Month: November 2015

Commemorating Jewish refugees in Oz

Jewish refugees arriving in Israel

 Today, 30 November, Jewish organisations around the world are preparing to commemorate the exodus of almost a million Jews from Arab countries. The Australian Board of Deputies are holding a commemorative event at the Sydney Jewish Museum. Article in the Australian Jewish News:

MAURICE Cohen’s family was expelled from Cairo in 1957. “We were
expelled with nothing – we left with little possessions, no money, no

Cohen is one of around 800,000 Jews whose families had
lived in Arab lands for centuries, that were expelled from their
countries in the years leading up to and following the establishment of
the State of Israel. While the Palestinian refugee issue remains a hot
global topic, history has largely forgotten these Jewish refugees. Article in the Australian Jewish News:

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBOD) hopes to address that deficiency,
locally at least, with an inaugural annual event recognising the plight
of these refugees and the contribution of those who settled in Australia
to the local community.

“The 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab
lands and Iran are too often omitted from the narrative of the events of
1948,” JBOD CEO Vic Alhadeff told The AJN.

“This event
is an important step in restoring this highly significant chapter of our
history to its rightful place. Knowledge of the Jewish refugee story is
essential to understanding the historical context of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Added Cohen: “Middle Eastern Jewry were really a rich culture, a dynamic religious group.

issue of these Jews has never really been at the forefront; it’s taken a
while, but I commend the fact. It’s a wonderful idea.”

 Read article in full

Gila Gamliel, social equality minister who is spearheading the official commemoration of the Jewish refugees today, 30 November, has proposed offering a Prime Minister’s
Award to researchers and academia on research in the field of Jewish
heritage from Arab countries and Iran. Prime minister Netanyahu has called for instruction in schools and universities on Mizrahi heritage be expanded.

Read article in full (Hebrew) – with thanks Eliyahu)

Pakistan’s last Jew denied ID change

Decades of persecution of religious minorities have driven almost all
of Pakistan’s Jews out of the country. Any that remain keep their
Jewish identities a secret, a Westminster parliamentary hearing into Religious Freedom chaired by Lord Alton heard recently. Report in the Jewish Chronicle by Simon Caldwell:

Fishel Benkhald is the exception. He calls himself Pakistan’s only “self-declared” Jew.

His mother is Jewish but, because his father is a Muslim, the
Pakistani authorities are refusing to recognise his Jewish identity.

Mr Benkhald’s ambition has been to rebuild a demolished synagogue in Karachi and to restore the Jewish cemetery there.

before applying for permission to embark on the project, he felt it
necessary to register his Jewish faith and race with the authorities.

It emerged last week that NADRA, the Pakistani government department that handles citizenship, had thrown out his request.

Mr Benkhald said a seemingly relentless tide of antisemitic
propaganda in the country had spurred him to publicly assert his true

He acknowledged that it was “dangerous” to come out as a Jew in
Pakistan, but added: “My political side outgrew my fear. I felt less
hesitant about claiming my religion more publicly than I would have

Pakistan is one of those states without Jews who blame Jews for everything

“My dream is to gain empathy. Later I will try and get help and start the process for a small synagogue.”

Applying to change his religious identity was worthwhile just to be able to document the response of the government, he said.

The revelation that there is now just one openly Jewish person living
in Pakistan emerged at a private meeting in Parliament about human
rights violations in the south Asian country.

Lyn Julius of Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East
and North Africa, told the meeting that in 1947, the year of Pakistan’s
partition from India, there were an estimated 3,000 Jews living in the

The Jews formed part of a distinguished professional class and
included Moses Somake, who designed many of Karachi’s landmarks, and
Leopold Weiss, who helped to draft Pakistan’s constitution.

“Hostility began in 1947 when Mohajir Muslim refugees from India
ransacked Jewish sites and places of worship,” Mrs Julius told the

“They burnt the Karachi synagogue. Every time there was a war in the Middle East, the Jews suffered the repercussions.

“In 1948, most Jews left for Israel, and the population continued to decline so that after 1967 there were only 350 Jews left.

“In 1988, the Magen Shalom synagogue in Karachi was demolished under Zia al-Huq and a shopping centre was built on the site.”

The last recognised Pakistani Jew, she said, was Rachel Joseph, who
died in 2006 at the age of 88 after campaigning without success for a
small synagogue.

Mrs Julius said: “The end of the Jewish community in Pakistan has not meant the end of antisemitism.

“Pakistan has joined the ranks of states without Jews who blame the Jews for everything that goes wrong.

“They imagine that the Jews are engaged in a global conspiracy to
control the world,” she added. “Having got rid of their Jews, they think
they have expelled the virus, but it is they who are suffering from a
pathology. Targeting minorities is a sign of a sick society.”

Read article in full

Remember Jewish refugees on 30 November

On 23 June 2014, the Israeli Knesset passed a law designating 30
November as an official date in the calendar to remember the uprooting
of almost one million Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran in
the last 60 years. Lyn Julius of Harif explains in the Huffington Post why it is important:

Refugees in a ma’abara tent camp in Israel

The date chosen was 30 November
– to recall the day after the UN passed the 1947 UN Partition Plan for
Palestine. Violence, following bloodcurdling threats by Arab leaders,
erupted against Jewish communities. The riots resulted in the mass
exodus of Jews from the Arab world, the seizure of their property and
assets and the destruction of their millennarian, pre-Islamic
communities. In 1979, the Islamic revolution resulted in the exodus of
four-fifths of the Iranian-Jewish community.

Refugees are much in
the news these days. Until the mass population displacement caused by
wars in Iraq and Syria, however, the world thought that ‘Middle Eastern
refugee’ was synonymous with ‘Palestinian refugee.’ Yet there were more
Jews displaced from Arab countries than Palestinians (850, 000, as
against 711,000 according to UN figures.)

The majority of Jewish refugees found a haven in Israel. For peace, it is important that all bona fide
refugees be treated equally, yet Jewish refugee rights have never
adequately been addressed. The 30 November commemoration is first and
foremost a call for truth and reconciliation.

The Jewish refugee
issue is more than simply a question to be resolved at the negotiating
table. It is a symptom of the Arab and Muslim world’s deep psychosis –
an inability to tolerate the non-Arab, non-Muslim Other.

both Muslim sects and non-Muslim minorities are being persecuted in the
Middle East, but people are apt to forget that the Jews were one of the
first. As the saying goes, ‘First the Saturday people, then the Sunday
people.’ And it does not stop there. A state that devours its minorities
ends up devouring itself.

This Arab/Muslim psychosis is the
product of fundamentalist ideologies, many of them Nazi-inspired, which
took root in the first half of 20th century. These ideological forces
left a legacy of state-sanctioned bigotry and religiously-motivated terrorism. That legacy is with us today, in the atrocities in Paris, in Mali and in the stabbings on Israel’s streets.

are no Jewish refugees today – they have been successfully absorbed in
Israel and the West. They have rebuilt their lives without fuss. They
don’t expect much in the way of compensation. But former refugees do
demand their place in memory and history.

The Israeli government
is telling the Jewish refugee story at the UN on 1 December. From
Amsterdam to Sydney, Toronto to Geneva, Liverpool to New York, San
Francisco to London, Jewish organisations worldwide – my own (Harif)
included – are organising lectures, film screening and discussions.

Read article in full 

Same article in The Algemeiner 

It’s time to remember the other refugees on 30 November(Jewish Weekly)

‘My grandfather lost three siblings in Farhud’

 This Facebook post by Binyamin Arazi  is remarkable in its power and pathos. It brings home the suffering of ordinary Jews – somebody’s grandfather, uncle, mother. That’s why Jewish organisations, schools and Israeli embassies worldwide are  commemorating the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran this month, culminating on 30 November.

Destruction following anti-Jewish riots in Aleppo, 1947

Until the 1950’s, my grandfather’s family lived in the Jewish quarter
of Baghdad, where they had been since the Babylonian exile. As for my
grandmother, her family lived in Aleppo. As Jews, they both suffered
under a system known as ‘dhimmitude’, which had been in place since the
7th century Arab/Islamic conquests. For centuries, we lived as second
class citizens. All of that changed during the second world war, when
Haj Amin al-Husseini (the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem and an ally of the Nazis) began broadcasting Nazi propaganda throughout the Arab world.

This culminated in a wave of deadly massacres against Jews all over the
Middle East. The second most notable of these is the Farhud (Arabic for
“Violent Dispossession”), of which my grandfather and his family were
victims. He lost 3 of his siblings that day, and one of them was an
infant. The rioters caught up to his mother, who was carrying his baby
brother. They ripped him straight out of his mother’s arms and cut him
to pieces, right in front of her. His older brothers were eventually
lynched and burned in the town center. There were crowds of people
joyously dancing under their rotting corpses. All of that being said,
the massacre most people remember was the (failed) extermination attempt
carried out in 1948 by six Arab armies. We all know how that one ended.

By 1949, my grandfather’s situation became unbearable. He and his
family were eventually able to leave Iraq, but all of their money and
property was seized by the government. They were officially forbidden
from ever returning. In Syria, my grandmother was effectively trapped,
since the government feared that any Jew who left Syria would wind up in
Israel. Massacres against Jews were increasingly commonplace,
particularly in her hometown of Aleppo. The community there was
completely destroyed, Jewish bank accounts were frozen, and our property
was taken by the government and handed over to Arabs. They were soon
smuggled out of Syria and made their way to Tel Aviv, where my uncle
still resides.

‘Baba Joon’ : struggles of stubborn Iranian Jews

Israeli director Yuval Delshad’s award-winning film Baba Joon is playing to packed houses at film festivals. It stars an Iranian Muslim, Navid Negahban, playing a turkey farmer who is hoping his son Moti will take over the business. Report by Orly Minazad in LA Weekly.

Navid Negahban plays an old-school Jewish-Iranian trying to navigate religious and cultural divides

Baba Joon — which means “daddy dearest” — is the first film to
shine a light on the struggle of Jewish Iranians to build a new home
following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Outside of L.A., Israel
boasts one of the world’s largest Iranian Jewish populations.

important as the film is for exploring the culture of a marginalized
minority, it also hit a lot of nerves for its cynical portrayal of
die-hard Judaism (where a blessing of good fortune and happiness is
literally for sale to the highest bidder) and for its depiction of the
stereotypical, old-school, belt-whipping Middle Eastern father.

Nonetheless, Baba Joon
has earned five Academy Ophir Awards (Israeli Oscars) including best
picture and is Israel’s best submission in the foreign-language category
for the 2016 Oscars, a major achievement for an Iranian-Israeli film
considering the recent and continuous conflict between Israel and Iran
(and pretty much all surrounding countries).

“One of the things that I like
about this film is that it went above and beyond all prejudice,”
Negahban says. “We had such a diverse group of people working with us,
Arabs and Israelis. We really became a family.”

Delshad, a distant
relative of Jimmy Delshad, former mayor of Beverly Hills, was somewhat
inspired by his own experience when writing this story about three
generations of stubborn Jewish Iranian men trying to navigate domestic
life through cultural and religious divides.

The film shifts back
and forth between Hebrew and Persian (cast members often had no idea
what the others were saying), sprinkled with some English and chock full
of proverbs (“if a branch doesn’t bend in a storm, it breaks” or “they
pet the horse with one hand and pull the tail with the other”) — the
preferred communication device for Iranians.

plays Yizkhak, a turkey farmer who hopes his son, Moti, will take over
the business the same way he did from his father, who moved the farm
from Iran to Israel. Moti, played by talented 14-year-old first-time
actor Asher Avrahami, has no intention of doing so.

“When I chose Navid, for me he was the anchor,” Delshad says. “I knew that I’m set. I built the family around him.”

story is male-dominated; the sole female role is Yitzkhak’s wife,
Sarah, played by Iranian-British actress Viss Elliot Safavi. “I think
it’s more interesting that she didn’t have a sisterhood,” says Safavi,
who, as Sarah, is a seemingly quiet wife busying herself with the task
of mending broken egos and actual broken backs.

Safavi even grew
out her eyebrows for Negahban to pluck in a very intimate and eerily
erotic scene. (Just imagine Abu Nazir aiming a sharp pointy object at
your eye over and over again.)

The plot centers around a visit
from the dapper American uncle (and prodigal son) Darius, after which
all hell — and some turkeys — break loose. Darius is the uncle you want
to get drunk with at family get-togethers. He’s funny, charismatic and
quick to reveal dark family secrets and exhume years of buried rage.

love the positive teachings of all faiths, but we know about some of
the problems blind faith creates,” says David Diaan, who plays Darius.
“One of the things I think Yuval did masterfully was [express] his
criticism of that kind of religious practice.”

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.