Month: July 2012

Jailed in Benghazi, Raphael Luzon returns to UK (updated)

Raphael Luzon sits in his childhood synagogue  on an earlier trip to Benghazi

Update: Raphael Luzon has issued the following message to his Facebook friends:




Raphael Luzon, a former Libyan Jew, returned to the UK safely on Sunday after security forces in Benghazi imprisoned and interrogated him for several days. “I don’t advise any Jew to go to Libya, he told the Jerusalem Post. (With thanks: Jeremy)

Luzon said his ordeal began in Benghazi on July 22 when “suddenly a friend sent me a text warning me to be careful that security forces are looking for me,” he recalled. “I immediately called the Italian consul who came to my hotel, but when I went to the lobby to meet him he was surrounded by 12 to 15 armed men.

They didn’t let the consul speak, they put me in the car and took me outside Benghazi.”

Luzon, who said he was in the country for business, was kept behind bars at a military camp outside the Mediterranean city without being told why.

“I felt my life was in danger for the first 24 hours because no one knew where I was or what had happened to me,” Luzon said. “In the morning high officials came. One of them, a general shouted at my captors saying they should have brought me food and water.”

The Libyan Jew said men he identified as belonging to the muchabarat, or the preventive security, interrogated him daily.

Meanwhile, news that a “Jewish leader was abducted” appeared in the Libyan press.

After four days in prison, Luzon was freed and kept under house arrest at a friend’s residence in Benghazi.

Still, he was not allowed to leave the country. A citizen of Britain and Italy, Luzon said both countries intervened on his behalf. He credited British MP Robert Halfon, whose father was a Libyan Jew, and Italian consul Guido Bessanti, for securing his release.

Asked why he had been arrested, Luzon said he was still not sure.

“I don’t know why, but privately I’ve been told that there is a big fight between the groups and everybody wanted to be the one that arrested and released me,” he said.

Luzon and other members of the former Jewish community of Libya, who were forced to leave the country in the 1960s and 1970s, have for years been lobbying for the return of considerable private and communal Jewish assets that were confiscated by the regime of slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi. After Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, there was hope the country might open up and address the grievances of its exiled Jews, but so far little progress has been made.

Last year David Gerbi, another Libyan-born Jew, received death threats after he tried to reconsecrate a synagogue in Tripoli, forcing him to flee the country.

Luzon, who makes a point of distancing himself from Gerbi, has been negotiating with Libyan officials over the rights of Jews to little avail.

Elio Raccah, a member of the Jewish Libyan community in exile based in Italy, the country’s former colonial ruler, said he had few expectations that he would be welcome back to Libya in the near future.

“What really counts is popular sentiment, I am convinced nothing has really changed over there as far as the Jews are concerned,” he wrote in an email to the Post. “[The Libyans believe Jews are] undesired greedy ogres to be ridden of in Palestine and, of course, in Libya.”

The question of Jewish rights remains mute in Libya, where a multitude of rival groups and clans are fighting for power in the power vacuum created by Gaddafi’s ousting. Last month, when elections were held for the first time, the National Forces Alliance, a non-Islamist, liberal party, emerged triumphant, bucking the Islamist trend in Arab Spring countries like Tunisia and Egypt. It remains to be seen, however, whether Western-educated Mahmoud Jibril who leads the party will be able to reestablish the rule of law in the oil-rich nation.

Despite his recent experience, Luzon said he had not given up fighting for the rights of Libyan Jews.

“It will take a long, long time if they will allow some Jewish assets to be returned,” he said, “but I think the country would allow Jews to return for holiday or business in a few years.”

“They were under a regime for decades and they do not distinguish between a Jew and a Jewish Zionist, religious or secular,” Luzon added.

Meanwhile, he added, “at the moment I do not advise any Jew to go to Libya.”

Read article in full

My harrowing Yom Kippur and escape from Libya, by David Gerbi

Tunis cemetery is in desperate need of restoration

The president of the association for the preservation of the Borgel cemetery in Tunis has launched a last-ditch appeal through the Tunisian-Jewish website Harissa to save the cemetery, North Africa’s largest: (With thanks: Michelle)

Gerard Borgel published four recently-taken photographs in Harissa. They show overturned and crumbling graves, vandalised marble headstones, and grass invading the cemetery.”Do not let our dead disappear for ever!” Borgel appeals to Harissa readers.

In June Point of No Return featured The Forward‘s video report on the deteriorating state of the Borgel Jewish cemetery, the largest in North Africa, which contains 30,000 Jewish graves. A small number were transferred from another Jewish cemetery in the centre of Tunis, including the tomb of the famous Rabbi Hai Taieb (Lo Met). This central cemetery was turned into a park shortly after Tunisia gained its independence in 1956, and the vast majority of tombs bulldozed into the ground.

Unless something is done urgently, fears lone campaigner Joseph Krief, the same fate awaits the Borgel. Once on the outskirts of Tunis, the cemetery is threatened by the encroaching city, and soaring land values make it ripe for redevelopment if it is declared ‘abandoned’. Krief has been leading a drive to raise funds to clean up and restore the cemetery, so far without success. If nothing is done soon, another slice of Tunisian-Jewish history will be lost for ever.

If you would like to help the cemetery restoration drive please contact Marc Fellous ([email protected])

Read post in full (French)

The curse of the Aleppo Codex

Some 200 pages went missing from the Aleppo Codex after its arrival in Israel from Syria (photo: Michal Chelbin)

Curses and superstitions, and a tale of mystery, murder and deception haunt the Aleppo Codex – the oldest, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible. If it had not been rescued from the Great synagogue in 1947, fire-damaged in anti-Jewish riots, it would certainly have been claimed as the national heritage of Syria. But its arrival in Israel made it the object of a tug-of war between the Ben Zvi institute in Israel and the Aleppo Jewish community. Some 200 pages went missing, and nobody knows, or is prepared to divulge, who has possession of them. Ronen Bergman has written this long feature for the New York Times, a condensation of a book by Matti Friedman. (With thanks: Michelle)

One day this spring, on the condition that I not reveal any details of its location nor the stringent security measures in place to protect its contents, I entered a hidden vault at the Israel Museum and gazed upon the Aleppo Codex — the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible. The story of how it arrived here, in Jerusalem, is a tale of ancient fears and modern prejudices, one that touches on one of the rawest nerves in Israeli society: the clash of cultures between Jews from Arab countries and the European Jews, or Ashkenazim, who controlled the country during its formative years. And the story of how some 200 pages of the codex went missing — and to this day remain the object of searches carried out around the globe by biblical scholars, private investigators, shadowy businessmen and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency — is one of the great mysteries in Jewish history.

As a small group of us stood in a circle inside the vault in which the codex now resides, Michael Maggen, the head of the museum’s paper-conservation lab, donned a pair of gloves and carefully lifted one of its unbound pages, covered with three columns of beautiful calligraphy, for us to see. The pages were made from animal hides that were stretched and bleached and cut to make parchment; the scribe’s ink was made of powdered tree galls mixed with iron sulfate and black soot. “Considering the difficult conditions that the manuscript suffered over a great many years,” James Snyder, the museum’s director, said, “it is in remarkably excellent condition.” Snyder was happy to talk about how fortunate the museum was to be able to display the codex alongside the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls and about the painstaking restoration that has taken place. But he refused to speculate on the sensitive question of where the missing pages, which constitute about 40 percent of the codex and whose value is estimated to be in the many millions of dollars, might be and how they might have disappeared.

To talk to the many individuals who are obsessed with finding the missing portions of the codex or solving the mystery of who stole them, or whose histories are somehow bound up with the story of the book, is to get a glimpse of the power it has held over people for more than a thousand years. In Aleppo, Syria, where the codex was safeguarded for six centuries, it was believed to possess magical properties. It was said that women who looked upon it would become pregnant, that those who held the keys to its safe were blessed, that anyone who stole or sold the codex was cursed and that a terrible plague would wipe out the Jewish community if it were removed from their synagogue. At the tops of some of the pages, the Aleppo elders inscribed a warning to would-be thieves: “Sacred to Yahweh, not to be sold or defiled.” And elsewhere: “Cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it.” Among some parties, those fears persist even today.

For a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the Jewish holy scriptures — the five parts of the Torah and 19 other holy books — were copied and passed down in the various Jewish communities from generation to generation. Some of these texts, according to Jewish faith, were handed down directly by God and included signs, messages and codes that pertained directly to the essence of existence. The multiplicity of manuscripts and the worry that any change or inaccurate transcription would lead to the loss of vital esoteric knowledge created the need for a single, authoritative text. And beyond its mystical significance, a unified text was also necessary to maintain Jewish unity after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. As Adolfo Roitman, the head of the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls and parts of the codex are displayed, said: “One can regard the thousand years between the scrolls and the codex, the millennium during which the standardization of the text was carried out, as a metaphor for the effort of the Jewish people to create national unity. One text, one people, even if it is scattered to the four ends of the earth.”

According to tradition, early in the sixth century, a group of sages led by the Ben-Asher family in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, undertook the task of creating a formal and final text. The use of codex technology — a method that made it possible to record information on both sides of a page, in book form, as a cheaper alternative to scrolls — had already evolved in Rome. Around A.D. 930, the sages in Tiberias assembled all 24 holy books and completed the writing of the codex, the first definitive Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. From Tiberias, the codex was taken to Jerusalem. But Crusaders laid waste to the city in 1099, slaughtering its inhabitants and taking the codex. The prosperous Jewish community of Fustat, near Cairo, paid a huge ransom for it. Later, in the 12th century, it served Maimonides, who referred to it as the most accurate holy text, as a reference for his major work, the Mishneh Torah. In the 14th century, the great-great-great-grandson of Maimonides migrated to Aleppo, bringing the codex with him. There it was kept, for the next 600 years, in a safe within a small crypt hewed in the rock beneath Aleppo’s great synagogue.

The story of what happened next — how the codex came to Israel and where the missing pages might have gone — is a murky and often contradictory one, told by many self-serving or unreliable narrators. In his book, “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” published in May by Algonquin Books, the Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman presents a compelling and thoroughly researched account of the story, some of which served as the catalyst for additional reporting here.

Read article in full

There could be as few as 8,700 Jews still in Iran

The Jewish community routinely touted as the largest Jewish community in the Middle East may have no more than 8,700 members, according to the latest official census (report in NRG Ma’ariv). Even allowing for undercounting, this is less than half the 20,000 figure usually quoted by the Islamic Republic. Most Iranian Jews are thought to have emigrated to the US. Outside Israel, the country in the region with the largest Jewish community would now be Turkey, with its 17,000 or so Jews. (With thanks: Meir)

“The Iranian authorities have published their results for the 2011 census, which shows that the country today has about 8,700 Jews, a number much lower than estimates of the size of the community in the Islamic Republic indicate.

The Department of Strategic Planning and Supervision at the presidential palace in Tehran presented on its website the full report on data gathered during the census conducted in the country last year.

יהודים באיראן.

Jews saying morning prayers in Iran

According to the census director 75.2 million people currently live in Iran, less than the figures given by the American Central Intelligence Agency. This placed the number of residents at about 78.86 million people as of July 2011. Only Egypt, with about 81 million inhabitants, has a larger population.

Of the total, 73.5 million residents are Iranian. The largest minority group is Afghan, with 1.5 million people, immediately followed by 51,500 Iraqis, Pakistanis (17,700) and Turks (16,000).

The census conducted six years ago put the number of Jews in Iran at 9,252 persons.

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Read English version (Google translate)

Joann Sfar: Drawing Algeria from memory

Drawing from Memory’, broadcast tonight on the US channel KQED, is a film about cartoonist Joann Sfar, whose famous film, The Rabbi’s Cat is based on his grandmother’s tales of her native Algeria. The San Franciso Jewish Weekly has this profile of filmaker Sam Ball, and his subject Joann Sfar.

If anyone still thinks comic books or graphic novels are strictly kids’ stuff, a few minutes with Parisian cartoonist Joann Sfar will erase that misconception.

San Francisco filmmaker Sam Ball’s evocative and marvelous documentary, “Joann Sfar Draws from Memory,” introduces us to the iconoclastic Jewish artist and filmmaker who topped France’s bestseller list with “The Rabbi’s Cat.”

Inspired by his grandmother’s tales of life in Algeria in the 1920s, Sfar set his talking-cat saga in a neighborhood where Jewish, Arab and French traditions coexisted and overlapped.

Ball says, “There’s a line in our film from Joann: ‘I wanted to show Jewish kids that their ancestors came from North Africa’ — which is true of about half of France’s Jews — ‘and I wanted to remind Muslim kids that there were Jews in North Africa, and they more or less got along for centuries.’ There’s no reason to have nostalgia because it wasn’t idyllic, but there is something that has been lost.”

“Joann Sfar Draws from Memory” airs on KQED (tonight) following its appearance in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Sfar’s screen adaptation of “The Rabbi’s Cat” won the César for best animated feature last year and is just beginning to reach the U.S.

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