Month: October 2013

Iraqis confused over fate of returned archive

 A 16th c. Kol Bo artefact from the Iraqi-Jewish archive being restored in the US

This  article in the SFGate News is notable for being the first news agency report on the subject of the Iraqi-Jewish archive. It also shows that the Iraqis are at sixes and sevens over what should be done with the trove once it reaches Iraq. An official from the Tourism ministry contradicts the director of the national archives Saad Eskander’s assertion that the trove would be put on display in 2015:

WASHINGTON
(AP) — The tattered Torah scroll fragments, Bibles and other religious
texts found in a flooded Baghdad basement 10 years ago testify to a
once-thriving Jewish population that’s all but disappeared from Iraq.

Recovered
from the Iraqi intelligence headquarters and shipped to the United
States for years of painstaking conservation was a literary trove of
more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that are being
digitized and put online. A sample of that treasure is being displayed
for the first time this fall at the National Archives in Washington.

“One
thing that is particularly touching about them, or particularly
interesting about them, is that they connect to a community that no
longer lives in Iraq,” said Doris Hamburg, the National Archives’ director of preservation programs.

The
exhibit of two dozen items offers a rare glimpse into a Jewish
population that dates to antiquity but dispersed after Israel was
created in 1948. But the decision to return the collection to Iraq after
its display here has raised bitter feelings among Iraqi Jews in the
United States and stirred debate about whom the materials belong to: the
country where they were found or the people who once owned them?

Iraqi
Jews consider the artifacts part of their heritage and say a nation
that decades ago drove out its Jewish citizens doesn’t deserve to
recover sacred objects of an exiled population. Some also fear there’s
no constituency of Jews remaining in Iraq to ensure the books are
maintained, especially in a country still riven by violent conflict.

A petition circulating among Iraqi Jews seeks to prevent the materials from being returned and Sen. Charles Schumer,
D-N.Y., made a similar public statement to the State Department last
week. Some have written newspaper opinion pieces urging the items to be
shared with the exiled Jewish community and have discussed burying torn
Torah scroll pieces, as is customary for holy texts that are no
longer usable.

“The fact is these were archives that belonged to the Jewish community in Iraq,” said Gina Waldman,
president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and a
Libyan Jew. “They need to be returned to their rightful owners. They
were looted from the Jewish community and they rightfully should
be returned.”

State
Department officials have expressed confidence that the Iraqi
government will make the materials accessible in an educational exhibit.
The materials will be housed in Iraq’s national library and archives,
with the goal of helping future generations understand the contributions
Iraqi Jews made and the repression that they endured, said Saad Eskander,
director of the Iraqi institution. Though an adviser to the Minister of
Tourism and Antiquities said there were no current plans to exhibit the
materials and that the public and researchers would be able to see them
online, Eskander said an exhibition would happen either next year
or 2015.

“Now,
Iraqis have no problem in accepting the fact that the Jews are true
Iraqi patriots who can live with their culture in a multi-cultural
society,” Eskander said, calling the archive part of the country’s
history and cultural heritage. He said the country now has the ability
to adequately protect the materials. Two Iraqi conservators are expected
to receive specialized training here ahead of the
collection’s relocation.

The artifacts were found in May 2003 after the collapse of Saddam Hussein‘s
regime as American troops searched for weapons of mass destruction.
They found the material in the flooded basement of the Iraqi
intelligence building, its water system damaged by an unexploded bomb.

Read article in full

Archive: it’s all about the Tower of Babel

The controversy about the Jewish archive is really about proving that the Jews do not own the Tower of Babel. Yes, an Arabic newspaper has actually made this suggestion. Daniel Greenfield explains the logic behind it in Front  Page magazine: ( With thanks: Michelle)

“The Jewish archive is part of a dastardly Jewish plot to claim ownership of the Tower of Babel… which doesn’t exist anymore.

The Jewish Bible depicts the tower being constructed before the
emergence of the Jewish people. Which is why Iraq needs copies of the
Bible to prove that the Jews didn’t build the Tower of Babel.

So the United States has two options…

1. Return the Jewish archive to the Iraqi Jewish communities abroad

2. Send the archive to Iraq where it will be kept in
storage against the day that the Jews claim to have built the Tower of
Babel and demand ownership of a thing that hasn’t existed in thousands
of years

3. Return the Jewish archive, but dispatch Elizabeth Warren to give her “You didn’t build that” speech at a synagogue

This seems like an easy choice. Either do the sane thing or keep
pandering to the whims of crazy bigots whose grasp on reality is looser
than a drunk with a greased pogo stick.

The so-called peace process in which Israel is ordered to create a
Palestinian state for terrorist groups that keep trying to kill it is
option 2. So Obama will predictably choose that and send the Jewish
archive to Iraq so that one of the largest countries in the region can
breathe a sigh of relief that the Jews will no longer be able to steal
their tower which doesn’t exist.

At least until the next Mossad attack shark or spy eagle is captured.”

Read article in full 

Hurry! Get your congressman to sign letter to John Kerry:

Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) are asking their colleagues in the House of Representatives to sign a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to facilitate the return of these items to descendants of the Iraqi Jewish community.  The deadline for Members of Congress to sign onto this letter is Thursday 31 October. Detailshere

Have you signed the petition yet?

Recognise two states, two sets of refugees

 Ma’abara or tent camp for Jewish refugees in Ashkelon, 1950s

Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians should recognise Israel ‘as Jewish state’ and a Palestinian renunciation of their refugee ‘right of return’ – and thus recognition that two sets of refugees exchanged places in the Middle East –  are two sides of the same coin. In her Huffington Post blog Lyn Julius argues the point with another blogger, academic Alon Ben Meir:

Even if Israel is negotiated back to the 1967 lines, will the Palestinians renounce their ‘right of return’? In a previous article, Ben Meir admits that the Palestinian demand to return to Israel proper is a major stumbling block to peace.

This issue cannot be brushed aside lightly as ‘rhetoric’. Not content
with getting a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza, even
the ‘moderates’ of the Fatah camp have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Palestinians reserve the right to turn the Jewish state into a second
state of Palestine, by overwhelming it with millions of returning
refugees. The first act of such a Muslim majority-state would be to
repeal Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ which entitles Jews, wherever they may
be, to automatic Israeli citizenship.

In a 2011 poll 89.5 percent of Palestinians refused to renounce their ‘right of return’. More recently a Palestinian outcry forced Mahmoud Abbas to backtrack on his offer to an Israeli audience to renounce his personal’ right of return’ to Safed.

A peace deal foundered in 2000 not because of Israeli security
considerations, but because the Palestinians did not agree to the
principle that their refugees should be repatriated to a state of
Palestine. Their ‘right of return’ to Israel was non-negotiable.

That’s why Benjamin Netanyahu is right to make Palestinian recognition of Israel
as a Jewish state the quintessential issue. (PA negotiator Saeb
Erekat has said flippantly that Israel can call itself what it likes –
but does the Arab side accept Israel’s right to call itself what it
likes?) If successive Israeli governments did not insist on this point
in the past, it is because Netanyahu has realized that the much vaunted
‘two-state solution’ leaves room for ambiguity.

As far as the refugees are concerned, the Palestinian negotiators are
perceived to hold ‘the moral high ground’. Even Ben Meir sees the
Palestinian refugees as the main victims of an Israeli injustice. This
is a serious distortion.

The Arab refugees are the unintended consequence of a war the Arabs
failed to win against the nascent state of Israel in 1948. But it is
forgotten that the Arab League states waged a second war – a war they won easily – on their own defenseless Jewish citizens, whom they branded ‘the Jewish minority of Palestine’.

This domestic war against their Jews was not a mere backlash to
Israel – it was inspired by totalitarian Arab nationalism and by the
rise of Nazism. The Jews from Arab countries – now comprising half
Israel’s Jewish population with their descendants – were successfully
‘ethnically cleansed’ from the Middle East and North Africa. (Now it is
the turn of other minorities.)

It is time to recognize that the single largest group of refugees
created by the Arab-Israeli conflict was not Palestinian. Almost a
million Jews were driven out, not just from Jerusalem and the West Bank,
but Arab lands – their pre-Islamic communities destroyed. As a
matter of law and justice, recognition of their plight and compensation
for seized assets many times greaterthan
Palestinian losses must also be included on the peace agenda. Although
over 200,000 Jews were resettled in the West, two sets of refugees
exchanged places between Israel and the Arab world.

The parties to peace must recognize that the exchange is irrevocable.
Only by balancing the claims of rival sets of refugees might a deal be
struck: neither set should return to their countries of origin. Both
should be compensated through an international fund, as proposed by Bill
Clinton in 2000.

The absorption of the Jewish refugees into Israeli society should be
held up as a model for the assimilation of Palestinian refugees in their
host countries. The Jews are no longer refugees, Israel having granted
them full civil rights. Similarly the Arab side must take responsibility
for their own refugees.

Alon Ben Meir comes up with reasonable suggestions for a humanitarian
solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Here the Arab League is
central to a solution. Except in Jordan, Arab states still enforce a law
they passed in the 1950s banning Palestinian refugees from becoming
citizens in Arab countries. The refugees and their four million
descendants need to be granted full civil rights in their host
countries or in the Palestinian state. The agency perpetuating
Palestinians refugee status from generation to generation, UNWRA, must
be dismantled and Palestinians allowed to be absorbed in wider Arab
society.

However good Ben Meir’s arguments, they are a projection of his own
decent values. The Palestinian leadership, in contrast, has shown a
consistent inclination to thwart a humanitarian solution by cynically
exploiting their people for political purposes. Currently there is no
incentive for them to change.

The Arab League must be brought in to talks on the refugee issue.
There must be international pressure for change – on the Palestinians.
While the main UN refugee agency UNHCR should take over the activities
of UNWRA, the US should condition the substantial sums it pours into the
Palestinian Authority’s coffers on Arab recognition of the exchange of
refugee populations – and insist on two states for two peoples.

Read article in full

“Jews of Egypt’ has London premiere

Trailer for ‘Jews of Egypt’ in English

 It was the film that has packed cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria, with people queuing out into the street. No doubt about it, Jews of Egypt caused a sensation when it was first shown in March 2013.  Point of No Return was at its London premiere last week:


The Egyptian authorities had tried to ban the film for reasons of ‘national security’. Then the ministry of culture insisted that the young film director Amir Ramses put a disclaimer ahead of the titles, stating that any resemblance to reality was purely coincidental. It was a laughable demand for a documentary about real people, but Ramses agreed, as long as it carried the ministry’s stamp.

The film was remarkable for lifting the veil on a taboo subject – the Jews of Egypt.  Nowadays 20 elderly widows comprise the entire Jewish community. A Vox Pop in the Egyptian street showed Jews are today almost universally reviled as traitors, bloodsuckers and spies. But the film took a sympathetic view, and showed how in the 20th century Jews  played an important part in Egyptian culture and society.

Earlier this week,  a Jewish audience packed a North London cinema to see ‘Jews of Egypt’ in the presence of the film-maker Ramses and producer Haitham al-Khamissi. Not just any Jewish audience – but one composed largely of Jews from Egypt.  The audience gratefully wallowed in nostalgia as they revisited on the screen the familiar streets and landmarks of their childhoods in Cairo and Alexandria. (One or two members of the audience, however, did walk out in protest at ‘ anti-Zionist slurs and half truths’).

This film began as a documentary about the Jewish communist Henri Curiel, whose portrait hangs on Ramses’ wall. For reasons of self- preservation, focusing on communists was a better bet than spotlighting Zionists,
although half the 80,000-member community did finish up in
Israel. The film is a mixed bag – a little like the community itself.
Some spoke Arabic, some French, some liked Um Kalthoum, some preferred
western popular culture. Most enjoyed a comfortable life in Egypt’s uniquely cosmopolitan society.

As far as the oppressed Jewish communists were concerned, it was hard to gauge where political persecution ended and anti-Jewish bigotry began. The communists spent long periods in prison.When the exiled Henri Curiel tried to forewarn President Nasser of the tripartite plan of the allied attack over the nationalisation of the Suez canal  in 1956, Nasser reneged on a promise to restore his Egyptian nationality to Curiel. When ultimately exiled from Egypt in the 1950s, the communists were never allowed back, whereas even Israeli citizens were allowed into Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty was signed.

The film suffers from inaccuracies. The Egyptian Ashkenazi community largely fled Palestine in 1917: they did not directly flee oppression in Eastern Europe. The Jewish singer and actress Leila Murad was described as a Karaite (her parents were Moroccan and Ashkenazi). Very few Egyptian Jews were said to have left for Israel  in 1948: 14,000 actually did. Despite one member of the Muslim Brotherhood justifying the 1945 attacks on the Cairo Jewish quarter, the Nazi-Brotherhood alliance of the 1930s was not even mentioned. A Muslim historian, Mohamed Abou Al-Ghar, and a sociologist, Ersam Fawzi, portrayed attacks on the Jews as a response to ‘Zionist colonies taking Palestinian land’. But the film did not seek to blame the full extent of ill-treatment and expulsion on the Jews themselves, 25,000 of whom who were brutally stripped of their property and nationality in 1956.

Jews were presented as good patriots, uninterested in Israel – that’s where the oppressed Jews went, said the actress Isabelle de Botton. Even the Jewish capitalists were presented in a good light – Joseph Cicurel, the department store owner and industrialist, had helped found Bank Misr so that Jewish capital stayed in Egypt.   Despite the innuendo that Israel may have been responsible for Henry Curiel’s assassination in 1978, Ramses is honest enough to hint at an earlier age when Zionism was not a dirty word:  an Egyptian Zionist organization operated legally until the day King Farouk entered the 1948 war. The organization’s
secretary general was Leon Castro, who was also private
secretary to Saad Zaghloul, the  founder of
the nationalist Wafd party.

One is left with the impression that nothing the Jews of Egypt could have done – and some made great personal sacrifices to stay on – would have prevented their mass exodus. It was rather pathetic to hear them profess their undying loyalty to
Egypt: “we were sons of Egypt,” declares the communist Joyce Blau, in
exile in France. One Jew who remained and converted to Islam said that his Muslim wife was still criticised for ‘marrying a Jew’.

In the London auditorium, you wouldn’t have found a single Jew, despite the pain of their uprooting, who wanted to return – except to visit. The last laugh belongs to a Egyptian-born tourist from France who insisted, in an episode described in the film by the Paris hairdresser Elie Eliyakim, on laying a bouquet of roses on Nasser’s tomb: “Thank you, Nasser”, read the accompanying note, ” for expelling us from Egypt. Without you, I would have never become a millionaire.”

 Breaking the Jew Taboo

Jewish Renaissance interview with Amir Ramses

It wasn’t all peace and harmony

 Jewish girls in Tunisia, late 19th century (photo: Library of Congress)

Middle Eastern Jews have become more prominent in all walks of Israeli life. But their history is still subdued, argues Adi Schwartz in i24 News. Into the vacuum comes the Hebrew version of  Sir Martin Gilbert’s book In Ishmael’s House. But revisionist myths of peaceful coexistence have got there first:

Almost a million people vanished in the last few decades from the
Middle East. Perhaps not physically; but the Jewish communities that
flourished for more than two millennia throughout the region have
disappeared almost without leaving a trace. Jews who lived in Arab
countries found refuge mostly in Israel, but also in Europe and North
America. Their heritage, however, in fact their mere existence, has
escaped the attention of the international community.

The protection of Jews from European anti-Semitism, which culminated
with the Holocaust, is considered Israel’s raison d’etre. Even the
leader of Israel’s biggest ally, Barack Obama, said in his 2009 speech
in Buchenwald that the State of Israel rose out “of the destruction of
the Holocaust.”

And what about the other half of Israel’s population – those Jews who
left Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia? Were they
free of the persecution suffered by their brethren in Europe for
centuries? In what circumstances exactly did 850,000 people emigrate
from these Arab countries beginning in the 1940’s, leaving behind just a
handful of elderly Jews?

Israeli society has changed tremendously in recent decades and Middle
Eastern Jews have become much more prominent in almost every segment of
society. But their history is still subdued – in the first decade of
the 21st century, only one PhD thesis was written in Israeli
universities about the destruction of the Jewish communities in the Arab
world. Schools do not devote comprehensive curricula to the subject:
amazingly so, the last episode in the lives of these rich communities
became a mandatory part of the Israeli matriculation exams only
recently.

Into this vacuum enters a new book, translated from English and
published in Israel. “In Ishmael’s House” by acclaimed historian Sir
Martin Gilbert is one of the first books in Hebrew to chronicle the
lives of Jews in the Middle East from Muhammad’s days in the 7th century
to the present. Gilbert skillfully blends day-to-day stories and
personal accounts with long term developments.

One of the main questions raised throughout the book is whether Jews
lived in perfect harmony, as the myth goes, under Muslim rule; whether,
as modern Arabs use to say, the problems between Jews and Arabs in the
Middle East started with the appearance of Zionism in the end of the
19th century.

Gilbert’s unequivocal answer is a resounding “no.” While there have
certainly been periods of peace and tranquility, Jews were never
considered part and parcel of Muslim societies. They were always a
distinguished minority, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state, who
were assigned the inferior status of dhimmi (“dependent”). This position
ensured the protection of their lives and property, the right to
practice their religion, and a degree of internal communal autonomy. In
exchange, however, Jews were required to submit to various forms of
legal and social discrimination.

In the 14th century, for examples, the Jews of Egypt and Syria were
forbidden to live in tall buildings, to raise their voices in prayer, to
bury their dead in graves more impressive than those of their Muslim
neighbors, or to hold clerical jobs. Until 1912, the Jews of Morocco
were forced to walk barefoot or wear straw shoes outside Jewish quarters
as a sign of respect for the Arab nation.

A long list of pogroms hardly left a mark on Jewish historiography.
In the first decade of the 20th century a few such massacred occurred in
Moroccan towns – in Taza in 1903 (40 killed), in Settat in 1907 (50
killed) and in Casablanca in 1907 (30 killed). For the sake of
comparison, in the infamous Kishinev pogrom, which became a milestone in
the history of Zionism, 49 Jews were killed.

Read article in full

Review by Adi Schwartz of In Ishmael’s House (Hebrew version) 

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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.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.