Month: September 2013

Yemen Jews ‘exiled in own land’

 Elderly Yemeni Jew (photo: Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters)

Twenty families in a guarded compound in Sana’a  – 90 people – are all that remain of Yemen’s  2, 500-year-old Jewish communities. Very soon the young will be gone too. Time magazine reports:

“Jews who lived their entire lives there and resisted the notion of
leaving for a long time are going now. It’s time,” says Misha Galperin,
the head of international development for the Jewish Agency, adding that
the recent airlift was a “clandestine operation” because Yemen and
Israel have no diplomatic ties.

Most of the 20 or so families that remain, including Habib’s,
live behind the walls of a government compound for expats near the U.S.
embassy in Sana‘a called Tourist City, cut off from the rest of society.
The elders never leave. Now and again the younger men venture out to
sell jewelry at a nearby market.

Reels of razor wire, soldiers and German shepherds make the entrance
look like a prison. Inside it is quiet and leafy. With a playground, two
ATMs, a restaurant, pharmacy and a bus to shuttle them around the
compound, it has the sleepy feel of a retirement community in Florida.

The Jews, who raise goats and chickens on plots of land next to the
homes of Russian oil barons and aid workers, rarely leave the compound.
Instead they rely on a monthly stipend for food and rent provided by the
government.

In a modest apartment filled with smoke, a vacant Habib and several other Jewish elders rest on cushions, smoking shisha
pipes and chewing khat. A portrait of Saleh dominates one wall. A wily
tank commander turned politician, Saleh was well known for courting the
Jewish community. He appeared frequently on state TV with the
community’s rabbi, and once delivered legs of lamb at Passover to the
families in Tourist City. His critics dismissed such gestures as window
dressing for his dictatorial rule.

It was Saleh who, in 2009, enabled Habib and his family to flee to
the capital after their house was bombed in Saadah — a northern province
controlled by a Shi‘ite group called the Houthis, who count “Death to
Israel, damn the Jews” among their slogans.

Life in the compound, while often mundane, allows Habib and the other
Jews who fled other parts of Yemen a large degree of religious freedom.
The women, who had worn veils in public in deference to their Muslim
neighbors, walk between the houses in bright green dresses, carrying
pots of lamb stew, or choula, and chatting loudly, their faces uncovered. The men, many in long white galabiya with their side curls and kippah
in full view, sit in the compound’s synagogue reciting verses from the
Torah, a practice that was previously confined to their homes.

But rising lawlessness in the aftermath of Saleh’s departure, and the
failure to include Jews in an ongoing national dialogue, fuels a belief
among the Jews that they are being abandoned by the transitional
government. Last year the official in charge of Tourist City cut
off food rations for eight months, and one of the residents, Aaron
Zindani, was stabbed to death by a street vendor while at a nearby
market with his children.

At the same time, anti-Jewish sentiment in Yemen is anything but
universal. Yemenis, when asked, often refer to the Jews as their
“brothers.” Many mourn the departure of their country’s oldest religious
minority as a loss to Yemen and its once multiracial identity.

“They are Yemenis,” says Ashwaq Aljobi, who works at the Sawaa
Organization for Anti-Discrimination, a nongovernmental organization
that advocates for Yemen’s Jews and other marginalized peoples. “If they
want to travel, it’s O.K. But if they stay here, it is still their
country.”

Habib is torn. Yemen is his homeland, he says, and he plans to die
here. But his family members are leaving one by one. His eldest son
Ibrahim, who tucks his side curls under a Yankees cap when he leaves the
compound to avoid attracting attention, says he plans to join his
cousins in Tel Aviv later this year.

“Living in a state of exile in your own country … that’s no life.”
says Ibrahim, gloomily. “It’s a sad thing [because] Yemen will always be
part of me, but I can no longer be part of it.”

Read article in full

Muslim Kurds visit Jerusalem festival

 Israelis do a traditional Kurdish dance (photo: Hemi Itz)

Kurdish Muslims were among the unlikely guests this year at the celebrations for Saharane, an annual Kurdish Jewish holiday, held in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park. The Times of Israel reports:

Saharane is the annual Kurdish Jewish holiday,
now celebrated during Sukkot, when the ancient community gathers to
sing, dance, eat, and trade stories from the old country in their
traditional Aramaic tongue.

Last Sunday, Israel’s Kurds marked Saharane in
Israel’s capital. Over 13,000 Israeli Kurds attended this year,
according to Yehuda Ben Yosef, leader of the community in Israel.
Smaller Saharane events were also subsequently held in Yokneam,
Mevasseret Zion, and Yardena.

Jews in Kurdistan historically marked the
beginning of spring with the Saharane festival, while at the same time
their Muslim neighbors celebrated the Newroz holiday. They would head to
the river banks and host mass picnics, complete with traditional garb
and music competitions.

When the community emigrated to Israel in the
early 1950s, they continued to celebrate Saharane during the
intermediate days of Passover. However, the relatively small community
felt their holiday was in danger of being swallowed up by Mimouna, the
post-Passover holiday of the much larger Moroccan community. Ben Yosef’s
uncle, Aviv Shimoni, the leader of the community at the time, decided
to move the celebration to Sukkot in 1975. Unfortunately, this
disconnected Saharane from its roots as a celebration of the blossoming
of nature after a cold winter.

As ties deepen between Kurds in Israel and
those in the Kurdish heartland, more Muslim Kurds are making their way
to Israel to visit their former neighbors.

Darwish, whose extended family is still in
war-torn Syria, came to Israel from the Netherlands especially for the
festival. She found Ben-Yosef online, and contacted him before her trip.

“Yehuda is a special person,” she said. “I
don’t feel that I was a guest. I feel directly that I was home. This
feeling is not easy to get from everywhere. Because I know he’s a Kurd,
I’m a Kurd — I cannot explain it.”

It was Darwish’s second visit to Israel. She
also came in July with three Kurdish friends living in Sweden, but
seeing the Israeli community gather left a powerful impression on her.

“I was walking from the parking garage to the
park, I heard the music and I said, ‘Wow, it is so beautiful to hear the
Kurdish music,’” she recalled.

“The Kurdish people you know are in four
lands, and you go to Israel, a country like Israel — a powerful country,
a big country — and you see Kurdish people there, and they are
powerful, it makes you very very happy. I thought I will go and see old
people, but I saw young people dancing, singing, it was really great.”

Seeing an immigrant Kurdish community thrive was especially exciting for Darwish.

“Before
I came to Israel, I thought, no, nobody helps us, no one gives us
anything. But now that I was there, and I saw the people, I say why not,
these people are Kurdish, and they are strong, and they get help from
Israel. And I think that between Kurdistan and Israel the relation is
very good.”

Read article in full

Iraq clinging to Jewish archive is a bad joke

 Linda Menuhin, central figure of ‘Shadow in Baghdad’, together with the film’s director, Duki Dror, at the Haifa premiere on 22 September

Powerful piece in JIMENA’s Jerusalem Post blog  by Linda Menuhin arguing against the return of the ‘Jewish archive’ to Iraq. Linda is the central character of a new film, ‘Shadow in Baghdad’, honouring the memory of her father, who disappeared in 1972.

“More than 40 years have passed since I fled Iraq, yet Iraq has never
left me. Time and again I earnestly tried to bury my past, without much
success. This year on Yom Kippur I honored my father’s memory with a
sense of fulfillment.

“On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972 my father, a distinguished lawyer in
Iraq, disappeared. He was the first Jewish person to disappear during
the Ba’athist regime’s years in power. In 2003, as U.S. troops entered
Iraq, and the Ba’athist regime was toppled, denial of my father’s
destiny was no longer an option. During that time, the memory of Iraq
became a steady visitor at my home in Israel. All my energy became
focused on deciphering the clues of my father’s disappearance. Friends
all over the world, including some inside Iraq, tried to help trace
documents that might give us a clear idea of what happened to him.

“This long lasting search for my father is the center of a new feature documentary, Shadow in Baghdad,
by award-winning filmmaker Duki Dror. It took Mr. Dror four years to
complete this film. For me, this story is a journey that I carry every
day of my life. Documents helped me reconstruct my father’s image and
paved the way to a rational understanding of what happened to him.

“Documents are part and parcel of human history. They provide living
memory that registers an entire community’s existence. To this end I am
looking forward to visiting the U.S. National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA) exhibition, Discovery and Recovery,
which will feature Jewish Iraqi documents seized by the American troops
in 2003. This exhibition, which will open on October 11th, might
present a balanced view of my life in Baghdad while highlighting the
positive cultural relics of my living Iraqi-Jewish community and our
ancestors.

“The exhibition may help me develop lost memories. Were it not for the
recovery and rehabilitation of the Jewish archive, these documents
would have been forever lost in the sewage water of Sadaam Hussein’s
secret police headquarters where they were found. While the U.S.
government has rehabilitated and digitized these Jewish documents, they
are committed to returning the originals back to Iraq despite the fact
that there is no longer a Jewish community left there. It saddens me
that the majority of Iraqi Jews will never be able to see the documents
within the archive as Iraq does not allow Israeli citizens into the
country.

“Some of these documents, like student records from the Frank Iny
School, belong to Iraqi Jews, like myself, who are now living scattered
around the world. This is not to mention religious books confiscated
from Iraqi synagogues by the Ba’athist regime. Some of these books
belonged to Jews who were afraid to carry them while fleeing the country
illegally.

“Why would Iraq insist on retrieving this Jewish communal treasure
while the country is ravaged by factional warfare? If Iraq cannot
protect its own people how on earth can it protect documents of a living
community it persecuted? The concept of Iraqis clinging to these Jewish
documents and claiming them as part of Iraq’s national heritage is a
bad joke.”

Read article in full 

Please sign petition if you haven’t already!

BBC TV mentions exodus from Egypt

 

The BBC trailer for Episode 5 of ‘Story of the Jews’ highlighted the sequence dealing with the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria and Schama’s interview with Cairo-resident Levana Zamir, whose uncle was arrested for ‘Zionism’. (32 mins into the video)

 It’s possibly the first time that the expulsion of Jews from Muslim countries has ever been mentioned on BBC TV.

The trailer for Episode 5 of the historian Simon Schama’s acclaimed epic ‘Story of the Jews’ begins with a clip filmed inside the majestic, but now empty, Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria. (The Shama family once had a pew here – perhaps that is why Schama is keen to tell viewers about it).

There follows an interview with Levana Zamir, indefatigable presidient of the association of Jews from Egypt in Israel. Levana tells Schama of her trauma, aged 10, when Egyptian officers came and rifled through her house, and arrested her uncle on charges of being a Zionist.

 It is good that Schama mentions that life was not always easy for Jews in Muslim lands before the establishment of Israel.

Hard to judge the programme on the basis of a two-minute clip, but this programme, the last of the series, shows every sign of living up to expectations.

‘Story of the Jews’ airs tomorrow (Sunday 29 September) at 9 pm UK time on BBC 2.

Confessions of an Iranian canary

” Like a canary in a houseful of cats”: that’s how Kooshyar Karimi describes the predicament of a Jew in Iran. A doctor and the son of a Jewish orphan mother, Karimi has just published a book: ‘I confess’ to  publicise the precariousness of minority existence under the Islamic regime. Karimi’s book – dedicated to Habib Elghanian, the Jewish businessman executed after the 1979 revolution – is an atonement for being forced to spy on his fellow Jews, resulting in the arrest of some. He was eventually granted asylum in Australia. Ynet News has the story:

Karimi described the
hardships of growing up Jewish in Iran, living in constant fear, trying
to run a double life aimed at concealing his religious affiliation. It’s
“like walking a minefield,” he recalls.

He
credits his faith as enabling him to survive. In his book he ascribes
his survival to his “great faith” in God. He also recalls hearing about Israel
and that each person has a destiny, it was then he decided to be a doctor.

Karimi’s mother married a Muslim man who was already married to
two other women. When she was pregnant, he moved her into a cellar where
she effectively raised her children on her own. In wake of the family’s
poor economic condition, Karimi found his first job at the age of five,
working in all manner of odd jobs – from selling watermelons to fixing
bicycles. In the meantime, his mother maintained an affair with another
man who financially assisted the family.  

His mother’s secret affair put Karimi’s life in direct danger,
because adultery is illegal in Iran. According to him, despite all his
mother’s shortcomings, she symbolized the perseverance of Iranian Jews.
She was the perfect combination of determination and resourcefulness, he
noted, claiming his mother taught him to see beauty and love in
everything. It was these, he asserted, that helped him survive Teheran’s
dark alleys.  

עטיפת הספר

Karimi studied medicine and specialized in emergency care. His
studies put him in contact with a group of desolate women, the majority
of whom were pregnant as a result of rape. In his book he reveals one of
his best kept secrets – as a doctor he performed more than 200
abortions, and in some cases even performed hymen reconstruction surgery
for young rape victims.

“Rape is a very common thing in the Middle East,
especially in Iran,” he said, explaining that rape victims are usually
shamed and as a result large percentages of them commit suicide.”

Abortions are considered un-Islamic by Iranian law, and Karimi was
putting his life at risk when choosing a writer’s career, which made it
harder to escape public scrutiny.

In 1998, he was arrested and severely tortured for a period of two
months. He eventually cracked and agreed to spy for the authorities in
reporting about Jews around him, including his family. He then decided
to flee to Turkey.

Karimi wasn’t the only one. In an interview with Australian TV last
year he said that many Iranians are forced to lead a double life, as
many things are forbidden. Prohibitions notwithstanding, people drink
alcohol and have sex, Karimi noted, adding that when everything is
forbidden, people rebel purposefully.

 
His book, “I Confess,” was dedicated to Habib Elghanian, the
first Jew who was executed in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Karimi
said his mother was arrested after the book was published and was
released 28 days later due to health problems. He noted that despite the
arrest, she informed him she was doing well and that she was in full
support of him. He said he intended to write another book, which will
focus on rape victims in Iran.

In 2000, following 13 months in Turkey, Karimi was granted
refugee status by the UN. He was then granted an Australian visa, and
moved to Sydney, where he practises medicine.

Read article in full

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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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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.