Month: February 2014

Could Moriscos return to Spain?

 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain made Islam illegal

 This is an interesting take on the draft Spanish nationality law – which thousands of Sephardi Jews may benefit from – by an Egyptian writer living in Jerusalem, Khaled Diab. What about the Moriscos (Muslims), he asks in Haaretz. One reason why Spain may be more interested in attracting Jews may be their ‘investment potential’.

Spain has further opened its doorsto the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However,
what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only
Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent
Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews
who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, wereforced out a century later.

omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin
Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in
Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population
of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since

have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this.
For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of
granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the
descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would
involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge
determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a
descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not
belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.


centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who
their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the
general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist
Jews did.

however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets
that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to
Andalusia. For instance,there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not
of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the
foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in
an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so
much of their heritage still exists today.”

many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me
is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a
civilization, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from
Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday,
multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the
Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I
discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the
region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the
breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognize Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalistcalled the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”

this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims
and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as
reflected in a U.K. opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologize for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”

another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there
is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify
for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will
actually bother to apply.

contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be
able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb
to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian

only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and
rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was
devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilizations,”this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and
Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims
represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the
Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and
live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian
peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one.
There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata
of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in itsextensive fossilized remainsin modern Spanish.

the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes
that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather
than be banished from their homes.

of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the
right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very
least owes them an apology.

closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards
reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. 
Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish
minorities need to apologize unreservedly to their former citizens and
would-be citizens.
(My emphasis)

day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some
kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has
seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary
nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and
“sisters,” not feuding “cousins.”

Read article in full 

Spanish citizenship creates huge interest

Anti-Zionists find oppressed Jews normal

 Sderot’s residents terrorised by Hamas rockets. Most are refugees from Iran, Morocco and Kurdistan.

It’s Israel Apartheid Week. The smear is being refuted by a grassroots counter-campaign called Rethink2014, videos and articles. But few rebuttals get to the heart of the issue like Lamia’s eloquent comment on Harry’s Place.  I am reproducing it here:

Although I think it makes very good practical sense, I don’t see any compelling moral
reason why Israel should give the Occupied Territories back. They won
them in wars that they did not initiate, by people who waged those
conflicts as wars of extermination with the intent to completely destroy
Israel and drive the Jews of the mandate into the sea, into dhimmitude
or into the grave.

If, in trying to burn down your neighbour’s home in order to make him
have nothing, you start a fire that leaves his house standing and your
own destroyed, then whose fault is that? Yours, not his. The Arabs are
to blame for their misfortune, because they wanted for themselves to
have everything and the Jews to have nothing.

It was Arab spite and greed, honed on centuries of treating Jews as
lesser human beings than themselves, that made them overreach themselves
against Jews who finally fought back and kicked their lordly arses.

If the Arabs had won, that would have been a case of winner takes
all, with the few remaining Jews living as a second class citizens
again. And we wouldn’t have today’s ‘anti-Zionists’ complaining about
the ‘Arab-occupied territories’ and apartheid. They’d have been
either gloating or shrugging about the fate of the Jews of the Middle
East for decades.

This isn’t speculation. It’s born out by the fact that there was
a massive persecution and expulsion of Jews by Arab countries (and
Iran) around this time – and yet ‘anti-Zionists’ have never shown the
slightest concern, let alone outrage, about the plight of those Jews, or
the injustices done to them.

Their blank indifference testifies that for such people there is
no injustice in hundreds of thousands of Jews being hounded out of the
country of their birth or forced to live as inferiors. For these
supposed humanitarian opponents of injustice and racism, when
oppression, persecution and expulsion happen to Jews in the Middle East, well that’s just the natural order of things.

They’ve had decades to register a protest about this, but they have
not bothered. If they ever make any mention of such people, it’s to
falsely characterise and denounce them as ‘European colonialists’ if
they have sought refuge in Israel.

Take for example the city of Sderot, constantly attacked by Hamas
rockets. Most of the population are of refugee origin from Morrocco,
Iran or Kurdistan. Yet those people are characterised by ‘anti-zionists’
as ‘colonialists’ – or more probably ‘western colonialists’. No mention
is made of where they actually came from or why.

Well if Arab countries and Iran hadn’t been so keen to make life unbearable for the Jews of their countries then:

a) they would have a more believable claim that there is no need to
have a Jewish state and that Jews could live as equally as Arabs in the
countries of the region.

b) those refugees wouldn’t have had to go to Israel and swell the
population there – and remain there because the Arab countries are as
intolerant as ever. Some of them won’t even allow a single Jew back in.

The haters of Israel, both Arab and non-Arab, should be forced to
explain where they would prefer those people to live and why, and why
there really is no necessity for Israel to exist as a Jewish-majority
state and that a one-state, tolerant, democratic Palestine is both just
and likely.

History shows they have nothing at all to back up such a claim, and
thus no reason at all why anyone should believe any promise that this
time they really will treat Jews as their equals rather than as lesser human beings.

Read post in full 

In the Apartheid Oscars, Arabs win hands-down

Pakistani seeks recognition as a Jew

Point of No Return readers will be familiar with Fishel Benkhald’s campaignto clean up the Karachi Jewish cemetery and restore the synagogue. Now Benkhald, who was born to a Jewish mother, is set to become a test case in Pakistan, a state which refuses to recognise Judaism as other than apostasy. Marc Goldberg interviewed Benkhald for The Times of Israel:

  His real name is Faisal Benkhald, though he
has recently adopted the Yiddish first name “Fishel.” He was born in
Karachi in 1987, the fourth of five children born to a Jewish mother and
a Muslim father. Though registered at birth as Muslim, he considers
himself Jewish and is now fighting for state recognition of his chosen
religion — an apostasy.

far as the Pakistani authorities are concerned, Fishel is still Faisal,
a Muslim. That’s what’s written on his documentation. But he wouldn’t
be the only Jewish Pakistani to have a Muslim identity card: The Jews of
Pakistan learned to disappear long ago. Some, like Fishel’s parents,
registered their children as Muslims to blend in, and all tried to hide. 

Except Fishel.

In a series of Twitter exchanges and emails in recent weeks, The Times of Israel explored Fishel’s unique story.

His earliest childhood memories include the
aroma of his mother’s challah, baking in the oven every Friday
afternoon. Before dusk he would watch her recite blessings over the
Shabbat candles.

“When she used to put her hands over her eyes
it felt so serene as if she has no worries of worldly life, reciting the
blessing welcoming the holy day. Her lovely eyes and smile looking at
me are engraved in my memory, I always prayed with her.”

Fishel, once known as 'Faisal,' was born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father in Pakistan. (courtesy)

Fishel, once known as ‘Faisal,’ was born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father in Pakistan.

He says his
mother would prepare only kosher food for him at home. She was born to
religious Jewish parents who moved to Pakistan from neighboring Iran. He
knows of his maternal grandparents only through the stories his mother
told him as a boy.

Fishel is all that remains of what was once a
small but thriving Jewish community. Estimated to have numbered about
2,500 people at the start of the 20th century, Pakistani Jewry consisted
mainly of migrants from Iraq ( the community was mainly B’nei Israel – ed). Following Israel’s War of Independence in
1948, the central synagogue in Karachi (demolished in 1988) became a
focal point for demonstrations against Israel. The majority of Jews left
Pakistan for India or Israel around this time.

Fishel’s family spent as much time abroad as
possible to escape from oppressive Pakistan. His father was a mechanical
engineer whose work ensured they spent long stints living in North
Africa. Both parents had died by his 13th birthday.

Once his parents passed away Fishel was sent
to live with an uncle, a period of time he is loath to talk about. He’s
estranged from two of his brothers and the other two have every
intention of ignoring their Jewishness.

Fishel is an anomaly in choosing to reclaim his mother’s heritage.

“After Rosh Hashanah in September 2009, I
remember just feeling sick of hearing the constant anti-Semitic
propaganda and conspiracy theories popping up from the Pakistani
government and media. They are constantly blaming everything wrong on an
imaginary Jewish/Israeli conspiracy. My political side outgrew my fear;
I felt less hesitant to claim my religion more publicly than I would
have before. I couldn’t be silent anymore about my Jewish roots,” says

As an adult Fishel chose the same path as his
father and became an engineer, also taking short-term positions abroad.
Anti-Semitism is the reason, he says, he spends as much time away from
his native Pakistan as he can. But he is about to complete a contract in
Tunisia, and is now preparing to go back to Pakistan.

Fishel's mother as a young girl. (courtesy)

Fishel’s mother as a young girl.

Fishel is not planning to reveal his chosen
religion to his neighbors and colleagues upon his return, but he is
certainly going back with a mission. He intends to enter the National
Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and change his official
religious status from Muslim to Jew.

If NADRA permits him to do so (which he thinks is unlikely), he will be committing the crime of apostasy, punishable by death.

“It is
dangerous but I will go at least once to record my request to change the
status of my religion from Islam to Judaism so that their response can
be documented,” says Fishel.

In his quest to discover more about his Jewish
identity, Fishel contacted the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals in
New York City. He has been guided by the founder and director of the
institute, Rabbi Mark Angel, ever since. Fishel hopes together they can
unlock more of his heritage.

The Jewish graveyard in Karachi has become a haven for vandals and drugs, says Fishel. (courtesy)

The Jewish graveyard in Karachi has become a haven for vandals and drugs, says Fishel.

Speaking from New York, Angel tells The Times
of Israel
the kind of details he explained to Fishel would help him
prove he is halachically Jewish: “If his mother had siblings who
continued in their Jewishness, or if his mother’s mother/grandmother are
buried in a Jewish cemetery. I don’t think these are easy things for
him to find out, but I believe he’s trying his best,” says Angel.

Perhaps this is why Fishel is intending to
fulfill his dream of cleaning up the old Beni Israel Jewish graveyard in
Karachi. If one of the graves there belongs to a blood relative, he
will have a much better chance of persuading halachic authorities of his
Jewish roots.

Fishel insists, however, that the goal is wider than his own quest for family knowledge.

“My dream for the near future in Pakistan is
to gain some empathy from Pakistani Muslims for cleaning the Jewish
graves. Later I will try to harness it in getting support and help in
the legal process for a small synagogue in Pakistan. After getting that
little piece of paper in my hand stating that legally we are allowed to
have a synagogue, my dream will come true,” says Fishel.

Even from his temporary position in Tunisia,
Fishel has not been idle in pursuit of this goal. He has repeatedly
emailed and called Pakistan’s National Peace Council for interfaith harmony to gain permission to enter the cemetery, though so far with no reply.

Fishel has already snuck into the cemetery on
several previous occasions to document the state of the graves. Upon his
return he plans to step up his campaign to get the Pakistani government
to provide him with the access he needs to clean the Beni Israel
graveyard undisturbed.

The derelict Jewish graveyard is located
within Karachi’s larger Mewa Shah graveyard. According to Fishel, it has
fallen into a state of disrepair and is known as a hangout for drug
addicts and criminals.

Read article in full

Enrico Macias moving to Israel

 Enrico Macias  in Tel Aviv (Photo : Ilan Costica/Wikimedia Commons/CC.BY.SA 3.0)


The Jewish French-Algerian singer Enrico
Macias has announced that he will apply for Israeli citizenship
and settle in the country permanently, according to the Times of Israel (Could his decision have anything to do with this?):

“I feel free, I feel babayit sheli [at home],” Macias told (Israel) Channel 2.

The 75-year-old explained that the increased threat of European anti-Semitism spurred his decision to relocate to Israel.

“For a long time I ‘ve been wanting to do it, but I
think now is the moment,” Macias said. “I think the anti-Semitism in
France will grow, and I teach to my family, to my grandchildren. I will
give the example to go, to live in Israel.”

Read article in full

Outrage at Macias invitation to Algeria

Jews and Kurds ‘almost never fought’

 Rabbi Zechariah Barashi (photo: L Berman)

The world’s oldest Jew is also the world’s oldest Kurdish Israeli – Rabbi Zechariah Barashi, who came to Jerusalem in 1938. Jewish-Muslim relations in Kurdistan were excellent, Barashi tells Lazar Berman, writing for Rudaw, a Kurdish online news medium. Traditionally, the Jews were under the protection of the Agha, the local tribal chieftain, and were desperately poor and illiterate. (With thanks: Dominique)    

In a humble apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka
neighborhood, about a mile south of the walls of the Old City, the world’s
oldest living Jew goes about his daily ritual. As he has for over a century,
the rabbi rises in the morning, puts on his tefillin, or prayer phylacteries,
with the help of one of his students, and says his morning prayers.

Then, he
sits to learn the Torah, Talmud, or kabbalah, examining it with the same fervor
and passion he did when he started learning as a teenager.

In addition to being the world’s oldest Jew, Rabbi
Zechariah Barashi, 114, is also the world’s oldest Kurd.

Barashi, still sharp and gregarious in his old age,
remembers details from events 80 years ago with surprising clarity. He gives
exact dates, names, and even prices of bus rides as he recounts his time
growing up in the Badinan region of Kurdistan, and his journey to the
British-controlled territory that would soon become Israel.

He was generous with his time to sit with me for
three hours to answer questions and tell his story.

Born in Barashi in 1900, Zechariah was the last
child born to Rabbi Eliyahu Barashi and his wife Simchah. Six of his siblings
died in their childhood, leaving him with two older sisters, Sarah and


His parents worked in traditional Jewish trades,
including farming vineyards, dates, and nuts. Jews, Barashi told me in his
home, also sewed Kurdish clothing, which were seen as especially well-made by
their Muslim neighbors. At the age of
eight, Zechariah moved with his grandfather to Atrush itself. His father
eventually joined them, becoming the rabbi of the Jewish community there, which
only numbered about 100 people.

 His family continued to move from village to
village as Barashi’s father served the Jews living in the region’s small
communities. “He would leave the house on Sunday and return on Friday,” Barashi
recounted. “Sometimes he would come home after two weeks.”

 Life was not easy for the Barashis. He remembers a
difficult three-year famine after the First World War.

“The Turks looted whatever they could after the
war,” he recalled, “and whoever survived the war died of hunger.”

It was also difficult for Jews to study Torah and
Talmud, as there were no yeshivas, or study halls, in the region. However, the
larger communities, like Duhok and Sindor, enjoyed large synagogues with
opportunities for study.

But, as opposed to many other Jewish communities
across the world, 90 percent of the Jews in Kurdistan could not read or write.
Less than one in ten even knew how to pray. “Despite this,” Barashi emphasized,
“the Jews kept the Sabbath and the holidays, family purity, a strictly Kosher
home, fear of heaven and parents, and respect for their elders.”

Because of the lack of education, the rabbi had to
explain the meaning of the Hebrew prayers in Aramaic or Kurmanji at the end of
the service so the community would understand.

Despite the challenges, Rabbi Barashi has fond
memories of his childhood.

When he wasn’t studying the Torah with his father at
home, he was out playing with the children of his village, Muslims and Jews

“We had excellent relations with the Muslim Kurds, like brothers. We
almost never fought. If there ever was a fight, they would quickly inform the
Agha, who would warn the parents that if their child acted up again, he would
expel the entire family.”

He sees no comparison between today’s tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the relationship between Jews and Muslim
Kurds in Kurdistan. “It was like the Garden of Eden there,” he said. “Today,
everything is madness.”

 Barashi remembers a man named Mirza as the Agha of Meriba, the town his family was living in. He was as “an important man, one of
the greatest governors in the mountains of Kurdistan.”

Mirza’s wife saved Barashi’s life at the age of 11.
It was after the Passover holidays, and not one speck of food remained in the
house. For two days, the family did not eat, and Zechariah fell sick. His
father was away trying to buy meat on the black market. After having lost so
many children, his mother was determined to save him. She went to the Agha’s
wife, and begged her for food.

The wife hesitated at first, saying she was
afraid her husband would find out, and be angry that he would now be forced to
give to everyone who asked. Barashi’s mother persisted, her only son’s life was
at stake, and assured her that she would hide the food under her dress, and no
one would know. The Agha’s wife agreed, and the boy recovered.

Read article in full


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.