other orchestra like this in Israel – there is simply none,” asserts singer-songwriter Avihu Medina, who in essence personifies Mizrahi-Mediterranean music. “They play nearly all the [authentic] musical instruments that were heard in the Temple – no other orchestra in Israel does that. It is true that we have good Andalusian orchestras, but they represent music from one very specific place in the Mediterranean: Spain, Morocco and the surrounding area. The Mizrahi Orchestra, on the other hand, plays the music of Jews from Persia, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Bukhara and so on. This is the music of the Babylonian Diaspora.”

Mizrahi orchestra - Tchetchik - 24.2.2012

Members of the Mizrahi Orchestra rehearsing in Lod.

Photo by: Daniel Tchetchik

The Mizrahi Orchestra, usually referred to as the Maqam Orchestra (Maqam meaning “place” in Arabic) was established in 1998 by Prof. Vladimir Sabirov of the center for traditional music, which was founded by him two years earlier as part of Bar-Ilan University’s music department. In creating the group, Sabirov – an expert on the differences between Eastern and Western music – has sought to preserve the classical music popular among the communities mentioned by Medina, which has all but vanished in Israel since the establishment of the state. He managed to obtain funding, mainly from the Culture and Sports Ministry, to set up the orchestra. However, over the last three years it has nearly ceased to function due to a lack of financial resources, and its members only appear today in smaller ensembles.

Recalls Medina, who appeared with the orchestra when it was at its height, in the middle of the last decade: “I invited them to appear with me [in the middle of the last decade] in order to help them out, so that people would see and hear them. The performance was broadcast on television. You must understand that all the players are volunteers, acting out of love for [the music], but this is no way to operate an orchestra.”

The orchestra’s principal conductor since its founding has been Prof. Shlomo Takhalov, 77. Before immigrating to Israel in 1992, he conducted a similar orchestra featuring authentic traditional instruments, in Uzbekistan, and also taught at the Tashkent conservatory. Today Takhalov lives in a modest apartment in south Tel Aviv that looks like a museum of Eastern musical culture: Many instruments with unfamiliar names hang on the walls, and he is happy to demonstrate how they sound.

Takhalov is full of life and youthful energy, but his eyes moisten when the conversation turns to the bleak situation of the Mizrahi Orchestra – his “baby,” as he calls it, with a rueful smile.

I have sympathy for your efforts, but is it really so important to save the orchestra?

“When we started the orchestra, there was no repertoire of works from which to choose. Instead we had to produce new versions and reconstruct a culture that is nearly undocumented in Israel. The Mizrahi Orchestra is different from all others here.”

In its heyday, the ensemble numbered 36 musicians, including experts in 18 classical Eastern instruments, including some that are plucked (oud, dutar and tanbur ), as well as strings (kamancheh, jorza, jizak), winds (duduk, zurna), and percussion (duira, tonbak, darbuka, tabla and dhol).

In contrast to the Andalusian Orchestra, which Takhalov also conducted, the authentic Eastern instruments played in the Mizrahi Orchestra are unfamiliar to most Israelis. Seventy percent of the musicians have a master’s degree in music and a good number studied at Bar-Ilan, he continues, but despite that, most make their living from fields other than music. Many are relatively new immigrants from countries in the former Soviet Union and central Asia, who play alongside Israelis who emigrated years ago from Mediterranean and North African countries. Some of the players, Takhalov notes, are among the only experts in the country in these traditional classic instruments.

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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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