Tribute to Yom Tov Assis z”l (1942 – 2013)

Point of No Return mourns the passing on 16 June of  Professor Yom Tov Assis, head of the Ben Zvi Institute, aged 71, after a long battle with cancer. Professor Assis was many things: scholar of medieval Spain, lecturer, author, rabbi, hazan, tour guide. He was born in Aleppo, Syria, and experienced the pogroms of the late 1940s. As a tribute to Professor Assis, we are reproducing an extract from the Jerusalem Post interview, in which he describes the atmosphere of violence he was forced to flee.


‘I remember very clearly,” Prof. Yom-Tov Assis, head of the Ben-Zvi
Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, says of his
youth in Aleppo, “how a Syrian officer entered our home with his gun and
brought a Palestinian refugee, accusing my parents of being responsible
for her terrible condition and demanding that we give her money and

“I remember the attempts to break through the gates to
our building, all the occupants of which were Jewish. I remember how the
people used to shout in the streets, ‘Palestine is ours; Jews are
dogs!’ Demonstrations took place daily, from the time the United Nations
decided to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab parts. Clubs and
synagogues were burned. Jews were attacked.”

In 1949, the Assis family fled the antagonism of Syria for the tranquility of Lebanon.

used to spend our summer holidays in the Lebanese mountains… It was
paradise,” he fondly recalls. When they left, “we pretended that we were
going on our usual summer holiday… but we never went back.”

the nearly 900,000 Jews who left – or were forced from – Muslim
countries shortly after Israel’s independence, Assis says, his family
“left behind property, left behind wealth. We left behind everything.”

Lebanon, Assis moved to Turkey, and then to London, before making aliya
in 1971. Ever since, the medieval scholar has had to disabuse people of
what he calls “the fallacy of Jewish happiness under Muslim rule.”
That’s the assumption that the “Golden Age” in Andalus (Muslim Iberia
and North Africa), from the mid-700s to the mid-1100s, was both idyllic
and common to Islamic rule in other times and places. Not only is that
not the case – although Jews were generally better off under Muslim rule
through the 10th century, there were large-scale pogroms in the 11th
century – but, as Assis points out, it also disregards the fallout from
the invasion of the Almohads, who “destroyed Jewish life” in the latter
part of the 12th century.

“They left no Jewish community intact.
There were many who were killed, many who were forcibly converted to
Islam, many who had to escape – including the family of Maimonides, and
other famous families,” Assis says. “So to suggest that there was no
persecution of Jews under Muslim rule is absurd.”

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One Comment

  • Just saw him and spoke to him a few months ago. He looked well to me. Sad & shocking.


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