Month: May 2014

A schoolboy’s vivid memories of the Farhud

 On the eve of the 73rd anniversary of the outbreak of the Farhud pogrom in Iraq, Point of No Return is posting this vivid extract from the memoirs of Shmuel Moreh, who was then a Baghdad schoolboy. Some 179 Jews were killed and thousands wounded  in the two days of anti-Jewish mayhem which swept through Iraq’s cities on 1 and 2 June 1941.

“The year 1941 was one of the most
tragic years in the life of the Jews of Iraq. It was a year of quick changes in
the political, economic and social relations between Arabs (Muslim and
Christian) on one side and Jews on the other side.

As a child who lived in the
modern Jewish quarter of al-Battawiyyin inhabited by upper middle class in
Baghdad, I was a pupil of the Al-Sa’doon Exemplary School. It was established in 1937 as a
Government mixed school founded for children of the Iraqi Royal
family, high-ranking civil and army officers, judges and secretaries. It mirrored the attitude of the government towards the Jewish citizens of
Iraq. I was one of three Jewish pupils who studied there among majority of
Muslims. We suffered daily harassments, insults and mockery.

A few days after the defeat of the Iraqi army in its war against the British army at  its bases in Habbaniya
and Sin al-Dhubban, Jews were attacked in the streets; their houses were marked
as Jewish by anti-Jewish organizations, and I was able to narrowly escape being
lynched by my Muslim and Christians colleagues at my school.

On 31 May, 1941 after the defeat of the Iraqi Army against the British in
Iraq, Radio Baghdad announced that the next day, the Regent and the members of
the Iraqi government would return to Baghdad and urged the people to receive him
with joy. We were very happy and optimistic that the nightmare of the pro-Nazi
government had collapsed, and felt safe to go out of doors.

 June 1, 1941 was the first day of Shevu’ot. My father went out to  the Meir
Twaiq Synagogue near our home for the festival prayer. The minute he put
his foot out of our door, Abu ‘Alwan, the milkman who lived with his wives and
cows opposite our house in the date palm orchard known as Bustan Mamoo, called my
father in a warning voice: “Ibrahim, Abu Jack, return home quickly and close
your door, nobody should go out today. You don’t know what is happening in
Baghdad?” He whispered to my father some words.

My father’s face became very
serious and worried. He closed the door quickly and ordered his six children with
a severe voice to help him fortify the door with heavy furniture. He asked my
elder brother to bring the revolver from its secret pit under the tiles of the
bathroom, to load it and bring it to him.

 He ordered the rest of his younger
children to collect bricks, iron bars and objects and to take them to the roof,
to defend ourselves in case we were attacked. We were all tense and frightened
at the news that some Jews were massacred in the Old Quarter of Baghdad.

the evening we noticed heavy smoke and heard shots coming from that direction. At
about eight o’clock a shot rang out near by from the direction of our uncle’s
house, followed by terrifying cries for help. We were able to recognize
the voice of our uncle, a former Police Officer and Commander of a police
station in Baghdad, Haim ‘Aynachi, and his daughters.

We were terrified. We
children couldn’t stop our teeth from chattering, my mother and my two sisters
were ordered to read a chapter of the Psalms asking God to save my uncle’s family
of four daughters and one son. Soon more fires and heavy smoke were seen; the
firing of heavy machine guns and bullets was followed by the terrifying cries of
desperate voices. Calls for help and mercy were heard from the faraway Jewish
houses of the Old City. We were unable to sleep all night.

The next day, our
gardener, the milkman, Abu ‘Alwan, knocked at our door; I went to the window to
see who was knocking. Abu ‘Alwan was standing at our threshold. He took  a long,
sharp knife out of his clothing and told me, “Sami, look, tell your father that I
am guarding you and will defend you! Don’t be afraid. Anyone who would try to
attack you will be slaughtered with this knife!” I thanked him and ran to tell
my family of Abu ‘Alwan’s noble gesture and bravery.

We felt somehow relieved.
At least he didn’t betray us, as some Muslims did to their Jewish neighbors.
However, the thought that a single Muslim might help  stop the incited
savage mobs, thirsty for the blood and property of defenseless Jews, was comforting.

Later on, frightening scenes and desperate screams were seen and heard once more. The
turmoil of fast-driving lorries and cars, the firing of machine guns and screams were
heard once more.  At the end of the
second day of the massacres we were able to hear the news bulletin on the Radio
of Baghdad announcing safe conduct. A Muslim cleric called to save the life of
the Jews since they were Dhimmis, protected by the Qur’an and the Prophet
Muhammad; order was maintained and people could go out for shopping and
return to their business.

The first thing we did was to visit our uncle’s family. He showed us the
heavy furniture with which he fortified his door and was proud that he ordered
his young beautiful daughter to cry for help while escaping from one roof to
another to avoid being raped. He was furious with his Muslim neighbor for his betrayal:
he had warned my uncle not to complain to the police.

My brother Raymond and I went to
buy bread and food for the family. A Muslim girl ignored our queue. We ordered
her to wait for us in the long queue. She looked us with hate and anger and
shouted toward us: “You bloody Jews! In spite of our massacre, you are
still daring to face us with your arrogant remarks. You will see, in the next
Farhud, we will slaughter you all.”

 Two days later, an endless stream of wounded and humiliated, hungry, and penniless
Jews came knocking on the doors of the lucky Jewish neighborhoods which the
rioters and murderers did not dare to attack. The told us with streaming tears
in their eyes, about their horror and suffering, telling us terrible stories of
rape, murder of men who dared to defend their wives and daughters’ honor,
their Muslim neighbors who defended or betrayed them, the merciless soldiers
and policemen who kidnapped, raped and killed even small children. Our parents
tried to prevent us from hearing about these vicious atrocities.

All the Jewish
neighborhoods were kind enough to help with money, clothes, shoes, bedsheets,
pillow, kitchen utensils for cooking. The poor victims would murmur angrily:
“The damned rascals robbed us of everything. They even took with them brooms and old shoes”.

One of our relatives told us how her 12-year-old son was shot by a
policeman when trying to escape to the next roof.

 Even after 50 years when
I questioned her about the massacre of the Farhud, she started weeping as if it
happened yesterday. “When my son fell by the bullet in his thigh, I took him
in my bosom, trying to bind his wound in vain and ease his horror. He was
bleeding heavily. He looked at me ‘with his big blue eyes’ screaming horrifying
screams, asking for help. But nobody could help. Bullets were whistling above
our heads and all around. Screaming, hungry and wounded men and women begged us
for help, and anyone who dared go down to the streets would be killed
by the maddened mob. My son was bleeding in my arms a slow, horrible death. Even
God did not have mercy upon us, and he died, he died… He died upon my breast,
from where I fed him when he was a child!” She was weeping and knocking
upon her chest with great grief.

Back at school, we heard of other tragedies of friends.  My brother Mordechai brought home one of his
friends who lost his parents in the terrible massacres. Our mother asked us to
help him with clothes, money and supply all his needs.

At first, the attacked Jews felt that the main aim of the soldiers and
policemen was to kill as many Jews as possible, but when the mob started stealing
Jewish property, they joined in the plunder, and in this way many escaped
certain death.

From the report of the Investigating Committee set up by the Iraqi
government, we learned that the massacre known as the Farhud started when the
Regent, his entourage and the former Prime Minister of Iraq returned and the
British Army desisted from entering Baghdad to maintain order.

During these
two days 179 Jews were killed and thousands were wounded. We felt humiliated
and betrayed. When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, we were afraid
that another Farhud would start. Most of us felt that the Iraqi government and
the people did not consider us their citizens. A Jewish state had been
established and a wave of persecution started. We felt that Iraq was not safe
any more and in fact we have had to replace the Palestinian refugees who
escaped the territory of the new Jewish State. When we had the choice to
leave to Israel during 1950-1951, we left en masse to Israel on eagles’ wings.”

Shmuel Moreh is an emeritus Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at
the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel Prize Laureate in Oriental Studies
1999); Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland (1986); Chairman of the
Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq in Israel and Chairman of the Academic
Committee, The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel.

More articles about the Farhud 

‘Terrorist attack on Djerba foiled’

Visitors at this year’s Lag Ba’Omer pilgrimage on Djerba

The Tunisian authorities foiled a terrorist attack aimed at the Lag Ba’Omer pilgrimage which ended earlier this month.

According to Tunisie-Secret, interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa congratulated members of the national guard and army on 25 May for conducting a preventative operation to neutralise a ‘spectacular’ terrorist threat.

Three terrorists from the border with Libya had been arrested on the night of 24 May, according to Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou. They were seeking to target not only the pilgrimage, a key money-spinner for Tunisia’s economy, but also prominent personalities.

But Tunisie-Secret claims that, according to information leaked from the Ministry of the Interior, eight were arrested. They were part of a group of  20 terrorists, many home-grown, and including two who have been on the run since murdering the opposition leader Mohamed Chokri Belaid. 

Even before the arrests, however,  the terrorists were deterred by the massive security operation deployed on Djerba to protect the pilgrims to the al-Ghriba synagogue.

The spokesman of the Ministry of Interior,
Mohamed Ali Laroui, said that the security services had found and neutralised mines and explosive belts for suicide bombers.

In April 2002 the bombing of the Al-Ghriba synagogue killed 19, including 14 German tourists.

Read article in full (French) 

Djerba pilgrimage attracts 1,500 

AFP report on Times of Israel

Djerba jewellers go on strike

A souk on Djerba

The Jewish jewellers of  Houmet Essouk on the island of Djerba went on strike on 25 and 26 May following a stabbing of one of their number on 22 May. It’s the fourth such incident since September 2013,  according to the Jewish website Harissa.

The stabbing victim was attacked by a religious extremist when he tried to stop him hurling insults at the Jewish shopeepers in the souk.

“We are asking the authorities to take this incident seriousy and not turn a blind eye. We are Tunisian citizens. There ought to be no difference between a Muslim and a Jew on Djerba. People of different religions have always lived together and should continue to do so,” said Nahoun Mamou on Tataouine radio.

The day after the attack, the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities (ATSM) condemned the attack against a Tunisian and deplored the hostility which  the Jewish community of Djerba is facing from Islamist radicals. But the authorities have kept strangely silent. 

Read article in full (French)

Lebanon does not accept Jews as humans

The Lebanese passport of Yaacoub Larmen, a Jew born in 1904 (photo: al-Sharq al-Aswat)

The public face of the ‘Lebanese Jewish community’, Isaac Arazi, has been proclaiming its rebirth while denying that Lebanese Jews have any links to Israel. But three other ‘clandestine’ Jews tell A-sharq al Aswat that some in Lebanon do not accept Jews as human beings (With thanks: Sharon)

(..) The perceived relationship between Lebanon’s Jews and the Jewish
‘homeland’ to the south raises major problems for some Lebanese.
Speaking forcefully, Arazi said, “To be clear, if our allegiance was to
Israel, then we would not stay here another moment.” He explicitly
denied any relation to those who wish to live on the land of Palestine,
stressing that “not all Jews are Zionists. Our identity is Lebanese and
we belong to Lebanon, a hundred percent.”

But Sonia, a Lebanese Jew in her sixties, differed from Arazi. She told Asharq Al-Awsat that, in her opinion, “there is no Zionist or Jewish; Jews are all one and they cannot evade their identity.”

“After the emergence of major hostility between Arabs and Jews, my
husband’s family deprived me of my children because of my Jewish
heritage,” Sonia continued. “They fought me using all forms of
psychological torture. I left my family, who had chosen to go and live
in Israel, in order to stay in Lebanon with my husband and children. But
the consequences of the Israeli–Arab conflict show no mercy for my
existence as a human being.”
(My emphasis)

Sonia said that she did not care about the isolation imposed on the
community, ending her comments unequivocally. “When I die, I want to be
buried in a Jewish cemetery with a Jewish rabbi praying over me,” she
said. “The Torah is my sacred text, and Judaism is my religion. I will
never give that up.”

According to official statistics published in 2003, there were only
60 official members of the so-called Israeli community in Lebanon. More
accurate statistics, however, indicate that this number is closer to
1,500, with most members officially switching to other religions in
order to avoid persecution. One such clandestine member of Lebanon’s
“Israeli community” is Ibrahim, nicknamed the “tailor of the princes.”

A Lebanese Jewish newspaper called the "Jewish Universe," published on August 24, 1922. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The August 24, 1922, edition of a Lebanese Jewish newspaper called the “Jewish Universe.” (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Qur’anic verses hang of the walls of the shop belonging to Ibrahim, a
Jewish tailor in his seventies, along with pictures which dispel any
doubts a visitor might have about his identity or religion. He sits on a
brown leather chair wearing brown wire-framed glasses. In his hand he
holds sewing tools which have accompanied him for more than 25 years—a
needle, some thread—and some slacks that need mending.

Speaking with a Syriac accent, Ibrahim welcomes the customers who
frequent his shop to buy suits and shirts because of the high quality of
his tailoring and his reputation in the neighborhood.

Ibrahim told Asharq Al-Awsat: “On paper, I am a Muslim. I
changed my religion to escape the problems and absurdities that
surrounded me. Some Lebanese do not accept our presence among them, and
we have become obsessed with living as Jews in public.”

He stopped for a moment to light his cigar and brush the dust off his
white shirt before continuing his narrative, recalling a time when
Lebanon’s Jewish community did not have to hide: “Tailoring is a family
business. I used to tailor clothes for princes, ministers and
ambassadors of all Arab nationalities. I used to carry a diplomatic
passport and receive invitations from Arab notables to accompany them to
events in order to take care of their uniforms.”

Ibrahim laughed when asked about the way of life for a Jew in
Lebanon. “Jews in Lebanon experience the same difficult social
conditions as the rest of Lebanese society, and share with them a common
concern for a country on the brink of the abyss,” he said. “Their
opportunities for friendship are limited, and they keep their
‘Jewishness’ a secret. I’m one of them.”

On a street opposite Ibrahim’s shop, two women live in a nursing
home. The home is old-fashioned, and its walls are decorated with
paintings that demonstrate good taste. A clean and uncluttered grand
piano sits inside the house with a book of sheet music perched on the
side of the bench. Small religious tokens are scattered around,
including a menorah.

A woman in her eighties spoke very slowly while sipping coffee with
milk, her hands shaking. She relived the memories of her childhood in
Wadi Abu Jamil—the former Jewish quarter of Beirut—with great sadness.
“I was a music teacher,” she said. “I used to teach students how to read
sheet music, and I loved to play the piano. My parents died and I was
left alone with my sister in Lebanon after our relatives and friends
traveled to the land of exile [Israel], leaving behind their homes and
property. They still dream of someday returning to their first and only
country: Lebanon.”

Speaking in refined French, she told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The
number of Lebanese Jews today does not exceed 200, all of whom are
between 50 and 70 years old. And the number of married women among them
is few because of the great migration, which emptied the country of its
Jewish men. It is difficult for a Jewish woman to be in a relationship
with a man from another religion who does not accept the idea of their
children, male or female, carrying the religious identity which,
according to the Jewish religion, the mother passes on to her children
at birth. So we are left without family.”

The “professor,” as she likes to be called, described Lebanon as an
“open country” and its people as “intellectuals,” denying being exposed
to any insult or abuse because of her religion. Friendship, love, and
mutual respect link her with her neighbors. “In the 1970s, many people
tried to entice us to travel to Israel with attractive offers, but the
idea was rejected outright,” she said.

“Some bigots may ignorantly judge us, but they have to remember before anything that we are human beings.”

Read article in full

Arabic version 

Synagogue re-opens, without Jews

Judaica ascribed to ‘destroyed’ synagogue

 Auction houses in the West  may using exaggerated reports of the destruction of Jewish holy sites in order to make a mint on the sale of Judaica. Adam Blitz investigates in the Times of Israel: 

The Jobar synagogue near Damascus: contrary to some claims it is neither Syria’s oldest nor has it been destroyed (Photo: Christopher Knoch)

On 17 December 2013 Sotheby’s (New York) commenced its Important Judaica
sale. To be auctioned was “An Exceedingly Rare Hebrew Synagogue
Carving” (Lot 93). Sotheby’s catalogue states that the object was made
of Walnut and incised with seven words from Psalm 19 verse 9 framed by
an ebony border and inlaid with bone.

The item (below) was perceived to be a door to a (Torah) Ark: the Aron ha Kodesh or Hechal , the
ornamental cupboard within a synagogue in which the sacred scrolls were
housed. Provenance was ascribed to Jobar, Syria’s much beleaguered
synagogue of late, two kilometres North East of Damascus.

Lot 93 Sotheby's Wood Carving

Lot 93: the wood carving from Sotheby’s Important Judaica auction (courtesy of Sotheby’s)

The Catalogue Note was both explicit and ambiguous. It stated that the carving originated circa the 11th Century and was unequivocal in that the synagogue of Jobar was at least
2,000 years old. The reader, or rather the bidder, was informed that
Jobar was “once the most important Jewish pilgrimage sites in Syria” and
that the synagogue “ha[d] since been totally destroyed”. The object may
in fact have been “all that remains of this ancient and venerable
[Jewish] community”, we were similarly told.

Yet the same entry was also vague. Sotheby’s associated the carving with another item: an Ark door from theBen Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.
And to this extent the auctioneers directed the public to the
Walters-Yeshiva University exhibition, “Threshold to the Sacred: the Ark
of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue ”. However it was unclear from
Sotheby’s Catalogue Note whether its object of comparison was a non-extant Ark door (which bore the same Hebrew text and discernible only from photographic evidence [4]) or an actual Ark door. One such door was on display in New York City at the time of publication.

The carving was listed by Sotheby’s with an
estimated price between $30, 000 and $50, 000 US dollars. The Lot sold
on the day for $40, 000 US dollars (or $50,000 US dollars including the
Buyer’s Premium). The item was not purchased by a museum but by a
private collector.

This was not the first time the carving had
been sold on the open market. In July of 2011 the Israeli auction house
Kedem listed the object as part of its Judaica Auction. No. 16. On that occasion the original estimate was $5,000 US dollars.

Read article in full


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