Although Islamic State ‘s record of destroying non-Muslim shrines and relics does not bode well, a video thought to have been taken by IS (ISIS) and published on 26 May shows the historic site of Palmyra to be intact ‘so far’, a Syrian official has stated. The ancient Graeco-Roman city contains houses bearing Hebrew inscriptions. Ilan Ben Zion reports for Times of Israel:
Among the archaeological gems
from Palmyra, the pearl of Syria’s desert, at risk after the Islamic
State’s takeover last week are vestiges of its Jewish past, including
the longest Biblical Hebrew inscription from antiquity: the opening
verses of the Shema carved into a stone doorway.
archaeologists who visited the site in the 19th and 20th century
discovered Hebrew verses etched into the doorframe of a house in the
ancient city. But whether that inscription is still at the site is
The last time a European scholar documented it
in situ was 1933, when Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik of Hebrew
University photographed it.
“What may have happened to it since is
anyone’s guess,” Professor David Noy, co-author of Inscriptiones
Judaicae Orientis (Jewish Inscriptions of the Near East), wrote in an
email on Friday.
views of the Shema inscription found in a doorway in Palmyra, taken in
1884 and printed in Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. (S. Landauer)
Palmyra was one of the Roman Empire’s major
cities, rising to prominence in the first centuries of the common era as
a vassal state and entrepôt connecting West and East.
Situated at an oasis in the desert frontier separating the empires of
Rome and Parthia, Palmyra grew to an estimated population of
150,000-200,000 at its height in the third century CE. Textiles,
perfumes, spices and gems came from India and the Far East, and metals,
glass, wine and cash from Rome passed overland, bypassing the longer Red
Sea trade route.
Because of its unique location, Palmyrene
culture and art exhibited a fusion of Roman and Persian traditions.
Traditional Mesopotamian mud bricks comprised the majority of the city’s
architecture, Jørgen Christian Meyer, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen explained,
but temples to Semitic gods such as Bel, Baalshamin and Al-lat were
constructed in Classical style with stout columns hewn of stone.
When the city was abandoned following its
destruction in 273 CE and left to the elements, the mud brick
disintegrated, leaving behind a petrified forest of stone columns.
During its centuries of prosperity and decline it was home to a thriving Jewish community.
“What we see in Palmyra is a multicultural, and possibly also a multi-identity city,” Meyer, who headed a Norwegian-Syrian archaeological excavation
at the site in 2011, just as the civil war started heating up. “Here
we’ve got this mixture of Greek, Aramaic, Middle Eastern, Roman culture.
This is fantastic.”
“That’s why it’s a unique place from a historical point of view, a cultural point of view,” he said.
That fusion included Jews. Two locally
produced terra cotta lamps found next to one of the great pagan temples
bear menorahs on either side of a conch, suggesting close integration of
Jews and gentiles.
Solomon and the plan for the First Temple. (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Co.
Known in Hebrew and Aramaic as Tadmor, Jewish
legend attributed the city’s construction to King Solomon. Josephus
Flavius, writing in the first century CE, ascribed its construction to
King Solomon, saying that the city of Tamar referred to in Kings I was
the “very great city” Josephus’s contemporaries knew in the Syrian
“Now the reason why this city lay so remote
from the parts of Syria that are inhabited is this, that below there is
no water to be had, and that it is in that place only that there are
springs and pits of water,” the Jewish Roman historian
said. “When he had therefore built this city, and encompassed it with
very strong walls, he gave it the name of Tadmor, and that is the name
it is still called by at this day among the Syrians, but the Greeks name
Modern scholars, however, dispute the veracity
of Josephus’s claim that it was built by Solomon. Archaeological
evidence indicates that the Classical city of Palmyra didn’t predate the
first century BCE, and the biblical city of Tamar was likely in today’s
The UST, which started out as a merged Arab-Jewish club, became an all-Jewish team in the 1930s. Photo from 1932
Sport and politics don’t mix, as the saying goes. But when they do, they can have deadly consequences.
A football match in 1917 between Tunisian Muslims and Jews almost caused civil war.
Just after the 1917 armistice was signed and in honour of Tunisian soldiers returning from the front, the Stade Tunisois all-Jewish team were due to play the Franco-Arab Stade Africain in the Franco-Arab Cup.
Tunisia was then a French protectorate: Tunisian Muslims were recruited into the French colonial army, but Jews were given dispensation from military service, thus causing great resentment among the Arabs. Matters were not helped by the recent announcement of the Balfour Declaration in favour of a Jewish home in Palestine.
The atmosphere during the match was electric. The Jewish team won 2 -1. Resentment boiled over: scuffles broke out between supporters of the opposing teams. Some were professional boxers: Hassen Karroche, Tunisian heavyweight champion, together with Abderrahmane Gamane, exchanged blows with Judas Cohen, a Stade Tunisois player and career boxer.
In spite of police attempts to quell the trouble,violence spread beyond the stadium into the streets of the Tunis Medina. Shops in the Jewish quarter were broken into. News than Belgacem, the linesman, had been beaten up by Judas Cohen and taken to hospital, sent the mob into a rage.
Things began to calm down when Judas Cohen was singled out as the main trouble-maker. He was arrested and imprisoned. Ismail, Bey of Tunis, released him at the request of his Jewish mistress, the dancer Julie Chaouia.
The Jews gave Judas Cohen a hero’s welcome, shouting slogans at the Stade Africain team. Hostilities flared up again, plunging Tunis into chaos once more.
The situation deteriorated so badly that the defence minister General Lignolet suspended all sporting activities for a whole year.
Play waas resumed when Sadok Ben Mustapha of the Stade Africain and Haddad of the Stade
Tunisois hit upon the idea of merging their teams into a model of coexistence and tolerance – the Union Sportive Tunisienne or UST.
However, sectarianism soon infected football once again – the Arabs ended up with their own team, the Italians theirs, the Maltese theirs and the French theirs. In time the UST became an exclusively Jewish club. Its glorydays were in the 1930s when the club won many cups. By 1950, however, the team was losing its best players, most of whom emigrated to France.
Seventy seven years after the British made the Yemenite Jews of Kfar Shiloah (Silwan) in east Jerusalem leave for their own safety, a historic synagogue once again echoed to the sound of Jewish prayers, music and singing. Arutz Sheva reports:
For the first time in 77 years, festive Jewish prayers were held on
Monday in one of modern Jerusalem’s oldest synagogues: The long-hidden
and inaccessible Hechal Shlomo of the Yemenite village.
Dozens of people took part in the joyous festivities, which marked
the full circle of Jewish settlement in eastern Jerusalem. Minister of
Agriculture Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) – amidst traditional Yemenite Jewish
prayers, music and foods, and some Ashkenazim and Sepharadim as well –
took part in the re-dedication of the synagogue. Affixing the mezuzah to
the doorpost, he recited the traditional blessings, including “Blessed
is He Who restores the borders of the widow.”
It was back in 1885 that Yisrael Dov Frumkin founded the village,
built the synagogue, and paved the way for some 65 Yemenite Jewish
families to live on the slopes of the Mt. of Olives. Most of the land
land had been contributed by a Zionist philanthropist known as
The settlement thrived, but in the 1930’s, the Arab riots that
engulfed the Land of Israel did not pass over the Yemenite Village. The
British rulers told the Jews that they could not protect them and that
they must leave, but promised to look after their property and that they
could later return.
Daniel Luria of the Ateret Cohanim Association, which oversaw the
modern return to the synagogue, explained what happened next: “A year
later, Shlomo Ze’evi – father of the famous Rehavam (Gandi) Ze’evi –
stood in this very synagogue, and was shocked and angered at the
destruction that the Arabs had
wrought here.” There was also great bitterness at the British and their
promises; the Jews were not allowed to return to their homes.
Now, years later, Ateret Cohanim and many happy Jews were able to
return and celebrate another milestone in the national return of the
Jewish People to their sacred homeland. This followed great efforts in
re-purchasing the Jewish owned properties, resettling Jewish families in
various buildings around the neighborhood, and carefully identifying
Antisemitism is a principal reason why Turkey’s Jews are flocking to apply for Spanish passports. (The bill has still to be approved by the Spanish Senate). In spite of the symbolic restoration of synagogues where there are hardly any Jews left, Jews have condemned Turkish government-sponsored incitement as ‘collective punishment’.Article in the New York Times (with thanks: Nitza):
The synagogue at Edirne, restored for $ 2.5 million – but where are the Jews?
ISTANBUL — For Rafi, a local newspaper’s anti-Semitic crossword puzzle was the final affront. He knew he had to leave Turkey.
are many reasons to leave: a lack of work opportunities, growing
polarization within society and oppressive leadership. But the hatred
toward our community has been the tipping point for me,” said Rafi, 25, a
graphic designer based in Istanbul, who provided only his first name
out of fear of harassment by Turkish nationalists. “There is no future
Rafi is one of thousands of Sephardic Jews in Turkey who trace their ancestry to Spain
and are now applying for Spanish citizenship in anticipation of a
parliamentary bill expected to pass this month in Madrid that would
grant nationality to the Jews who were expelled in 1492, during the
are seeking visa-free travel within Europe and an opportunity to escape
what they see as rising anti-Semitism in Turkey. But many are taken
with the idea of reversing the trek their ancestors took centuries ago
as they escaped persecution in Spain and settled in the more tolerant
environs of the Ottoman Empire.
sentiment is not uncommon in the Turkish news media, but the
implications of the crossword puzzle sent shock waves across Turkey. It
featured an image of Adolf Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for
“Jews are attacked all over the world, but last year the level of hate speech in Turkey reached an unnerving level,” Rafi said.
the 15th century, about half a million Sephardic Jews sought the safety
of the Ottoman Empire, and they prospered there under the rule of
Sultan Bayezid II.
Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were
encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled,” the British-American
historian Bernard Lewis wrote in his book “The Jews of Islam.”
since the beginning of the 20th century and the founding of the
Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey’s Jewish population has been in sharp
decline. A discriminatory wealth tax in the 1940s introduced by a
secularist government, along with the establishment of the state of
Israel, reduced the number of Jewish residents by tens of thousands.
who stayed faced pressure to assimilate, and Turkish quickly replaced
Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of Sephardic Jews. Today, only a
small portion of older Sephardic Jews speak the language of their
grandmother would sing me Ladino lullabies, but I can only remember a
few words,” Rafi said. “Our generation is focusing on learning modern
Spanish for Spanish citizenship.”
the past decade, under the government of the Islamist-rooted Justice
and Development Party, and pressured by a string of deadly terrorist
attacks on synagogues and a surge in anti-Semitism, the Jewish
population — the vast majority of whom are Sephardic — has shrunk to
17,000 from 19,500 in 2005, according to figures obtained from the chief
rabbinate in Istanbul.
Jews have felt increasingly uneasy over the past two years, Selin Nasi,
a columnist for Salom, a Jewish weekly, acknowledged that Turkey had
taken some positive symbolic steps to improve relations with Jews.
Turkish government spent $2.5 million on a project to restore the Great
Synagogue of Edirne and participated in the United Nations’ Holocaust
Day for the first time this year.
steps are good, but we never see a continuation,” Ms. Nasi said. “It’s
always one step forward, one step back, confusing rhetoric and
inconsistent implementation that causes the community to be
At a rally last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
asserted that he was the first Muslim leader to denounce anti-Semitism.
He has, however, engaged in heated exchanges with the Israeli
leadership, primarily over Gaza. Some analysts say that those disputes,
combined with his dissemination of conspiracy theories that often
implicate Jews, have encouraged anti-Semitism.
Apprehension among Jews in Istanbul rose in 2013, after Mr. Erdogan accused an “interest rate lobby” of backing widespread antigovernment protests that were supposedly meant to bring down the economy and topple his government.
Turkey, you could say anti-Semitism is marginalized, until you turn on
the TV and see the president and other politicians cursing Jews in
public,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College
who specializes in Turkish-Israeli affairs. “When you have public
displays of hate speech from politicians, it changes the landscape
to a poll conducted in July 2013 for the Anti-Defamation League, 69
percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. During the war last
summer between Israel and Palestinian
militants in Gaza, pro-government news outlets in Turkey began a series
of anti-Semitic social media campaigns that stoked anti-Jewish
a Turkish singer posted “May God bless Hitler” on Twitter, Melih
Gokcek, the mayor of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, who has over 2.5 million
followers, responded, “I applaud you,” and he encouraged others to chime
Turks put the blame for the rise in anti-Jewish feelings on the actions
of the Israeli government, particularly the killing of civilians during
the Gaza war. “If the Turkish Jewish community does not put an end to
Israel’s actions, very bad things happen,” Bulent Yildirim, president of
the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, wrote on Twitter.
in the eyes of most of the Jews who were interviewed, that amounts to
collective punishment. “When lashing out at Israel, the government
condemns Jews without making a differentiation, which incites hatred
toward the community,” said Mert Levi, 26, a Sephardic Jew who left
Turkey for a few months last summer because of the tensions he felt in
was so thick, you could have cut it with a knife,” he said. “It got so
bad that in some circles, we had to think twice before giving our
Bursa, the northwestern province where the first Sephardic Jews arrived
by sea in the 16th century, only 65 Jews remain, most of them advanced
in age. Over the decades, thousands of families have moved to Istanbul
and Izmir, a southern city, to seek better work and education prospects.
If it were not for a few determined individuals, the Alaska Airlines airlift of Yemen’s Jews in 1949 might never have happened. Getting the refugees on the planes was the least of the problems: the aircraft were at risk of running out of fuel, and if they landed in enemy territory, the crew and passengers could be shot. Joe Spier tell the amazing story of Operation Magic Carpet in the San Diego Jewish World (with thanks: Geoffrey):
Alberta, Canada — The story of the modern exodus of “Beta Israel” the Jews of
Ethiopia during Operations Moses and Solomon, which together airlifted some
22,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, is well known. Less well known is the dramatic
exodus of over 48,000 Jews from Yemen. Almost unknown is the role played by
knows for certain when the first Jews came to Yemen. Local legend has them
being sent as traders by King Solomon. In any event, Jews have lived in Yemen
for many centuries. In that backward and poverty-stricken country, the Jews
were the poorest and lowest of citizens living in contempt and on sufferance as dhimmis. However, in their synagogues and schools, they taught their
male children to learn and write Hebrew. They never forgot their faith,
protected the traditions, observed the Sabbath and passed the Torah and Talmud
to each succeeding generation. Following World War I, when Yemen
became independent, life in that Muslim country for the Jews became
Anti-Semitic laws were revived; Jews were not permitted to walk on
pavements; in court a Jew’s evidence was not accepted against a Muslim’s;
Jewish orphans had to be converted to Islam. Some Jews were able to escape to
Palestine but most were trapped.
1947, following the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, the situation
of the Jews in Yemen turned from despair to physical danger. Arab rioters in
the adjacent port of Aden, then a British Crown colony and now part of Yemen,
killed 82 Jews and torched the Jewish quarter. The establishment of the State
of Israel on May 14, 1948 and Israel’s War of Independence increasingly
endangered the Yemeni Jews as it did in all Arab countries. It was not,
however, until May 1949, when the Imam of Yemen unexpectedly agreed to permit
all Jews to leave his country that they were able to flee. They longed to
return to Zion if only they had the means. At that time, slightly over 49,000
Jews lived in Yemen.
War of Independence ended in early 1949, Israel was devastated and virtually
bankrupt. Notwithstanding, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister,
defying logic and the advise of his economic advisors, ordered the immediate
and rapid “Ingathering of the Exiles”. Where would Israel get the money? “Go to
the Jews in the Diaspora and ask them for the money”, Ben-Gurion answered the
Jews of Yemen, Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to them and therefore they would
have to be transported by air to Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC), the international Jewish humanitarian aid organization, agreed
to fund the Yemenite exodus and organize the airlift, but they needed aircraft.
Airlines was founded in 1932, when Mac McGee purchased a used three passenger
Stinson and started an air charter business in Alaska. With the arrival of
James Wooten as president in 1947, the airline began to purchase surplus planes
from the U.S. Government and within a year became the
largest charter airline.
approached Wooten and asked if Alaska Airlines would agree to accept the Yemen
airlift. Wooten wanted Alaska Air to take on the mission of mercy but Ray
Marshall, Chairman of the Board, was cool. Marshall felt the deal was a waste
of the Airline’s time and money. It would take at least $50,000 to set up the
charter, cash that the Airline did not have. Marshall insisted that Wooten
front the funds himself. Wooten raised the $50,000 by borrowing it from a
travel agency associated with the JDC. The contract was signed and Operation
On Wings of Eagles, more popularly known by its nickname, Operation
Magic Carpet commenced.
Yemen would not permit the Jewish refugees to be flown out of their country,
Britain had agreed to the establishment of a transit camp in the adjoining
Crown Colony of Aden from which the airlift could commence. Alaska Airlines set
up its base in Asmara, Eritrea with their ground crew, pilots and aircraft, –
DC-4s and C-46s. The arrangement was to fly from their base in Asmara to Aden
each morning, pick up their passengers in Aden and refuel. Thence fly up the
Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba to the airport in Tel Aviv, unload the refugees, fly
to the safety of Cyprus for the night and return to their base in Asmara at
dawn, before starting all over again. The round trip would take about 20 hours.
aircraft as configured could not carry enough passengers or sufficient fuel.
So, the planes were modified by replacing the regular airline seats with rows
of benches and fitting extra fuel tanks down the length of the fuselages
between the benches. Aircraft intended to carry 50 passengers could now carry
120 and fuel would last a skinny extra one hour.
the transit camp in Aden, called “Camp Geula” (Redemption) was organized by the
JDC and staffed by Israeli doctors and social workers under the directorship of
Max Lapides, an American Jew. Also headquartered at the camp were emissaries
responsible for paying various Yemeni tribal chiefs a “head tax” which would
permit the Jewish refugees to pass through their territory.
of the evacuation reached the Jews of Yemen, they left their few possessions
behind (except their prayer books and Torahs) and like the biblical exodus
began to walk out of slavery into freedom. They traveled in family groups, some
hundreds of miles, through wind and sandstorm, vulnerable to robbers and a
hostile local population, until half-starved and destitute they reached the
border with Aden
where Israeli aid workers met them and transported them to the transit camp.
electricity, medicines, running water, toilets and personal hygiene for the
first time. During the entire operation, the Jews of Yemen arrived at Camp
Geula in a steady stream, newer ones arriving as an earlier group was airlifted
the Yemenite Jews to Aden was one problem, getting them on the aircraft was
another. Nomads who had never seen an airplane before and never lived anywhere
but in a tent, many of the immigrants were frightened and refused to board.
Once reminded that their deliverance to Israel by air was prophesized in the
Book of Isaiah, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles”, reinforced by the
painting of an eagle with outstretched wings over the door of each aircraft,
induced them to board the planes. Once inside many preferred sitting on the
floor to unaccustomed soft seats. Keeping them from lighting fires to cook
their food was a task. During the flight, about half would get sick vomiting
over the extra inside fuel tanks. Notwithstanding, the Yemenites upon landing
in Israel chanted blessings and burst into song.
start up Operation Magic Carpet, Alaska Airlines sent Portland native
Bob Maguire, a pilot with management experience, to the Middle East. Maguire
flew between 270 and 300 hours a month. Had he been in the U.S., the limit
under its aviation rules was 90 hours. Ben-Gurion called Maguire the “Irish
Moses”. The work cost Maguire his career. He contracted a parasite that affected
his heart and as a result lost his commercial pilot’s license in the early
1950’s. Another pilot was Warren Metzger, born in Lethbridge who found time
between flights to marry his flight attendant. At least one pilot, Stanley
Epstein, was Jewish.
that began in June 1948 was hard on the pilots who were flying 16-hour days and
hard on the planes
that flew well beyond their scheduled service intervals. Fuel was difficult to
come by, the desert sand wreaked havoc on the engines and flying was seat-of-the-pants
with navigation by dead reckoning and eyesight.
work was dangerous. Many airplanes were shot at. One pilot, getting a little
close to Arab territory while approaching Israel, watched tracer bullets
arching up towards his airplane. Another plane had a tire blown out during a
bombing raid in Tel Aviv. On one occasion, Maguire was forced to land his
aircraft in Egypt when it ran out of gas. The Israelis had warned all pilots
that if they had to land in Arab territory, the Jewish refugees and perhaps
even the crew would likely be shot. The quick-witted Maguire told airport
officials he needed ambulances to take his passengers to hospital. When they
asked why, he replied that his passengers had smallpox. The frightened
Egyptians wanted him out of there right away. Maguire received his fuel and
flew on to Tel Aviv.
way through the operation, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board forced Alaska
Airlines to shut down its international charter business and a company called
Near East Air Transport, whose president was James Wooten and whose pilots, and
aircraft were all Alaska Air’s, completed the Operation Magic Carpet airlift.
Near East Air Transport was just Alaska Airlines operating under another name.
time Operation Magic Carpet ended in September 1950, 28 Alaska Airlines
pilots had made some 380 flights and airlifted 48,818 refugees, almost Yemen’s
entire Jewish population, to Israel. Miraculously not one death or injury
Operation Magic Carpet was kept secret for reasons of security and to prevent sabotage. It
would be many months later before the public or the press would become aware of
the remarkable operation.
Israel would once again call upon Alaska Airlines to aid in the rescue of Jews,
this time from Iraq. El Al and Alaska Air, in a secret partnership, formed a
new airline, again using the name Near East Air Transport for that purpose.
Israeli ownership was hidden so that the airline appeared to be strictly an
Alaska Airlines venture.
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.