Month: November 2013

Iraqi Jew in Canada wants her report card back

Dr Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, now living in Canada, and (right) as a four-year-old in Iraq

 In the first piece to appear in the mainstream Canadian National Post, the Canadian foreign minister makes an unprecedented public call  for the Iraqi archive to be restored to its rightful Jewish owners – outside Iraq. Dr Caroline Bassoon – Zaltzman, who will be visiting the archive exhibit in Washington DC – tells reporter Joe O’Connor that she wants her report card back. It was found among the 2,700 documents stolen from the Jewish community. (With thanks: Tony, Mira and others)

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, added his voice to his American counterparts in an email to the National Post
Friday. “It is unfortunate that Iraq is simply not prepared to openly
chronicle this tragic history as a monument for the people of Iraq,
towards a meaningful reconciliation, or towards the historical
preservation of archives and other items that document the ancient
heritage of Iraqi Jewry,” the minister wrote.

There also ought to be justice for those who were forced to leave
with nothing and have an opportunity to reclaim not only their
irreplaceable personal property, but crucial pieces of a past that is so
vulnerable to being forever lost.

“For the last Jews in Baghdad and their descendants in Canada and
beyond, Iraqi Judaica is ultimately their history to preserve and

The Iraqis, meanwhile, insist the items be returned, as per the
original agreement — a position the U.S. State Department currently
supports. An adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently
told the Reuters news service that the Jewish documents are part of an
“Iraqi legacy owned by all of the Iraqi people and belong to all the
generations, regardless of religious, ethnic or sectarian affiliations.”

Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman is sitting at the kitchen table of her
spacious Thornhill home. She is petite, with coppery blond hair, tanned
arms and a hard to identify accent. She pours me a cup of green tea,
adding a generous dollop of sugar. English is her first language, though
she does summation in her head in Arabic. She confesses that she
doesn’t know what, exactly, she is: Iraqi? Canadian? An Arab-Jew?

Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman, 6, with brother Felix, age 5 in their backyard. (Courtesy)

was 14 when her family fled the country. It took her 20 years to be
able to talk about it. The past was too painful. But she is speaking out
now because she is afraid the past is being forgotten; that the Iraqi
Jews, deprived once of their cultural patrimony, are at risk of being
robbed of it a second time.

“I have very few good memories of
Iraq,” she says. “I never ate in a restaurant, went to a movie theatre
or slept over at a friend’s. I went to my Jewish school and came
straight home.

“Jews weren’t
allowed telephones, or passports. Every letter we received had already
been opened. We carried yellow identity papers. My father, David,
couldn’t work for a Muslim, or hire a Muslim.

“All our neighbours
in Baghdad were Muslim and Christian. But I don’t ever remember talking
to them. By the time I was old enough to be aware we were already so
isolated, as Jews. I was a little girl and I was always afraid. My
parents, on the other hand, have some very fond memories of Iraq. My
father was an accountant and worked for a Christian family until it
became too dangerous for them to employ him.

“So as a kid I remember my Dad always being home and I remember I’d come home from school not knowing if he would be there.”

of her uncles were tortured by the Ba’athist regime, which first seized
power in a 1963 coup. Iraqi Jews were cast as Israeli spies. There were
show trials. Public hangings.

Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman’s parents are
still alive and live nearby. Her father tells the story of his daughter
as a toddler. Regime thugs barged through their front door and began
searching the house for weapons. Little Caroline spoke to the men in
English, a language she used at home since the family was always
preparing to leave — always had a bag packed and a dream of starting
over someplace else.

a little girl speak English was enough to get her father arrested. The
Bassoon family walked out of their house, with its beautiful garden, in
an old Jewish corner of Baghdad, at 3 p.m. on Aug. 13, 1971. They were
packed as though they were going on vacation and left practically
everything — photos, heirlooms and report cards — behind. A childhood
friend of David’s, a Muslim, secreted money to the family. Bribes were
paid to Kurdish smugglers. Three days later they were in a hotel in
Tehran. Two weeks after that they were in Israel. They moved to Montreal
in 1976.

Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman is heading to Washington with her husband next week to visit the archive.

don’t even know if I’ll be able to see my report card,” she says. “But I
am going to try and get it back. I am going to see what I can do.”

then she laughs, because it all happened so long ago, and because so
much about her life since — Canada, the two kids, the loving husband,
the great career — has been rich and rewarding and safe. She is not a
scared little girl anymore. The bad memories are faded, like an old
photograph or an old report card, finally come to light.

God I did so well in school,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says, grinning. “I
always told my husband I did well and he always joked about how he
wasn’t so sure, because he didn’t have any proof.

“Now I have proof.”

Read article in full

Sixty-six years ago, refugee problem born

Jewish refugees in ma’abarot or tent camps in Israel

 Sixty-six years ago, the passing of the UN Partition Plan unleashed two refugee problems.The Arabs need to integrate their refugees, while greater international diplomacy must secure recognition, and therefore justice for Jewish refugees, argues Eli Hazan in Israel Hayom:

Arab refugees became a prop that was cynically used by the anti-Israel
propaganda machine. That is how the myth of the so-called Nakba
(catastrophe) grew with each passing year. Over the years, the Arab
states have deliberately ignored the human tragedy inflicted on the Jews
in Muslim countries. The Jews were slaughtered and expelled and their
property was expropriated. In today’s terms, an equivalent of $300
billion was confiscated. This was coupled by great mental anguish. 

The Jewish Nakba
has been all but forgotten by the ensuing geopolitical realities. The
Palestinian refugee issue keeps coming up in international propaganda
and various peace initiatives. Until recently, the Israeli establishment
chose not to deal with the plight of the Jewish refugees. 

But this has
changed. First, their story is gradually becoming part of the mainstream
and is making inroads into published works. Various people have come
out and provided testimonials on their experience, to the point that the
Senior Citizens Ministry has launched a project dedicated to passing
the story on to the younger generations. And finally, a special caucus
has been formed in the Knesset. 

What is needed
is more vigorous public diplomacy efforts in key places around the
world. Although some campaigns are already underway, they should be
bolstered because international recognition is essential if justice is
to be served. The campaign may result in more people understanding the
events that led to the establishment of the Jewish state. The world
would realize that those who were persecuted after Nov. 29, 1947, found a
safe harbor in Israel and built a new home, albeit with great
difficulties. They are now living a secure life in Israel.

Read article in full

Archive reveals rare ‘Rashi’ script examples

The 2,700 documents of the Iraqi-Jewish archive are providing rich pickings for scholars. They are being digitized by NARA (the US National Archives authority)  and gradually put online onthis site. 

Dr Ezra Chwat from the National Library of Israel department of manuscripts has been studying documents relating to the famous rabbi Ben Ish Hai (Hakham Yosef Haim) who died in 1909. Dr Chwat has identifiedrare examples of a type of script used by Jews in Iraq known as Khatzi Koulmous (meaning ‘Half a Pen’).

According to Maurice Shohet of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq, the Hebrew writings in Iraq (and used by Jews in other Arab countries until the mass emigration to Israel )  until the first half of the 20th century used to be in Khatsi Koulmous

” It is very rare to find today people outside academic or religious institutions in Israel who still know how to read and write in the Khatsi Koulmous script. It used wrongly to be called“Ktav Rashi” (Writing in Rashi letters), due to the fact that in the first books in Hebrew they printed the Rashi Commentary using the Khatsi Koulmous script to distinguish it from the biblical text”, says Maurice Shohet.

Fox News TV report (with thanks: Ben)

Last High Atlas Jew passes away

The 2,000 year old Berber Jewish presence in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco has come to an end with the passing of Hananiyah Alfassi. Alfassi was also guardian of the shrine of Rabbi Shlomo Ben Lhens.

Diarna reports:

“I recently received news of the death of Hananiyah Alfassi, the last Jew to live in Morocco’s Ourika Valley and the caretaker of its shrine to Rabbi Shlomo Ben Lhens, a Judeo-Moroccan “Saint.” You may recognize Hananiyah as the hobbled but proud guardian of this rural Jewish pilgrimage site in several Diarna tour videos. His death marks the end of an era.

“Thousands of Jews once lived throughout the Ourika Valley and surrounding countryside. After all of them left, Hannaniyah remained — maintaining a constant, solitary vigil at the shrine of Rabbi Shlomo. Hannaniyah welcomed visitors from around the world and upheld the shrine’s rituals until the day he died: blessing pilgrims, lighting candles, and holding court with legends of the mysterious rabbi, whose name means “son of the snake.”

“On several occasions, Diarna team members were beneficiaries of Hannaniyah’s hospitality, once even spending the night in the shrine’s small guest quarters. When we interviewed him several years ago, Hannaniyah worriedly wondered who would preserve the shrine after he passed on. “Insh’allah,” he said, “May it be God’s will that someone will come to protect the tomb.”

“Hannaniyah feared what his absence would mean for the perpetuation of Rabbi Shlomo’s memory. His passing is a reminder of the urgency of Diarna’s mission. If Diarna had not met with Hannaniyah and paid witness to his unique guardianship, the chronicle of his life’s work could have faded along with the stories of multitudes of Jews who once inhabited the Valley.”

Memories of an Egyptian Hanucah

 With thanks: Moise

Tonight is the first night of Hanucah, which celebrates the victory of the Jews over the ancient Greeks. We light eight candles or oil lamps, to recall that the oil in the Temple in Jerusalem lasted a miraculous eight days.

Memories of how Hanucah was celebrated in Arab lands are fading fast, but for Moise Rahmani it was the highlight (literally) of the Jewish calendar.

Moise lived in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo until his family was expelled in 1956. He recalls how every Hanucah his mother would drive to the outskirts of Heliopolis to collect  the fine, white sand of the Egyptian desert.

She would arrange the sand in a tray and plant the first candle, which she would light with the shamash candle. Each night she would plant a candle of  every hue in the sand. The wax would melt into the sand, leaving ever-growing heaps of sand coloured red, green blue, yellow, etc. in the tray.

Years later, now living in Belgium,  Moise tried to re-create the magic of an Egyptian Hanucah for his own children. But the sand of the North Sea coast was not the same as the sand of the Egyptian desert, and Moise is obliged to keep his childhood Hanucah memories to himself.

Wishing all readers  Hag Hanucah Sameah – and if you are celebrating Thanksgiving too – a very Happy Thanksgivukkah!



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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