Month: February 2015

Uri Orbach z”l raised refugees’ profile

Point of No Return salutes Pensioner Affairs (Senior Citizens) Minister Uri Orbach z”l, who died  aged 54 some 10 days ago. The minister was responsible for the campaign for justice for Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

 Orbach died after fighting an unspecified blood illness.

Representing the Jewish Home party, Orbach took a break from political life last month
to receive treatment and was hospitalized in Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek
hospital, where doctors said they were fighting for his
life.

While he held the ministerial portfolio, he helped raise the profile of the Jewish refugee issue. His ministry ran a radio advertising campaign in 2013.

The project was called “V’higateta l’bincha”:‘And you will tell your children’. The saying comes from the Passover Haggadah: and enjoins  Jews to pass on the story of their exodus from Egypt to succeeding generations.

Under Orbach’s direction,  the Ministry of Senior Citizens had a key role in documenting and
computerising data pertaining to Jews from Arab countries and their lost
property. The purpose was to collect testimony of how life was for the Jews in
Arab lands and what happened there while the people who remember it are
still alive.

Orbach
had been quoted as saying that collecting information “is important because of these people’s
right to their lost property, but the chances of receiving compensation
are small…I don’t want to commit to missions that we may not be able to
handle, but we will up the pace of the documentation,” he said.

However, the Pensioners’ Affairs Ministry Director-General Gilad Smama said that his
budget was too low for the project. By the end of 2014, Smama
expected the ministry to gather testimony from 3,000 people. 

“There is no more just compensation demand that the one by Jews who emigrated from Arab countries,” Orbach wrote on his Facebook page.
“Many were forced to leave their homes in the early 1950s after ongoing
harassment and persecution,” he wrote, adding that his own Ministry had
recently embarked on a project to categorize and list the lost property.

However, he cautioned against a  proposal floated by the US in 2014 for compensation for Jewish refugees to be included in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.  “The compensation component,
justified as it was, was thrown into the agreement to convince Israelis
to accept the proposal, as if to say that the more territory we give up,
the greater the compensation,” he warned.

“We must remember that Jews, unlike the Palestinians, did not
threaten the existence of their homelands or anyone else,” Orbach wrote.
“They did not declare war on Iraq, Yemen, or Egypt. They left with
nothing because of pressure and danger. They must go on demanding their
rights, not as a way to prevent or encourage a diplomatic agreement, but
because it is a matter of justice.”

Just  two months before his death, Orbach was embroiled in a controversy over the appearance of singer Amir Benayoun at a ceremony held at the President’s residence to mark the first ever Day of Remembrance for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. President Rivlin cancelled Benayoun’s appearance over a song he had written which Rivlin esteemed was racist towards Arabs. Orbach, said that he would cancel his
own appearance at the upcoming event out of deference for Benayoun’s
rights.

“The
cancellation of singer Amir Benayoun’s concert at
the President’s house, marking the expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and
Iran, contradicts our position,” Orbach stated. Orbach added that while
he respected Rivlin, he viewed the cancellation as an infringement on
freedom of expression.

Sidon synagogue houses destitute Palestinians

This AFP story has been popping up all over the media, but it’s not the first time that the Sidon synagogue has been written about. The piece perpetuates the false narrative that the synagogue – and the Jewish community – were victims of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, whereas the Jewish quarter was most likely abandoned and Palestinian refugees moved in as early as 1948.

In an alleyway in the Old City of
Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon, a run-down synagogue that once served a
vibrant Jewish community now houses destitute Syrian and Palestinian
families.

There are only a
handful of signs that the building — abandoned as Lebanon’s Jews fled
the country in the last decades — was once a house of worship.

The sun shining on the blue paint peeling from its walls enters through a skylight adorned with wrought-iron stars of David.

An alleyway leading to a run-down Jewish synagogue is seen in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon

An alleyway leading to a run-down Jewish synagogue  in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon (Photo: ©Joseph Eid /AFP)

The remains of a large mural in red and gold decorate the interior, though its Hebrew letters have been painted over.

For
decades the building in the heart of Sidon’s Jewish quarter was central
to the city’s Jewish community, which dated to the Roman era.

But for the last 25 years, Syrian Jihad al-Mohammed has known it simply as home.

“In 1990, the place was abandoned and infested with rats,” he told AFP. “I cleaned it up and I moved in.”

Mohammed,
who moved to Lebanon for work, lives in the building with his six
children, wife and mother — one of five Palestinian and Syrian families
who have made their homes in the unlikely setting.

Built
in 1850, the synagogue still technically belongs to the Jewish
community, but has played host to numerous other residents since the
1982 departure of Sidon’s last Jewish family, the Levys.

During
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Israeli soldiers took up positions in the
synagogue, and later Syrian intelligence forces set up inside the
building.

“It was a house of worship, but for me it’s just a house like any other. I’m just a tenant,” Mohammed said.

The
Syrian’s home is set up in the part of the synagogue where men once
prayed and includes a kitchen, a small bathroom, two bedrooms and a
living room with a television.

On the walls, Hebrew renderings of the Book of Genesis and Jewish laws have been daubed over with red paint.

But while little remains of the synagogue’s former life, its past has not been forgotten.

“I’ve
received visitors from Canada, France and Brazil who showed me photos
of their (Jewish Lebanese) ancestors from Sidon,” said Mohammed.

In
2012, two rabbis from Neturei Karta — a group of anti-Zionist Jews who
believe that the state of Israel should not exist — prayed in the
synagogue, much to the surprise of its residents.

It
was the first prayer held in the building for 40 years, and came as
part of a tour that also included a visit to the nearby tomb of Zebulon,
one of the sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob.

Nagi
Gergi Zeidan, a specialist on the Jews of Lebanon, says the synagogue
once housed 50 Torah scrolls dating to the Roman era, which were seized
by Israelis during their 1982 invasion.

For now, there is little chance the synagogue will return to its former purpose, though Mohammed said he would leave if asked.

“But I am attached to this place,” he said.

Separated
from him by a wall is his Palestinian neighbour Warda, who has lived
for the past seven years with her children in the female prayer section
of the synagogue.

She grew up in the neighbourhood with her parents, who were expelled from their land after Israel’s creation in 1948.

“I
remember playing with Jewish children and seeing Jewish women praying
here on the wooden benches,” she said, showing off the living room she
has fashioned. (I doubt this is true – ed)

She recalled
the kippa hats worn by the faithful, and the Sabbath, when she would
turn on the lights for observant Jews who could not operate machinery
during the day of rest.

“There was no tension. But when Israel invaded, they became afraid and they left. There is no one left.”

Lebanon’s Jewish population has dwindled from 7,000 in 1967 to just 35 in 2006, according to Zeidan’s research.

In
Sidon, where there are still buildings bearing the names of Jewish
families like Nigri, Hadid and Balanciano, the community numbered more
than 1,000 in 1956, but had disappeared completely by 1985.

Read article in full 

More about the synagogue and Jews of Sidon

Yemenite author wins literary prize

A prestigious literary prize has been awarded to the Yemenite Israeli author Ayelet Tsabari. While Tsabari is to be applauded for trying to change the Eurocentric character of Israeli history, her work should not be seen (as hailed by Sigal Samuel in the Forward),  as a victory for ‘Arab Jews’: most Jews from Arab countries would reject the expression.

Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth: Stories, has been named the winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The $100,000 prize, which is one of the most generous literary awards, alternates between fiction and non-fiction yearly (last year’s nonfiction winner was Matti Friedman for his book The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible). Kenneth Bonert, author of The Lion Seeker: A Novel, was named this year’s runner-up and will be awarded $25,000.

In Tsabari’s debut story collection, she explores Israeli history
through characters of Mizrahi background—Jews of Middle Eastern and
North African descent—who are at the crossroads of nationalities,
religions, and communities.

“I grew up not seeing myself and my family in literature, so writing The Best Place on Earth
was a way to create the characters that were missing from my childhood
stories,” Tsabari said in a statement. “By portraying characters of
Mizrahi background I was hoping to complicate readers’ perceptions of
Israel and Jewishness, and to expand and broaden their ideas of what a
Jewish story and Jewish experience can be.”

Read article in full 

The Forward article

Times of Israel

The Adenite couple behind the Esther cinema

 The Esther cinema, now a boutique hotel on Dizengoff Circle in Tel Aviv

What does a boutique hotel built in Bauhaus style in central Tel Aviv have to do with the old British protectorate of Aden?

The link between the two is a remarkable couple, Esther and Moses Nathaniel. Both were born in Aden, at the tip of Yemen, when the port was an outpost of the British empire. They packed their bags in 1924 and arrived in the burgeoning city of Tel Aviv. They built the Dizengoff cinema, as it was originally known, in 1930.  It was designed by the Ukraine-born architect Yehuda Magidovich and renamed the Esther Cinema in 1931.

The marriage of Esther and Moses was a love match opposed by their families. Moses was from a poor family, self-taught. But he became an independent, successful businessman and the managing director of a commercial giant, ‘Menachem Moshe’.

The company brought him into contact with Esther’s family. Esther was born to an affluent and influential Adenite family whose members were leaders of the community for 150 years. According to an explanation in the hotel foyer, “Esther was the senior grandchild who knew how to take privileges unheard of in her generation and use them to her advantage.” She studied in a missionary school, invited private tutors to teach her and opened bank accounts in Paris and Tel Aviv.

Esther and Moses met at the company offices and held a secret love affair for six years. Before they moved to Israel as a married couple, their courtship was conducted through coded love letters and hasty meetings.

When the couple died, the Esther cinema passed to their grandson, Dani Goldsmith. It was converted into an hotel, but the main staircase and foyer recall its past purpose and display a massive film projector and old film canisters. Guests can see classic film clips projected in the reception area.

Iranian guards restore stolen scroll

Cynics will say that this story from the official Fars News Agency, of the recovery of a Torah scroll by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is part of the regime’s charm offensive towards the US and its partners as it negotiates a nuclear deal with Iran. The Jerusalem Post reports:


 A sefer torah in a synagogue in Tehran. The photo was taken in 2013 (Photo: AFP)

An ancient Torah scroll that was recently stolen from a synagogue in
southern Iran was reportedly located and returned to the Jewish
community by members of a volunteer paramilitary group in the country,
local media reported Sunday.

According to Iran’s semi-official
Fars news agency, a number of valuable manuscripts went missing this
month from a synagogue in the southwestern city of Shiraz.

Forces
belonging to the Islamic Republic’s Basij militia, which operates under
the Revolutionary Guard Corps, allegedly recovered one Torah scroll and
returned it to the local Jewish community, Fars reported.

Iran
has been home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.
Current estimates put the population of Jews in the Islamic Republic
between 8,000-25,000.

Read article in full 

Iranian Jews do not need to attend school on Sabbath

About

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.