Month: March 2013

Stop being so Ashkenazi-centric!


                                        Moses rescued from the bullrushes in Egypt

In the week that a prominent international leader made a speech calling Israel a haven for refugees from, among other places, North Africa – but failed to mention the Middle East – Reuven Shirazi, a Cambridge student of Iraqi origin, vents his frustration in The Jewish Chronicle  at the way the British Jewish community ignores the Sephardi Story.

A prominent Jewish leader came to speak to the Jewish Society in Cambridge recently. In his speech, he outlined how essential Israel is for Jewish continuity, noting how it had absorbed refugees from Europe (after the Holocaust), India, Ethiopia, and later the former Soviet Union. Afterward, I asked why he didn’t mention the swathes of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, since it is surely a gross oversight to miss out the communities that, along with their descendants, now constitute between 50 to 60 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population.

This is but one example of a phenomenon endemic to most of the UK’s Jewish cultural, educational, and religious life: it is very Ashkenazi-centric. The first Jews to set up shop in England, after Cromwell allowed them back in1656, were Amsterdam Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent: Sephardim. It is only since the 1880s that Ashkenazim resettled en masse in the UK, fleeing pogroms in Russia. Yet our cultural references, intended to make us appreciate our commonality, are of kugel and gefilte fish. Yiddish words such as “mensch”, “frum”, and “schepping nachas” are frequently used. It is often assumed that all our grandparents came from the shtetl; in truth, even in the Ashkenazi world, many lived in the cities (particularly in Western Europe). In the Sephardi world, there were always more cosmopolitan Jews.

Growing up, I had known that there were Sephardi Jews and that my family came from Iraq, but that there weren’t really Jews in Iraq anymore. But in my Jewish education I heard nothing about the pogroms, forced expulsions, revocations of citizenship and confiscations of property that led to the vast exodus from Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab and Muslim countries. These facts I only discovered at my own initiative. Yet having gone through the Jewish educational system, I am very knowledgeable about the Holocaust and the events surrounding it.

Without comparing those two tragedies (though they were linked: the Farhud in Iraq was partly inspired by widely-disseminated Nazi propaganda, for example), both were formative events of the post-war Jewish world and must deserve attention. Likewise, from a socio-religious perspective, the grand religious schisms in the Ashkenazi world are presented as issues affecting the entire Jewish nation. I refer to the differences between the Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Liberal and Charedi Jews (the latter themselves very divided). Yet the impressive mutual recognition of legitimacy, unity of purpose and moderation in the Sephardi world – which consists of truly diverse communities from lands as far apart as Iran and Morocco – is rarely acknowledged. Perhaps, if given more attention, this could serve as a model to inspire reunification in the Ashkenazi communities around the Jewish world.

Anglo-Jewry unquestionably has a large, engaged Sephardi minority. From my experience, and having spoken to others in the last few years, this subgroup often feels disengaged from the cultural, religious and educational experiences offered by the community. Commonality with the Ashkenazim is most felt in support of Israel. Because Israel is a melting pot in which Mizrahi culture is influential and widely appreciated, young Sephardim identify strongly with the country.


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Mind the Gap!


Posting will be light to non-existent while Point of No Return takes a break  for the Passover/Easter/ Nowrooz holiday. Wishing all readers who are celebrating the festival Moadim le Simha.

Passover isn’t Passover without ‘Silan’

Passover, the festival of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, begins tomorrow night. Each Jewish community seems to have its own recipe for Passover haroset,  symbolising the mortar which the Israelite slaves used to make bricks. Iraqi Jews traditionally mix silan – or date syrup – with walnuts. But as Rachel Wahba discovered in the Times of Israel, western convenience stores have taken the hard labour out of the process of turning the dates into thick syrup.    

In my grandmother’s time, making what we Iraqis call silan (see-lan), a syrup, made from dates, was a daylong labor of love. She
cooked and stirred and squeezed the dates dry in cheesecloth for hours.
I watched how the brown juice turned into thick syrup, silan! Iraqi
dates deliver the thickest syrup. The mixture in the pot glistened.
“It’s not ready till you see that shine,” she taught me.

When you mix finely ground walnuts with the
silan (usually at around a 4:1 ratio of silan to nuts) to thicken the
texture into a “mortar,” you have Iraqi haroset.

And now, this once laborious process has been
dramatically changed by imported silan, found in any good Arab and
Middle Eastern grocery store. An electric blender makes grinding down
the walnuts much easier.

I have yet to meet one person who has not
fallen in love with the taste and asked what was in it only to be
shocked by the simplicity of this “mortar” for the bricks our people

When it was my turn to carry on the tradition and turn the world on to Iraqi haroset,
I found a can of silan in a Middle Eastern grocery store in San
Francisco. Like, a Passover miracle, I felt like I had waded through the
sea when I found silan, all ready, no cheesecloth, no sweating over a
hot stove for hours. Same taste. No kidding, really it had the same
home-made taste.

But the following year, Passover was coming and the store stopped carrying silan.

It just so happened that I was going to be in
New York before Passover and I had heard about a particularly
well-stocked Arab grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Ready-made: a miracle!

Ready-made: a miracle!

And there it was! My excitement was palpable.
“How do you know about silan?” the shopkeeper asked. “My mother is from
Baghdad, we know silan!” I told him.

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The onward march of monoculturalism

 Jewish musicians in Morocco  (photo: JIMENA)

Not content with driving out their minorities, Arab states are denying that Jews ever had a presence there.  The mere mention of the word Jew has become offensive. Seth Frantzman writing in the Jerusalem Post blames the rise of Arab socialism for the onward march of ‘monoculturalism’. I would rather pin the blame a national and religious fascism, beginning in the 1930s,  that cannot tolerate the ‘other’.

In 1948 there were 250,000 Jews in Morocco. Today there are less than
4,000. Across North Africa most ancient and important Jewish communities
vanished in the years 1940 to 1970. In February, when
“Tanghir-Jerusalem, echoes of the mellah” was shown at a theater in
Tangier a crowd of several hundred gathered to protest it. The film was
by Kamal Hachkar and sought to explore the history of Jews who had left
Morocco to settle in Israel. In March Egypt banned the screening of a
film about the Jews of Egypt. Like Hachkar’s film, the documentary
traced the lives of Egyptian Jews up through the 1950s when the
community left the country.

Throughout North Africa, and the rest
of the Muslim world, there is a rejection of the mention of Jewish
history in the region. At the same time there is a slow, grinding
destruction of whatever vestiges of historical Jewish life remain. For
instance, the Eliahu Hanabi synagogue in Damascus, which dates from the
8th century, was badly damaged in fighting on March 3. On January 27, 68
gravestones were defaced and destroyed in the Jewish cemetery of the
town of Sousse in Tunisia.

Raphael Luzon, a Libyan Jew, was arrested in July of last year for returning to the country to try to refurbish a synagogue.

isn’t enough that the Jewish communities don’t exist any longer in
these countries, the people also seek to erase the idea that they ever

This pattern of “monoculturalism,” the advancement of
the history and existence of only one culture, has been on the march
throughout the region. In the 1950s many large cities in the Middle East
were bustling, diverse metropolises. For instance, Tunis was 20 percent
Jewish, and 100,000 Italians and 13,000 Maltese also lived in and
around the capital city.

Alexandria had large communities of
Armenians, Greeks, Maltese, and people from all over the world. Today
those communities are gone, their properties nationalized since they
were categorized as “foreigners.”

The hatred toward them smoldered in the hearts of some of the local Muslim population.

the fascinating book Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, one
writer notes, “Within the context of military rivalry [of the 1940s]
Italophobia grew… Muslims also accused the 13,000 Maltese of Tunisia
of being lackeys of British imperialism.” In the conspiracy-laden Arab
world, hatred of the other was cultivated, so that each group that was
not Muslim was accused of being a collaborator with some outside power,
or accused of having too much financial power.

When people write
about the destruction and vanishing of every ancient minority group in
the Middle East, from Assyrian Christians to Iraqi Yazidis, we see
behind this a policy of monoculturalism. But what is fascinating is the
degree to which these societies that have homogeniezed themselves by
deracinating Jews and others from their homes in the 1950s and 1960s,
now also reject the notion that Jews ever existed in their country.

and Morocco’s reaction to similar films is but one example. Another
example is the banning by Egypt of Jewish pilgrimage to the tomb of
Rabbi Ya’akov Abuhatzeira. A Cairo court forbade the pilgrimages while a
local mukhtar noted, “We prohibit Jews from visiting the tomb because
we identify with the Palestinian people and because we do not want to
offend the Egyptian public’s sensitivities.”

Similarly in Morocco the protestors shouted against “normalization” with Israel.

“sensitivities” in the region are so extreme that even a movie about
history or a pilgrimage is so offensive that it must be banned. The mere
mention of a community that, while it lived among the majority
population was subjected to insults, discrimination and harassment, is
considered unacceptable. Imagine American “sensitivities” according to
which the very mention of the fact that American Indians ever existed,
let alone were killed and driven from their homes, was “offensive.”

Although in some ways the Arab Spring has made this monoculturalizing tendency
more visible, it has its origins in the rise of Arab socialism in the

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Mark Steyn: Islam is king on a field of corpses

BHL banned by Tripoli mayor

 Bernard-Henri Levy poses with Libyan rebel soldiers in September 2011 

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has been banned from visiting Libya as part of a delegation led by former premier Nicolas Sarkozy.

The ban, by the mayor of Tripoli, comes as a blow to Levy who visited Libya to show his support for the rebels’ anti-Gaddafi campaign. He claimed to have been invited by the Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan during his visit to Paris in January. The latter has denied issuing the invitation.

A spokesman for the Tripoli town hall said: ” We haven’t invited him. If he comes we will shut the door on him.” The town hall claims its security is at risk from attack by Islamist militias.

The high-level French visit was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of French intervention on behalf of the rebels.

More (J-Forum – French)

David Gerbi snubbed by Amazighen


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