Tunisians are calling to boycott the celebrated comic Michel Boujenah, who is due to appear on 19 July at the Carthage Festival.
Michel Boujenah: born in Tunis
In an open letter addressed to the minister of culture and festival director, the boycotters, from the Tunisian branch of the BDS movement, claim that Boujenah, who was born in Tunisia but lives in France, is not only a proud Zionist but also considers himself part of the ‘Israeli people’.
The signatories call on the Tunisian government to assume its responsibilities vis-a-vis ‘normalisation’ and reaffirm the country’s historical, unconditional support for the Palestinian people.
Tunisian social media surfers are evenly divided on the issue. Hundreds think that his apearance on the stage at Carthage should be cancelled. Others are surprised at the fierce reaction against Michel Boujenah. Yamina Thabet of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities (ATSM) denounced the campaign against the comic as ‘bullying behaviour’ and ‘antisemitic’.
Boujenah is scheduled to perform in Israel on 25 July.
The anti-Zionist academic Ella Shohat, who is no expert in this field, is politicising the study of linguistics by denying the existence of separate ‘Judeo-Arabic’ languages. To her they are all Arabic, with minor variations. Lyn Julius blogs in The Times of Israel following Shohat’s lecture at SOAS in London:
Ella Shohat: advancing an agenda
‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’.
How best do you delegitimise a nation whose existence you despise?
The answer, according to Ella Shohat, an academic from New York University, is to downgrade a language to a dialect.
Ella Shohat is the high priestess of ‘Mizrahi
anti-Zionism’. In London recently to give a talk at the School of
Oriental and African Studies, she has made her name by applying the
theories propagated by the Palestinian author of ‘Orientalism,‘
Edward Said, to Jews from Arab lands. She is best known for inventing
the expression ‘Arab Jew’ to denote a creature torn from its natural
habitat by Zionism – itself deemed an extension of western colonialism.
Thus Jewish nationalism stands accused of destroying what she terms
To follow Ella’s logic, an ‘Arab Jew’ does not
speak a separate Jewish language called Judeo-Arabic: he or she speaks
Arabic, albeit with minor variations. In order to reinforce her argument
she downplays these differences. The only real distinction, according
to her, is that Judeo-Arabic is written in the characters of
It is possible to argue that a speaker of
Judeo-Arabic uses enough Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, Persian and English
terms, as well as idiosyncratic syntax and proverbs, to make himself
unintelligible to a regular Arabic speaker. And then there is the Jewish
accent, which would not only make a Jew a figure of fun to the Muslim
listener, but instantly give his ethnicity away.
In her eagerness to assimilate the Jewish
dialects to ‘regular Arabic’, Ella is forced to minimise the differences
in the ‘regular’ Arabic spoken across the Arab world. From a
linguistic standpoint, it is often said that the various spoken
varieties of Arabic differ from each other about as much as French
differs from other Romance languages. Moroccan Arabic is as
incomprehensible to Arabs from the Middle East as French is
incomprehensible to Spanish or Italian speakers ( but relatively easily
learned by them). It is even suggested that the spoken varieties of
Arabic may linguistically be considered separate languages.
In Israel, the last generation of Jews who
were born in Arab lands are dying off and their children and
grandchildren have all shifted to speaking Hebrew. You would have
thought that Ella, who deplores the ‘suppression’ of Arabic in Israel’s
early years because it was the ‘language of the enemy’ – would welcome
the revival of interest in, not just Ladino or Yiddish, but Judeo-Arabic
( eg Iraqi-Jewish or Moroccan-Jewish). A Facebook page called
‘preserving the Iraqi-Jewish language’ has over 30, 000 followers.
But no. To Ella, there is no need to consider
Iraqi-Jewish endangered or to preserve what is still living and spoken
by the non-Jewish neighbours. Emphasising the ‘Jewish’ character of
these dialects becomes a distasteful political act. Not only – as the
controversial academic Shlomo Sand claims – has a separate Jewish
people been invented, Israel has invented ‘Jewish languages’.
But it is Ella who is manipulating language to
advance an agenda. As the saying goes,’ dialect is just politics.’ And
this is the abysmal level to which the teaching of Middle Eastern
studies in our universities has sunk today.
Postscript: during her lecture Ella Shohat quoted from Naim Kattan’s book Farewell Babylon to illustrate an episode when Jews and Muslims began speaking the same Jewish dialect together, indicating that there was no difference between them. In actual fact, Shohat was misquoting the passage (p27 in Adieu Babylone) : the Jews did the speaking and the Muslims listened with respect.
‘At the end of the evening, we’d won. We were wearing our own clothing…we were not assimilated by force to a collectivity with vague contours. We were not poured into a mould.. the masks had fallen. We were there in our luminous and fragile difference. And it was neither a sign of humiliation nor a symbol of ridicule…Our traits were emerging from the shadows and their outlines discernible. They were unique. Our faces were uncovered for all to see and recognise.’
Not only did Ms Shohat misquote Naim Kattan, but he wrote the complete opposite to what she claimed.
There is something disturbing about Yael Eckstein’s grovelling paen of praise for Morocco in The Times of Israel. Here is a country whose Jewish population is one percent of what it was in 1948. Yet for interfaither Eckstein, it is a shining example of Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisting in mutual respect! Why do you treat Jews so well? she keeps asking, ignoring the fact that Jews have been threatened by pogroms, mob violence and forced conversions and have abandoned their homes and businesses at times of tension. Eckstein answers her own question: it is because of the king. The Jews – abetted by starry-eyed interfaithers – have been instrumentalised as part of Moroccan foreign policy. The restoration of synagogues and cemeteries is a small price to pay for US support of Morocco. But if the king goes, so do the Jews. What value is coexistence if it is only skin deep ? (With thanks: Boruch, Daniel, Lily, Imre).
It just didn’t make sense. It seemed too good to be true. But as I quickly learned, it was just another day in mystical Morocco, a country that defies norms, defines tolerance and is home to a dwindling population of 2,500 Jews.
Though Morocco is a Muslim country, the bellboy at my hotel told me with a loving smile, Jews were actually in Morocco 600 years before Muslims—when they were sent out of Jerusalem following the destruction of the First Temple.
“This is your home,” the bellboy said, while pointing to a picture on the wall of the Atlas Mountains. “Your people were here before mine.”
This respectful attitude was the prevailing sentiment in my communications with every Muslim I met throughout my stay during the end of Ramadan. Moroccans are genuine in their respect for the Jewish people, love for Moroccan Jews, and awe for the holy rabbis who walked their streets and are buried in the Jewish cemetery. I nearly cried when I saw how well the locals preserve the Jewish cemetery.
“Why do you treat the Jews so well?” I asked a Muslim teenager who works for an organization called Mimouna, whose members are Muslim youths passionate about spreading Jewish history. Mimouna made history by starting a Jewish studies program at a Moroccan Arab university, along with the Arab world’s only Holocaust education program.
“Why wouldn’t we treat them well?” he responded.
Indeed, it is illogical for local Muslims to suddenly turn on native Jews who have lived in their country for thousands of years. But we live in an illogical world. Morocco is one of the few places where Christians, Muslims and Jews coexist in peace and mutual respect. Why?
One night I attended a Ramadan fast-breaking event—organized by the inspiring local Chabad rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue. Dozens of Jews and Muslims gathered to celebrate. King Mohammed VI’s representative for the entire Marrakesh region also attended. He sent blessings from the king to the Jewish community and closed his eyes with intent—and answered “amen”—when the Chabad rabbi said the traditional Jewish prayer for kings.
Why are Jews in Morocco treated so well?
Simply put, it’s because of the king. During World War II, when the Nazis asked the king of Morocco to put together a list of Jews in his country, he boldly answered, “We don’t have Jews, we have Moroccans,” and refused to comply (this is debatable – ed).
Today’s king, Mohammed VI, is the grandson of King Mohammed V, who protected his country’s 265,000 Jews. Like his grandfather, Mohammed VI believes Jews are just as Moroccan—and just as important—as Muslims, Christians and everyone else. If anyone in Morocco messes with Jews, they are messing with the king.
Many project that in a decade, there won’t be any Jews left in Morocco. Most of the Moroccan grandmothers who read Psalms all day have moved to Israel. Moroccan Jewish youths have largely moved abroad. The remaining Jews are the gems of ancient times.
What legacy do Jews want to leave in Morocco? What pillars do Jews want to set up in Morocco that will carry on long after there are no Jews left?
After my four-day journey representing Christian and Jewish supporters of The Fellowship, I deeply understand why it’s so important that our organization partnered with Chabad and Mimouna to distribute thousands of food parcels from the country’s ancient synagogues to local Muslims for Ramadan.
It is clear to me why we must set up a Jewish information center in central Marrakesh and make sure the Jewish cemetery will keep being preserved by local Muslims.
I realize how critical it is that we also continue to distribute food parcels to poor Jews on a monthly basis, so they aren’t neglected or looked at as beggars, but rather serve as a shining example of the fact that all Jews, Christians and Muslims are responsible to look out for one another.
In a country that lives on ancient spiritual stories of holy men and women who once walked its streets, this is our final opportunity to leave an eternal legacy on behalf of the millions of Moroccan Jews who came before us.
What legacy should we leave? That the Jewish people came in peace, left in peace and were only known for peace. This is what it means to live in the vision of God.
Abridged from an article in two parts on Harissa (French)
Sheikh Roubine was a leader of the Judenrat
(Jewish leadership council) during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia between 1942-3. He would sign
attestations on behalf of Jews who were forced to work in the Nazi
labour camps (presumably so that they were later eligible for
reparations). When he was accused of treason by his predecessor,
however, the case was adjudicated by the Tunisian courts who cleared
Roubine of any wrongdoing. A relative, Abraham Bar-Shay (Benattia),
tells this curious story.
“We called him Baba Roubine. The friends of the family called him Sheikh Roubine. His whole demeanour invited respect. He held a beautiful baquita (cane) which he did not need for walking.The end of the cane only touched the ground after he had taken four steps. After the first two steps, he pointed the end of the cane at a 45-degree angle in front of him. It was only after two other steps that he pointed it towards the ground. When I was a teenager, I tried to imitate his gait.
He was not rich but comfortable.
When my nuclear family lived in a single room, with several other
families, around a large yard, he had a ‘large’ house with three
bedrooms and a courtyard. He lived in a house twice the size of that of the great Rabbi Haim Houry. I had not forgotten these little details, even after we had moved to the capital in late 1947.
Baba Roubine ran a transport company
between Gabes and Tunis ( a distance of 450 km) and often travelled
with the goods he shipped between the two cities. When he was in Tunis, he came to see us and taste the food my mother was preparing for him. He often teased her, that she cooked almost as well as Aunt Bhila, his wife.
Knowing our economic situation, he
took advantage of each visit to bring with him all the provisions that
we lacked – enough to last several days. He returned towards noon with his bottle of red wine for a family meal.
For us it was a festive and memorable day – until the next visit. These meals strengthened the ties we had with Baba Roubine more than with the other members of the family.
The Sheikh Roubine family made its Aliya in 1964, seven years after ours. We were already well established in Israel. We settled in southern Israel, in Kiryat Gat, a new immigrant city and administrative center for the Moshavim of the region.
The immigration authorities knew nothing of the services he had rendered to the community in the old country.
This octogenarian was no more than the shadow of his former self in my
memory, but he still kept his dignity as a sheikh and his “chechia”
(Tunisian red hat) always had the long plume of black threads that fell
on his shoulder.
In Israel he continued until the end of his life what he had done in Tunisia : to sign attestations for all Jews who had been sent to work in the Nazi camps of Gabes.
It was only since my arrival in
Israel, that I learned from my cousin Nissim (six years my senior)
that Sheikh Roubine (his uncle) was accused of having betrayed his
community during the Nazi occupation of Gabes. The case was brought before the courts in Tunis, who acquitted the sheikh of all the accusations. He could not show me any document on this chapter in the history of our family.
Nearly a year ago, I received a mail
from a Tunisian scholar, Professor Mohsen Hamli, who asked me for
details about Sheikh Roubine Ben-Attia.
He was researching the Jewish Sheikhs in Tunisia during the Nazi
occupation and I owe him thanks for his service to my ‘tribe’ and the
history of our community.
After a few months I received the
documents (one is presented here). There was urgent need to make these
documents public, here, and then pass them on to the archives of Yad
The Sheikh’s role was, among other
things, to represent the Jewish community before the local authorities
and to deal with the rights and duties of individuals and the community
as a whole.
In the 1930s, Houati Haddad served as a sheikh of the Jews of Gabes.
His service was not good enough for the notables of the city (judgment
was passed by the Governor) who dismissed him and appointed Baba
Roubine in his place. It was just before the invasion of Tunisia by Rommel’s Afrikakorps and their retreat from Libya.
Gabes was a city located not far from the Libyan border and a
strategic point. There was a French military base with an airport in
Sheikh Roubine and Chief Rabbi Haim
Houry, who were in fact neighbors, were charged with fulfilling the
most abject tasks the Nazis had inflicted on the Jews of Gabes, from
the seizure of personal wealth (jewellery and bank accounts) to the
forced recruitment of Jewish workers in the Nazi camps.
I understood that the Nazis had forced Baba Roubine to fulfill the role of the Judenrat of the community of Gabes. A complaint of treason had been filed against him, by the person who had fulfilled his role before the Nazi invasion.The Tunis court ruled that the complaint was a blow against Roubine and acquitted him of any suspicion.
With these documents I was able to trace the history of the time, personalities and the happy ending for Baba Roubine.
After the victory of the Allies and
the departure of the Nazis from Tunisia, a group was organized,
probably under the instigation of Mr. Houati Haddad, and filed a
complaint of five accusations against Sheikh Roubine. These indictments “were” supposedly “based on investigations and testimonies of the notables of the community.”
Baba Roubine in local costume
The governor, who subsequently
investigated the case, discovered that the facts cited were null and
void, congratulated Roubine on his moral fibre and granted Houati
Haddad the compliment of being “a man of questionable morality and lack
Our story had a happy ending, which even Shakespeare would have judged incredible for “Romeo and Juliet”. Verona is not Gabes and Kippur returns every autumn to erase the grudges of yesterday’s generations.
Despite the controversies and tense relations between the sheikhs
Roubine and Houati, the grand-daughter of the first married the youngest
son of the second. They lived 50 years together, until the husband’s death a few months ago.
Below: letter by French Captain Le Bourhis vouching for Baba Roubine’s good character.
Ed Elhaderi went from pinning up posters of Yasser Arafat in his native Libya in the 1970s, to marrying a Jew and converting to Judaism. Jewish Journal charts his remarkable spiritual journey (With thanks: JIMENA):
Ed and Barbara Elhaderi (far right) at their son’s Barmitzvah
That hot afternoon seems like
yesterday, but it was 50 years ago this month. I was 15 and living in
Sabha, a small city in the Sahara Desert of southern Libya. An older
cousin told me about the reports on Cairo Radio about the dire situation
facing the Egyptian army.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said.
I didn’t fully understand the politics of what would come
to be known as the Six-Day War, but I knew that what was happening was
bad for us as Arabs and Muslims. All around me were other teenagers
absorbing the tense mood and looking to vent their rage at the Jews.
I followed the crowd to the only
Western-style establishment nearby, a bar. It was early afternoon and
the place hadn’t opened yet. A few older boys broke down the door, and a
crowd stormed in, breaking bottles and dumping alcohol onto the street
Standing in a crowd, I joined the chants: “Death to the Jews!” “Drive the Jews into the sea!”
The truth is that I had never actually met a Jew. I grew
up in a small nomadic village of 20 families, a collection of mud huts
with palm-frond roofs that wouldn’t have looked much different 2,000
years earlier. Health care was so primitive that by the time I was a
young boy, my parents had lost three children to illness.
Sunni Islam was the only way of life I knew. My preschool
was in a mosque, where an imam taught us to read and write by drilling
us with verses from the Quran. After that, our education was more
secular — I went to mosque, going through the motions, but I was hardly
devout. I never was exposed to any alternatives or avenues to question
the life we had.
Our textbooks didn’t mention Israel, and people used the word Yahudi,
Jew, only as an insult. The Jews had rejected the Prophet Muhammad, so
they were considered to be condemned. The only Jews I saw were in
Egyptian movies, in which they were portrayed as menacing, monstrous
characters — hunched over and speaking with high-pitched nasal accents.
I did know Palestinian Arabs. My elementary school had
once hired a young Palestinian as a teacher. Because he was Palestinian,
the community welcomed him warmly and supported him generously.
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