Month: May 2012

New book: Operation Magic Carpet was ‘a failure’

Hundreds of Jews died through the incompetence and neglect of the Joint, charges Esther Meir-Glitzenstein

The conventional view of Operation Magic Carpet holds that from June 1949 to September 1950, nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews travelled through space and time from the backward nation of Yemen to be redeemed in the modern and advanced State of Israel. According to a new book by Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, the operation was a case of serious mismanagement by the Joint (JDC), who failed to treat the sick and hungry. Some 850 refugees died before they even got to Israel. Article in Haaretz. My comment is below (with thanks: Lily):

In “The Exodus of the Yemenite Jews − A Failed Operation and a Formative Myth,” published by Resling, Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein reveals the how this mythic larger-than-life rescue operation was actually organized and describes the heavy toll it exacted upon the people it intended to save.

The story of the Yemenite aliyah was intentionally spun as an enchanting fairy tale in order to mask that it actually didn’t go well at all, explains Meir-Glitzenstein, a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

No fewer than 700,000 Jews reached Israel during the state’s first years. What made the aliyah from Yemen unique among the early waves of immigration was the heavy death toll, she says.

“The Yemenite immigrants arrived hungry and sick at the transit camp set up for them in the Yemenite port city of Aden, after having walked hundreds of kilometers,” she says. But the camp didn’t have the facilities to care for them.

About 700 of the Jewish migrants died at the camp were buried in an adjacent cemetery. An additional 150 travelers, suffering from a lack of basic necessities on the journey, died between the border of the British-controlled Protectorate of Aden and North Yemen.

Then when the immigrants reached Israel, the fatalities continued. Post-immigration infant mortality rates ran high. While the myth-spinners of Operation Magic Carpet chalked up these tragedies to the difficult situation in Yemen, the book reveals that the deaths were actually a result of disastrous management. Refugees died, Meir-Glitzenstein says, because of incompetent planning, apathy and abandonment.

Who was responsible for this tragedy?

“The exodus of Jews from Yemen was planned with the cooperation of imam of Yemen who ruled North Yemen, the British authorities in Aden, the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Every party played a role in the tragedy,” Meir-Glitzenstein says. “The imam, who profited hugely from property and confiscatory taxes levied on the Jewish community, didn’t lift a finger to help his subjects, who were desperate for aid. The British didn’t help either.”

But the lion’s share of the blame lies with the Joint Distribution Committee, Meir-Glitzenstein says.

From the moment the rescue effort began, she contends, the JDC took control – and subsequently failed at every single point.

A scheduled airlift did not arrive on time. There wasn’t enough shelter, food or medicine for the displaced Jews. Perhaps most egregiously, Meir-Glitzenstein says, the JDC abandoned thousands of Jews in the barren desert that straddles the North Yemen-Aden border.

As for assistance that did arrive, it was too little, too late.

But the JDC is not the only culpable party. “The Israeli government agreed to let the JDC handle the operation,” Meir-Glitzenstein says. “That means that they, too, shared some of the blame for this tragedy.”

How did this fiasco became a basic myth, one tied to the religious notions of salvation and national redemption?

That would be because of classic propaganda, says Meir-Glitzenstein.

“At the height of the aliyah from Yemen, the leadership of the JDC sent a press release to the media, describing Operation Magic Carpet as a successful rescue operation that brought the Jews of Yemen back to their ancestral homeland,” she says. And the heavy price paid by the immigrants? Conveniently left out. Also not mentioned were mistakes in implementation and unfulfilled promises.

“The organizers of the mission were depicted as saviors,” Meir-Glitzenstein says. “The mass exodus of Yemenite Jews was explained in terms of a messianic awakening among a religious community that spent 2,000 years longing for redemption. The religio-messianic myth was later ascribed to subsequent waves of immigration from Muslim countries.”

Is there a conspiracy of silence surrounding this issue?

Of sorts, yes, Meir-Glitzenstein says. According to her research, three separate Knesset committees reviewed the operation. They discovered that some of the Israelis stationed in Aden, including senior JDC staffers, engaged in black-market smuggling. They knew the immigrants suffering but didn’t care. Some staffers went so far as to beat the pilgrims with clubs and steal what little property they had managed to take with them.

In response to the Knesset inquiries, the JDC replaced their representatives in Aden. “But not a single JDC staffer was ever indicted,” Meir-Glitzenstein says.

And it’s not as if the abuses were a secret. “Many people outside the JDC were aware of what was going on, among them Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and other senior government ministers,” she says. “Everyone kept silent. Maybe they wanted to protect the State of Israel, since it was so new, and maybe they were concerned about the reputation of the JDC, which played a big part in bringing Jews to Israel and helping them settle.”

How did the aliyah narrative of Yemenite Jewry affect their absorption into Israeli society?

Approximately 30,000 sick and battered immigrants arrived from Yemen, but Israelis, Meir-Glitzenstein says, was under the impression that conditions in Yemen were to blame.

Among the sick were 3,000 infants in grave condition. Israel was not equipped to provide treatment.

And after all that, since Israeli society was under the impression that it had saved these immigrants and brought them to a better place, Israelis expected gratitude.

“Even today in Israel, no one understands the price these immigrants paid,” Meir-Glitzenstein says. “There is not a single monument in Israel dedicated to those who died on the journey from Yemen. They have been erased both from historical memory and public consciousness.”

Read article in full

My comment: it is no secret that the Jews in Yemen were in a sorry state of health and malnourishment when they arrived, many of them on foot, in the Yemen transit camps before being airlifted to Israel – as were an earlier wave of immigrants. And a number who survived the journey did not survive long in the Israeli transit camps. If one assumes that the death toll was around one in fifty, it was proportionately less than the 4,000 Ethiopian Jewswho never made it to Israel on Operation Moses decades later, dying of starvation and disease in the Sudan and in transit camps. Can all the Yemenite deaths be blamed on the Joint’s incompetence? Even if the JDC staffers did engage in black-market smuggling, it seems a bit harsh of Mrs Meir-Glitzenstein to put all blame on the JDC for failing to cure disease and prevent all loss of life.

Last Jew assisted by Joint in Algeria died in 2011

A synagogue in Algeria. The last remaining synagogue in Algiers was desecrated in 1988.

There are almost no Jews left in Algeria: the last Jewess assisted by the Joint Distribution Committee, Mrs Esther Azoulay, passed away in July 2011, bringing to a close the JDC’s programme in that troubled country, its CEO Steve Schwager writes. Before 1962, Algeria had 160,000 Jews. There may still be a handful left surviving without assistance (with thanks: Andrew):

According to some scholars, Jewish life in Algeria probably dates back nearly 2,600 years, to the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. So Penny and I feel that it is of special importance to note that this past July, the last Jew in Algeria assisted by JDC, Mrs. Esther Azoulay, passed away.

Her passing brings JDC’s direct program involvement in that troubled country to a close after a period of 60 years. And how did that work begin?

JDC’s connection started with its support for the Refugee Welfare Committee, which was established in Algeria in 1943 in order to bring assistance to European Jews who found asylum there during WWII. Later, when the State of Israel came into being, JDC also supported the aliyah of Jews from Algeria. However, in 1953, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Algeria felt that JDC should expand its programs for the Jews of Algeria in both the social and cultural arenas, and a JDC office was finally opened in Algiers in 1957.

JDC provided assistance in many areas: home visits to the needy, support for the development of educational institutions, medical care, cash assistance, and food packages, including matzot for Pesach. By 1959, 4,000 Jews were benefiting from JDC’s aid. In addition, JDC helped strengthen Jewish life in Algeria by supporting the construction of a rabbinical school and Jewish summer camps.

Even prior to 1962, when Algeria achieved its independence, Jews in Algeria had been facing hostility from certain segments of both the local French and Arab population. And once the French departed, Algerian rule was marked by militant Arab nationalism, growing Islamization, and virulent anti-Zionism. By the end of 1963, the 120,000-member community had dwindled to some 3,000-4,000 Jews.

In 1964, Mr. Choucroun, President of the Jewish community of Saïda, sent the following letter to Dr. Franco Levi, the JDC representative in Algeria:

At the time when I am preparing to leave Algeria, I would like to say once again how much I am grateful to the organization you represent and for your good deeds. You saved people in distress … thanks to your actions, children and elderly smiled at life. There do not remain any more poor people in Saïda.

The story of the final desecration/destruction of the last remaining synagogue in Algiers in 1988 makes stomach-churning reading even today. The damage done was so extensive that the synagogue, now in ruins, had to be permanently closed. By the end of the eighties, only 94 Jews remained in the country.

In the mid-1990’s the assassination of two Jews in Algiers marked the end of an era.

JDC remained a pillar of strength, providing assistance to those who needed help even as the community continued to shrink.

Since 1985, Line Meller, then living in Algiers, served as JDC’s liaison with the remaining Jews of Algeria.On our behalf she helped to assure the welfare of a small number of aged and impoverished Jews, who continued to receive cash assistance from JDC until they passed away.

Although JDC could not redeem these unfortunate Jews from their suffering since they did not want to emigrate, the work that JDC did kept them alive. JDC enabled Line Meller to light a candle in a black hole of darkness.

In 2010, Mr. Messaoud Chetrit, 82-years-old and the last Jewish man still living in Oran, passed away. A delegation of Jews came from France to ensure that he was buried according to the traditional Jewish ritual in the very cemetery of Oran where he had been the final caretaker.

And that brings us to the last Jew in Algeria assisted by JDC, Mrs. Azoulay, who had a very difficult life. In 1992, her case came to the attention of JDC, which from that point on provided her with regular cash assistance. Over a period of two decades, this JDC aid enabled Mrs. Azoulay to pay for all the medical care she needed for her multiple ailments. But perhaps what she treasured most about this JDC connection was the reassurance it gave her that she had not been forgotten by her people.
Read article in full

Jews were not colonisers in Algeria

The campus at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)

With thanks: Silke; Eliyahu

A PhD history laureate named Sung Choi gave a lecture earlier this monthat UCLA on the Jews of Algeria in the run-up to Algerian independence.

One wonders why she came to this subject in the first place: I suspect it was to prove that Jews were collaborators with the settler-coloniser French, who conquered Algeria in 1830. Her original intention had been to demonstrate Jewish participation in the right-wing pied noir pro-French OAS movement, until her research showed the Jews were also courted by the pro-independence FLN.

The Jews do not fit the fashionable paradigm of colonisers versus colonised. Miss Choi seems to have discovered quite recently – from her friend Susan – that Jews had been in Algeria since Roman times (in fact, as early as 600 BCE). What she hasn’t grasped is that the Jews were indigenous, preceding the Arab Muslims in Algeria by several hundred years. As a ‘Europeanist’, Miss Choi betrays her ignorance of Jewish history when she says ‘quite a lot of Berbers and Arabs were converts to Judaism’. Berbers may well have converted to Judaism at first, but the overwhelming majority of Jewish and Christian Berbers would have in turn been converted to Islam; and no Arabs converted to Judaism – on the contrary, thousands of Jews were lost to Islam.

She describes how these Jews clung to the French citizenship granted to them by the 1870 Cremieux Decree. She correctly identifies the trauma of being stripped of their French citizenship by the Vichy regime during WW2.

But missing from her analysis is the main reason why the Jews of Algeria held on to their French citizenship: it was not just a matter of acculturation – ceasing to speak or dress like Arabs. Citizenship allowed them to escape centuries of dhimmitude, in which Jews were humiliated as inferiors by the local Muslims.

The word ‘dhimmi’ does not so much as escape Miss Choi’s lips. She doesn’t seem to grasp that the Jews are the ‘colonised’ of the ‘colonised’ Muslims.

Moreover, it is not true to suggest that French citizenship was only offered to Jews. As late as 1865, it was also offered to the Muslims of Algeria. The latter refused it because it would mean submitting to French civil law.

Miss Choi does not effectively convey the soul-searching that went on in the Jewish community before 1870 : the rabbis lobbied against French citizenship, fearing inevitable assimilation and weakening of religious and cultural ties (this actually came to pass). At first only 5 percent of the Jews welcomed citizenship. The Decret Cremieux was eventually imposed on the community, mainly for domestic electoral reasons.

Of course, acquiring French citizenship exposed the Jews to antisemitic hostility from the pieds noirs on the one hand, and resentment from the Algerian Muslims on the other, who suddenly had fewer rights and lower status. The antisemitism culminated in the wartime statut de Vichy. French citizenship was only restored in 1943, a year after the Allies had liberated North Africa, because the Allies had wished to appease the Vichy officers who still ran the Algerian army.

Sung Choi does not give her audience much of an inkling of the dilemmas facing Algerian Jews with the outbreak of the Algerian war in the 1950s. The community tried to maintain neutrality between the OAS and the FLN, but what Miss Choi euphemistically calls ‘hostilities’ forced the Jews to throw in their lot with the pieds noirs. With their French citizenship restored, it was obvious that efforts to coax the Algerian Jews to Israel would fail. But some 14,000 Algerian Jews, out of 160,000 did flee to Israel.

The trouble with academics nowadays is that they try to fit their conclusions into preconceived notions: one of the most pernicious is that Jews were accomplices of European colonialism. In order to convince, they have to leave out half the story: the historic oppression of the Jewish natives by Arab Muslims.

Sung Choi’s lecture

The bitter-sweet aftertaste of liquorice in Iran

The liquorice plant grows wild in Iran

I never really gave liquorice much thought until I met Victoria. This lady in her 80s had lived in Iran until 1979. Her late husband’s business was to harvest the roots of the vast numbers of liquorice plants which grow naturally near the Iranian town of Kermanshah, and to sell the liquorice to be processed into food, for tobacco or for its medicinal properties.

As Israel was a major client of his – Iran then had excellent relations with the Jewish state – Victoria’s husband lost no time in bundling his family out of the country as soon as the Shah was deposed and the Islamic Republic of Iran declared. The family abandoned their house, their business, everything.

A few years later, in London, Victoria and her husband went to the Iranian embassy to register their lost assets. They drew up a will in order to bequeath their property to their children. The embassy officials were mystified as to why they had left in the first place. Their house was now a police station, but the thought of turning up on the doorstep and ordering the policemen out was rather improbable. The chances of their children ever reclaiming the family property were just as remote.

Victoria knew of no refugee from the Islamic regime – Jewish or non-Jewish – who had managed to get compensation or restitution.

She knew of families split between Israel and Iran – the children who stayed behind to run the family business while the parents went to Israel. Letters addressed to ‘Occupied Palestine’ reached their destination, although it is not known if they were censored along the way. Jews in Iran could not make direct calls to Israel from their homes, but had to go to call centres, where presumably their conversations would be monitored.

Victoria, whose family came originally from Iraq, had nothing but pleasant memories of her life under the Shah. But indigenous Iranian Jews had longer memories of persecution, and were more wary in their relationships with Muslims.

Iraq’s Jewish treasures could be lost for ever

Iraq wants the Jewish archive returned: it is being restored in Washington after being found soaking in the Secret Police basement in Baghdad

With thanks: Qumran Qumran; Janet

Shavuot (Pentecost) was traditionally the festival when the Jews of Iraq performed ‘ziyara’ – the pilgrimage to the tomb of Ezekiel at al-Kifl. Writing in the Hebrew medium G-PlanetGuy Bechor has performed his own ‘ziyara’, revisiting the parlous state of Iraq’s Jewish heritage. He is not hopeful: Iraq’s Jewish treasures could be lost for ever. Here is a rough summary in English of Bechor’s important piece.

Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Baghdad built himself a private museum of Jewish books and artefacts. The lost Jewish community continued to haunt him like a ghost.

The first news of the Jewish archive came from the head of the Israel-Palestine department of the secret police. After the US invasion of 2003, he told US officials – among them Harold Rhode – a scholar fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic – that he knew where a very rare Talmud from the 7th c. was kept. The screams of the tortured could be heard all around from the adjoining room in the Mukhabarat dungeons. The Americans dropped a half-ton bomb on the building. It did not explode, but water and sewage filled the basement, soaking a vast collection of Jewish holy books published in Leghorn, Jerusalem, Smyrna, Vilna, Warsaw, Baghdad, Torah scrolls and parchment, the oldest from 1568 – books used by the great rabbis of Babylon.

The most interesting archives, however, were from the 20th century, up to to 1953, and include a list of Jewish-owned properties, academic registers, school reports to the Ministry of Education, the chronicles of an ethnically-cleansed community which had shaped Judaism itself. The collection was looted from synagogues in 1950 and especially the attic of the Meir Shemtob synagogue in central Baghdad.

Jewish organisations had hope that the discovery of the Jewish archives would had led to the restoration of cemeteries and heritage, but everything is dissolving in Iraq today. The window for foreigners to visit has closed, and the shrines of Ezekiel at al-Kifl and Ezra the Scribe near Basra have been turned into mosques. Nobody cares.

As most Jewish archives would have been buried, Guy Bechor felt there was an opportunity to discover the very roots of Judaism, but when he broached the subject with (Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, Sharon was not interested. The Israeli government was always fire-fighting and lost Jewish treasures in the Arab world were the very lowest of its priorities.

The US government are in no hurry to return the Jewish archive found in the Mukhabarat basement, now in Washington for restoration, but the Iraqi Government, which fought the US on the backs of the Jews and their heritage, suddenly has this burning desire to see the Jewish archive returned – it’s their heritage, they claim.

What an impertinence when the collection was looted from its rightful owners. Guy Bechor suggests that the collection should go to the heirs of the Iraqi-Jewish community in Israel, or at least be accessible to them.

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Google English translation

Tug-of-war over the Jewish archives


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