Month: August 2012

The struggle for the Torah scrolls of Iraq

Who owns the 365 Torah scrolls in the basement of the Iraq National Museum? |Is it the state of Iraq or the exiled Jewish community? The Jews have found an unlikely champion of Jewish rights – Canon Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’. Ari Werth interviewed him for (with thanks: Sabby):

Where can you find the largest collection of Torah scrolls? At the Western Wall in Jerusalem? No. At the Center for Jewish History in New York? Not there. The answer is the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. But don’t look for the exhibit. An exclusive investigation reveals 365 scrolls are deteriorating in a secret sub-terrain location.

After several years of silence, an unlikely hero is going public with his first-hand knowledge about the hidden scrolls. It may be the last chance to save them.

He’s called the Vicar of Baghdad.

Andrew White is an Anglican priest risking his life helping Christians in Iraq. Even more dangerous, however, is what he volunteers to do – protecting the last few Iraqi Jews.

“I help Jews because the very heart of my own education, of my faith, is a love for Judaism,” says Canon White. “I don’t see how I can be a Christian without knowing my Jewish roots, and without loving them.”

Canon White juggles life in two very different worlds. In his hometown of London, he’s focused on his family; in Baghdad, he’s occupied with his congregation. In the UK, he dons a bright bow tie. In Iraq, he wears a sand-colored bulletproof vest. In London, he’s followed by two sons. In Baghdad, he’s flanked by bodyguards.

In both worlds, Canon White is a promoter of Judaism.

After Saddam’s regime collapsed, he swung into action. “I organized the first-ever Passover Seder in Saddam’s palace,” he recalled. “We had 89 Jews from the U.S. military and embassy. Glatt kosher food was flown in from America. The only thing missing was a Jewish child to ask the Four Questions, but they all sang ‘Dayenu’ anyway.”

Another thing happened as a result of Saddam’s demise. Iraqi mobs looted his crown jewel of culture, the national museum. The majestic Iraq Museum is still on Nasir Street but it’s under new management – the elected Iraqi government. A museum director, Dr. Donny George, was appointed to restore the museum in 2005.

Damaged Torah scroll in Baghdad

Soon after, Canon White was invited for a private tour.

Dr. George and Canon White strolled through the grand halls. Eventually the priest was led down to the basement level. Dr. George opened the heavy doors of a vault.

Canon White couldn’t believe what he was looking it – rows and rows of Torah scrolls.

“There are 365 of them,” declared Dr. George.

Canon White’s surprise turned into horror. “The Torah scrolls were all at risk. Rats were eating some of the parchment. They were not properly preserved or displayed, just stacked up on the dirty floors,” he says.

He asked Dr. George to get the scrolls off the ground to deter the rats. Whether this was done is not known. “The museum had no regard for the importance of the Torah scrolls,” he says.

Canon White wanted to rescue them, but he decided to try to obtain just one. He had a destination in mind.

“Can I bring a Torah to Ezekiel’s grave?” he asked the museum director. “The synagogue there needs one.”

“No, we can’t let you take any because we need to translate each one,” replied Dr. George.

Canon White held back from laughing at Dr. George. “He didn’t even realize that each scroll was the same!”

Canon White is not only concerned about the physical safety of the scrolls; he is also dedicated to what’s written on them.

“The thing that I really respect about how Jews live is that God is in everything. If you’re really Orthodox, God is not removed from anything. From the bathroom to the bracha [blessing] you make afterwards, you bless Him and you thank Him. Every time you say ‘Baruch ata Hashem,’ you are showing that you believe that He is the King of the Universe!”

He pauses. “Do I sound frum?”

Yes, he does. Canon White learned the lingo as the first non-Jewish student at the Karlin yeshiva in Jerusalem. A rabbi there permitted him to get a taste of Jewish learning.

He has grown from a student of Judaism into a teacher of it. He offers a weekly course about Judaism to Christians in Baghdad.

“The Iraqi Christians who come to my class are shocked,” says Canon White.

“They say that nobody has ever told them about Judaism before. It’s hard for them to accept that they’ve been told lies.

None of the young Iraqis have heard about the Holocaust. They don’t know how Christians have persecuted Jews.”

Ignorance, as Canon White calls it, prompted him to write a book about the Jewish roots of Christianity. He shared the newly finished manuscript . It describes several fundamental concepts and practices of Torah observance.

“There is nothing more inspiring than ‘Shema Yisrael,’” he writes in the upcoming book. “I say it every morning and every night. I taught my little boys to say ‘Shema’ before they go to sleep.” He’s planning on translating the book into Arabic. “The Muslims need to know that our faiths come out of Judaism and that therefore the Jews are our brothers, not our enemies. We need to learn from and love our older brother.”

Canon White’s story about the scroll sounds credible but required investigation. A search for the former museum director, Donny George, was a dead end. “He died last year of a heart attack,” says Canon White.

A second source was discovered. A former US embassy employee, who does not want to be named, recalled a conversation with Dr. George that occurred around the same time as Canon White’s museum visit. Dr. George told the embassy representative that approximately 300 scrolls were in the museum basement.

The US State Department offers its own partial confirmation. “We are aware that the government of Iraq holds a number of Torah scrolls in the Iraqi National Museum,” says a spokesperson. He would not disclose how the fact came to be known.

Additional support comes from the Associated Press photo archive. A photo taken on April 12, 2003 shows Iraqis examining at least two dozen Torah scrolls in the museum. The caption states that the scrolls were “stored in the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad Saturday after looters opened the museum vault.”

What happened to these scrolls? When even one Torah scroll leaves Iraq it makes news but no news stories were found about a large transfer of scrolls from the museum. The photo proves a large cache of scrolls did in fact exist. It is possible that they were returned to the basement vault where they are still sitting today.

The Iraq Museum did not reply to emailed questions about the existence of the scrolls. However, the Iraq Embassy in Washington acknowledged scrolls are somewhere in the Iraq Museum. “I can’t confirm the number, whether it’s large or small,” a spokesperson says.

However, the museum’s website does not disclose this fact. All of the museum’s collections appear to be catalogued on its website. Not one Torah scroll is listed.

At issue are thorny legal and moral questions of rightful ownership.

Jewish bookos rescued as part of the Iraqi Jewish Archive

Iraq’s policy is not to relinquish Jewish artifacts, according to public statements by high-ranking Iraqi officials. “Jews lived in Iraq. They are part of Iraq’s cultural heritage,” says the spokesperson for the Iraq embassy in Washington, DC.

Iraq’s rationale is undermined by the absence of Jewish artifacts on display in their museums. Even the museum’s written historical narratives omit Jewish references.

The Iraqi Jewish community has a legitimate case for reclamation, say some experts. The scrolls were most likely confiscated during the purge of Iraqi Jews. A possible legal problem is that the Jewish community in Iraq – the original owner – no longer exists.

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Vicar of Baghdad: Ezekiel’s shrine is safe

Jewish life in Egypt ends after 2,000 years

The Eliyahu Hanavi (Nebi Daniel) synagogue

Point of No Return exclusive

Update: the leader of the ‘Jewish community’ and the Egyptian authorities have denied this story. They claim that Jews are free to conduct services in the synagogue. But a service without a minyan (quorum) is no better than praying at home: the ‘community’ is prohibited from importing a minyan from abroad.

For the first time in 2,000 years, this year there will be no Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria.

The synagogue was the last ‘working’ synagogue in Egypt. A synagogue has stood on this site since Hellenistic times, although the current building dates back to the 19th century.

The Egyptian authorities have banned High Holiday services for ‘security’ reasons. The decision, announced on Monday, comes as a blow to Rabbi Avraham-Nino Dayan, an Israeli of Egyptian origin, who every year takes on the task of assembling a minyan (quorum) of volunteers from Israel and abroad. There are only two Jewish men and some 20 Jewish widows living in Alexandria.

Levana Zamir, who heads the International Association of Egyptian Jews in Israel, comments: “It seems this is really the end of Jewish life in Egypt. The authorities have found a way to take over the last Jewish bastion, since all the remaining synagogues are already archaeological and tourist sites. It is very sad.”

The Passover Seder in Alexandria last year was also cancelled for security reasons, although a Seder took place in Cairo. High Holiday services are usually held for expatriate Israeli embassy staff at the Maadi synagogue in Cairo. Since the fall of Mubarak, Israelis have been flying home to spend the holidays with their families.

Model of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Israel

Crossposted at Elder of Ziyon

My Egyptian-Jewish childhood, by Eric Rouleau

Eric Rouleau with Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1963

Now 86, Eric Rouleau is one of those extraordinary figures that seems to transcend the Jewish-Arab divide. An exceptionally well-respected and well-connected journalist for Le Monde and then French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey, he is one of the few Jews to have been friendly with Nasser, whom he refused to brand as antisemitic. His memoir, summarised in this essay for the American University of Cairo, is fascinating because it is not often one hears of Rouleau’s Cairo upbringing and expulsion from Egypt. And it is surprising that a man who joined the Communist party after WW2 once toyed with the idea of becoming a rabbi and briefly flirted with Zionism, albeit of the Hashomer Hatzair Marxist variety.

Raised in France from early childhood and educated in the republic’s public schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle, my father naturally supported the country’s concept of “laïcité,” (secularism), the complete integration of Jewish citizens into their homeland, and was therefore opposed to all forms of Jewish nationalism. Although he was an atheist, or perhaps a deist—I never knew precisely—he nonetheless remained committed to the traditions of Judaism. He celebrated all the major holidays—Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—despite allowing generous portions of liturgical prayers to be skipped. He didn’t object, except to taunt me playfully, when during my teenage identity crisis I decided to take evening courses at a synagogue to study the sacred texts like the Talmud as the precursor to a rabbinical career. Then I lost my faith.

Nor did he object to my decision to join Hashomer Hatzair (literally, “The Young Guard”), the Zionist youth movement with Marxist influences. I suspect that like me, my father was ignorant of nearly everything about Zionism and Marxism, two ideologies completely absent from his intellectual universe. I left the movement a year later, disappointed by its attempt to reconcile Jewish nationalism with international Marxism.

Every five years, my father would save up enough money for us to take vacations in Lebanon where to our delight, the abundance of water, the exuberance of its flora, and the bounty of its orchards contrasted with arid and dry Egypt. From Cairo, a ramshackle train from a bygone era, with deafening clatter of iron, would slowly bring us across the Sinai. A bus then drove us to Tel Aviv where we visited my brother who’d emigrated to Palestine before World War II, less by idealism than a taste for adventure. Nothing else drew me to the Holy Land, where we spent only two or three days before taking three months of vacation in Lebanon.

We were well integrated into Egyptian society where Jews held a privileged position. In the center of Cairo, the business districts would fall into a deep lethargy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the department stores, boutiques, banks, companies as well as the Stock Exchange stayed closed. Cafes, restaurants and cinemas operated at a slower pace. All one needed to do was walk down the main streets of the capital to see the glittering names of the upscale department stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Gattegno, Orosdi Back, Adès, Oreco, Le Salon Vert, La Petite Reine—all belonging to rich Sephardic families. There was only one other department store comparable to them, Sednaoui, which was owned by Christians of the same name who’d emigrated from Syria.

Leading the Jewish community was Haim Nahum Effendi, Egypt’s chief rabbi, from 1925 to 1960. He was a senator and member of the royal academy, a position that was worth his exceptional erudition. An accomplished polyglot, he spoke as well in literary Arabic as he did in Hebrew, Turkish, French and English. Thanks to diplomatic missions he undertook for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, at a time when he occupied the functions of chief rabbi for the entire empire, he maintained close relations with European political circles—an advantage he used while serving the Egyptian authorities and the Jewish community. A product of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris where he spent his early years, he shared with most Egyptian Jews “integrationist” or assimilationist convictions, and with them, their reticence over emigration (Aliyah) to Palestine. For a long time, Egyptian Jews confused Zionism with philanthropy, believing that their small donations helped Jews fleeing European persecution, much to the chagrin of Zionist movement leaders.

Furthermore, the notable figures of the community, led by the chief rabbi, began to slowly become aware that the Palestine conflict could have serious consequences for Jews in a country where the majority of the population could only be hostile to the Zionist project. Thus their constant need to proclaim themselves loud and clear as “both Jews and patriotic Egyptians.” It was a declaration of faith that earned them the support and protection of the palace and the government and even the goodwill of the Muslim elite, before the escalation of the Judeo-Palestinian conflict.

Egyptians naturally felt a unique sympathy toward Palestinians, their neighbors who had been stripped of a part of their territory by a minority of foreign colonialists.

Interviewing Hassan El-Banna: Before his assassination on February 12, 1949, I had the opportunity to interview Hassan El-Banna for the Egyptian Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper where I worked as a journalist. The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had led the campaign against the creation of a Jewish state and provoked in me a feeling of indescribable anxiety. Stocky and wearing a loose red tunic for the occasion rather than a suit, his face framed by a messy black necklace of a beard, he received his guest with a clerical smoothness, staring at him with a piercing gaze. He was clearly trying to seduce his interlocutor using a playful sort of cunning as well as flowery language and well-structured analyses supported with a host of quotes and apparently inexhaustible anecdotes. He seemed indifferent to the fact that I was Jewish. A brilliant and passionate orator, his demagoguery, with its prophetic overtones, made large crowds go wild with enthusiasm. He believed that only Islam could cure the ills that the people suffered from. His main targets were, aside from Zionism, British colonialism, the “moral turpitude” of Westerners, “infidels” who held all the economic power along with the wealthy, who he denounced for their selfishness and greed. He unforgivingly condemned socialism and communism as foreign doctrines that were incompatible with the message of the Prophet. He attracted admirers and supporters thanks to the many networks he controlled around the country and the social, athletic and charitable associations, as well as the free clinics and schools that he had built—thus overcoming the failures of the state while at the same time using them as a cover for plots and terrorist operations. Two years after our interview, government agents killed El-Banna as revenge for the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nokrashy Pasha by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the years that followed the second World War, the national movement’s priority wasn’t the fight against Zionism, but rather resistance to British occupation, against which activists from the leftist Wafd party, along with Communists, organized public meetings, sit-ins and protests.

I participated in one of them in February 1946, the largest ever organized by the National Committee of Workers and Students. It led to a bloodbath. Faced with a sea of tightly packed and boisterous protesters rushing onto the Ismailia Square (which became Tahrir Square after the Nasserist Revolution) where the British military barracks were, security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing some twenty people and wounded hundreds more. A bullet ended the life of a young student marching beside me. The scene of this massacre would burn itself into my memory. The prime minister, Ismail Sedki Pasha, who also happened to be a major figure in the business world, had dozens of Wafdist and communist figures arrested and banned from the clubs and publications they led. However, the event gave powerful momentum to the national movement, which, six years later, brought about the fall of the monarchy— a prelude to the evacuation of the British bases in the Suez Canal Zone.

The political climate further deteriorated beginning in November 1947 when the United Nations General Assembly decreed the partition of Palestine into two states—one Jewish, the other Palestinian Arab. The decision would cause a surge in anger and mark the beginning of a Judeophobic campaign. The press, which until then had exercised restraint, began attacking Jews, accusing them of being both “Zionists” and “communists.” The creation of the State of Israel signaled the divorce between Jews and their compatriots around the Arab world. Zionist officials saw it as confirmation of their argument that non-Muslim minorities had no future in Islamic countries.

Emigration to Israel surged once again. And yet my family like many others decided not to leave the country, still holding out hope for a return to normal. The government of King Farouk exploited the situation to discredit the Marxists, calling them “Zionists in disguise.” Beyond the Jewish background of many communist leaders, their decision to support the partition of Palestine made them highly suspect; they had thus implicitly endorsed the objective of the Zionist movement, whereas for years they had considered it “reactionary” and “racist.” In fact, Egyptian communists, like most of their comrades around the Arab world, supported the decision of the Soviet Union to vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of partition and thus the creation of a Jewish state. This blind conformity would cost them for years, despite remaining deeply hostile to Zionist ideology. The Jewish Anti-Zionist League, for example, was dissolved by Egyptian Authorities, its leaders arrested and its publications seized. An offshoot of a communist organization, the league also had defended the creation of a Jewish state.

The reaction by authorities was even more brutal during the invasion of Israel by the Arab armies. On May 15, 1948, hundreds of supposed “communists,” and “Zionists” were held in two separate internment camps near Cairo. Many among the communist leadership, both foreigners and Egyptian citizens, were expelled from the country. They had more luck than their Iraqi counterparts, though, where three were hanged in Baghdad on the pretense that they supported the partition of Palestine.

Eventually, I too was arrested, and subject to intense questioning about my political positions before being released on bail a month later while the pre-trial investigation continued. Given that martial law was in place, my imprisonment could have lasted indefinitely. Under threat of a double conviction for Zionism and communism, unemployed and without financial resources, I decided to leave Egypt. The police did not prevent my departure, but would only issue me an “exit without return” visa. Unwanted by my native land, deprived of my family, my friends and acquaintances, I left with two feelings: the sadness of emigrating and the joy at moving to France, the country so loved by my father.

There a second life awaited me, one full of so many surprises. Several months later, on July 23, 1952, the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power and one year after that, founded the republic.

Threatened with prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” and expelled from Egypt, my exile lasted twelve years, and was the source of the surreal aspect of the welcome reserved for me upon my arrival at the Cairo airport. Accompanied by my wife Rosy, a news photographer, we were received by a senior official from the Information Ministry with unusual consideration, driven in an official limousine to a grand Cairo hotel where a suite had been reserved for us. A large flower arrangement was there, with a card indicating that “the president of the republic” welcomed us. All these honors were certainly enough to surprise this former persona non grata.

The genesis of these events took place in Paris several months earlier, in the spring of 1963. I was the editor of the Middle East section for Le Monde newspaper, a position that had been bestowed on me in the face of all logic, since at the time all Arab states refused to issue entry visas to Jews. The newspaper’s management trusted me no doubt due to my previous reporting in sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when it was not easy to work there since the decolonization movement was in full swing. Certainly my knowledge of Arabic and English could also have explained their odd choice, but that wasn’t enough to open the doors to me in most of the countries of the region. My investigations in Israel, Iran and Turkey may have suggested an ability to knock down walls of the “Arab fortress,” but I had no illusions, given the serious hostility that Israel provoked in the region. I even thought of resigning from the position to devote myself to another region where my background would be of no consequence.

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This essay is adapted from Le Moyen-Orient au-delà Des Mythes, which will be published by Fayard in 2012. The essay was translated from the French by Grant Rosenberg.

Israel launches ‘I’m a Jewish refugee’ on Facebook

“I’m a refugee” – this is the title of a unique viral campaignlaunched by the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday calling on Israelis born in Arab countries to upload video testimonials telling the story of their deportation from those countries, Yedioth Ahronoth has reported.

Initiated by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (pictured), himself a son of an Algeria-born refugee, the campaign aims to promote recognition and compensation for the refugees and their families and raise the issue on the international agenda.

“Some 856,000 Arab Jews (sic) were expelled or left their homes penniless and arrived in Israel as refugees,” Ayalon said.

“Unfortunately, the story of their expulsion has never won recognition by the international community or any of the Israeli governments.”

“I call on every Jewish refugee from an Arab state to tell his or her story and help right the wrong,” Ayalon said.

The Foreign Ministry is calling on Arab Jews (sic) and their families to post video testimonials on a Facebook page which will be launched in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

Read article in full

Al-Arabiya article

Israeli government ramps up Jewish refugee drive

A memorial day, a museum, a Yad Vashem-style archive and a media event at the UN are among the initiatives being planned by the Israeli government. In the run-up to a conference in Jerusalem on 10 September, deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon has vowed to bring the Jewish refugee issue to the fore ‘front and centre’. The Jerusalem Post *reports :

The Foreign Ministry – along with the World Jewish Congress and the Pensioners Affairs Ministry – is ramping up its campaign to bring the issue of Jewish refugee rights to public and diplomatic attention.

According to the Foreign Ministry more than 850,000 Jews from Arab states fled their countries of birth following persecution that ensued after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Many also had their property confiscated.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Deputy Pensioners Affairs Minister Lea Nass said the government was currently finalizing plans to institute a national day of recognition for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. It is also planning to build a museum to document the historical events of these communities, as well as their cultural heritage; collate testimony from thousands of refugees; and bring the issue front and center on the diplomatic stage.

Ayalon also pointed to legislation passed in the Knesset in 2010 obliging any government conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians to include the issue of compensation for Jewish refugees as part of any final status talks.

“This is one of the core issues,” the deputy minister said. “It is not separate and certainly, when it comes to negotiations, it will be part and parcel of the refugee issue as a whole.”

Ayalon denied that the campaign was designed to hinder the peace process, adding that even if that were the case Israel was already being accused of obstructionism.

“They say we’re not ready for peace anyway, but this is not a reason not to do what is just and right for hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

“This is not a reason not to show a mirror in front of the entire world, in particular the Arab countries.”

Ayalon also insisted that Israel-Palestinian negotiations were the correct forum for advancing the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, saying the linkage stemmed from historical precedents following wars on the Indian subcontinent and Europe.

He added that part of the proposals made in the Arab Peace Initiative suggesting that an Israeli settlement with the Palestinians should bring peace and normalization with the entire Arab world, meant that the Jewish refugee issue should be dealt with in this comprehensive manner.

The Pensioners Affairs Ministry, which was given responsibility for the issue in 2009, has taken the lead on the documentation of testimony from refugees and their descendants. Nass explained that it was critical to record the stories of the refugees, who, she said, had largely been forgotten.

“The Jewish people left behind their property, their stories and their history,” said Nass. “It’s important in our religion to first of all tell the story. The story has disappeared, and when we meet these people they express great pain that it has not been told.”

The ministry has digitized 20,000 documents pertaining to the Jewish refugees and will next week actively begin to collect further such documents and testimony, in coordination with various interest groups representing Jews from Arab countries.

The project, named “I am a refugee” and having an initial budget of NIS 2 million, calls on refugees and their descendants to come forward and present their stories, documents, pictures and other records to create an archive similar to that in Yad Vashem for victims of the Holocaust.

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*I have two reservations about this article: one is the headline containing the expression ‘Jewish Arab refugees’ and the other is the picture of wretched-looking Jews from Yemen. While appreciating the subeditor’s need to compress as many words into the headline as possible, Jews in Arab countries were not Arabs. As the picture (taken in Iraq) shows, not every Jew was dressed in rags – ed


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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