In a historic move, the leader of the Muslim World League, a group
based in Saudi Arabia, has condemned Holocaust denial as a “crime [that]
distort[s] history and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls
who have perished.” But Dr Muhammad bin abdel-Kareem Al-Issa did not mention that Jews were the primary victims. United for Israel reports:
In a letter sent to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum last week, Dr.
Muhammad bin abdel-Kareem Al-Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim
World League, wrote that “history is indeed impartial no matter how hard
forgers tried to tamper with or manipulate it.”
Al-Issa also referred Holocaust denial as “an affront to us all since we share the same human soul and spiritual bonds.”
The cleric did not specify Jews as the principal victims of the
Holocaust in his letter, but instead spoke of “this human tragedy
perpetrated by evil Nazism” and “our great sympathy with the victims of
the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created
an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any
fair-minded or peace-loving person.”
Alexander Aciman provides an antidote to the fashionable identity label ‘Arab Jew’ with this tribute to the powerful influence of French culture on Jews who went to the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Arab countries. But France can no longer protect Jews, he argues. Read his column in the New York Times.
have spent my entire life trying to explain to people why I speak French, why I
grew up speaking French with my father and grandparents, why at least half of
my phone calls involve some shouting in French. “Are you French?” they’ll ask.
“Sort of” is usually the best I can do.
confusing family history and the reason I speak French begins in the 1860s,
when Adolphe Crémieux, a Frenchman who would go on to become minister of
justice, founded a Jewish organization called the Alliance Israélite
Universelle and started what it called a “civilizing mission” aimed at teaching
Middle Eastern Jews how to speak French and inducting them into French culture.
The Alliance opened schools in Turkey and across the Maghreb, and by 1900 had
almost 30,000 Jews in its tutelage.
mission’s aftershock was that foreign Jews felt French even though some might
never even step foot in Europe. For French-speaking Jews around the world, the
Alliance promised something as powerful and as compelling as the American
it wasn’t just language that the Alliance gave to Jews. They read all of French
literature and studied the history of France as one studies their own national
culture and history. As a child in Alexandria my father read from a book called
“Ma première histoire de France,” “My First History of France,” a book that he
would eventually pass on me.
inherited this French dream. Though my siblings and I were born and raised in
the United States, my father made sure we spoke the family language. I feel
most at home when I am in France, where I get to speak the language that I
dream in. Like a sap, I get choked up when they sing “La Marseillaise” in
things are not so dreamy for Jews today in France. The country is struggling to
maintain and protect its large Jewish population, the third largest in the
world, which has been dwindling precipitously thanks to the wave of
anti-Semitism that has gripped the country over the past decade. In 2015 — the
year of the Charlie Hebdo attack — 8,000 Jews left France and headed for
It was in 2007 that Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin came across an article in the Jerusalem Post revealing the existence of Avraham the Blogger, the last Jew of Somalia. (Our PoNR postcarrying an extract attracted 38 comments, mostly from Somalis – some sympathetic, some antisemitic.) Her curiosity piqued that a Jew could survive in a country hostile to Jews, Dr Kobrin exchanged emails with Avraham (Rami) over three years: they would serve as the basis for a bookshe has just published. Then, in 2010, the trail went cold.
Dr Kobrin writes in the Jerusalem Post:
I asked to be put in touch with Av, who also called himself Rami.
corresponded from 2007 to 2010 – over 300 emails. I came to know this
wonderful young Jewish man and his inspiring mother, Ashira Haybi. They
were alone without family, with roots extending back well over one
hundred years. Rami’s dad, killed during the civil war, traced his roots
to Aden, Yemen, while his mom traced hers to Ta’iz, also in Yemen.
Ashira was an accomplished businesswoman trading in textiles. She kept a
kosher home, was Shabbat observant and raised Rami to continue the
tradition. They fought vigorously to preserve their Judaism under
Jews sailed across the Gulf of Arabia from Yemen to found a community in Somalia. It is thought that the Ybir tribe converted from Judaism in the 13th century.
Rami spoke candidly about the fierce antisemitism and
hatred of the yahud, the Jew. Oddly, it was a Somali Muslim physicist
living in London in the Anglo-Somali diaspora who pondered the Jewish
diaspora experience and wondered why his people were struggling to
adapt. How had the Jews done it? In many ways, Rami and Ashira’s plight
calls to mind how the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries were hunted down
and exterminated as signs of the Holocaust became manifest. Ordinary
people had to ask themselves: when does one leave the land in which you
were born and raised and where your grandparents and great-grandparents
have lived for generations? And if you must leave, how can you make the
arrangements, find the courage and plunge into the unknown? The emails
are a gateway into the terrifying world in which Rami and his mother
lived and persevered against seemingly impossible odds.
often difficult for the lay public to understand the toll that chronic
stress and trauma take upon an individual’s psyche. To live in such a
toxic environment, under the constant threat of death just because you
are a Jew, may seem irrelevant to non-Jews and especially those who
profess Islamic antisemitism.
It has been said by some Somalis
that they do not know Jews. Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to
counter antisemitism among the Muslim communities is the potential for
Somali Muslim diaspora communities to begin to know Jews.
This could dissolve their irrational learned hatred of the Jew.
emails broke off suddenly in 2008 and then again suddenly I received
one email several days after Passover in 2010. Rami promised that he
would write more and said it was a sign from “Hashem” that he had
remembered his complicated question and password. Tragically I never
heard from him again.
Over the years I have continued my search for Rami
and his mother. Seven years have passed. My thoughts often turn to all
the millions of families who were caught up in the Holocaust, the dead,
the survivors, their relatives and friends who even now continue to
search for each other.
A year and a half ago it dawned on me that
there was virtually nothing written about Somali Jewry. I realized that
Rami’s emails were essentially the only extant documents of the last
remnant of contemporary Jews in Somalia. As I began to draft the book,
my colleague Dr. Norman Simms read the correspondence and referred to
Rami and his mother as “crypto-Jews.” Simms is an expert on Sephardi
What struck me was that it was so obvious and yet I had
never thought of that phrase. Was it because I was so terrified to think
of the consequences of living a Jewish life in Somalia? I contacted
Mohammed Diriye Abdullahi, author of Culture and Customs of Somalia. He
verified that he had heard about a crypto- Jewish community in
Rami’s emails bear witness to Jewish survival in a
hostile Somali environment under constant threat of attack by Al Shabaab
and the clan warlords. Acknowledgment of the existence of the Jews
should be part of the effort to enhance Somalia’s pluralism. A future
healthy and less violent Somalia may very well depend upon the country’s
ability to recuperate and embrace its diversity, especially that of its
This paper in Middle Eastern Studies by Avi Picard shows that, in Israel’s early years, prime minister Ben Gurion was consistent in preferring a selective aliya policy prioritising young and healthy immigrants to build the country, rather than rescue endangered Diaspora Jews. (He did not discriminate on ethnic lines. When Jews from Poland came flooding in during the mid-1950s, including some very sick immigrants, he said, ‘I would rather a healthy Jew from Persia than a sick one from Poland.’) However, Avi Picard shows that he was prepared to revise his preferences when he perceived communities were genuinely at risk.
Three events in October and November 1955 sharpened the conflict between rescue and building. In early October, it was news of the arms deal between Egypt and Czechoslovakia,which altered the balance of armaments in the region and inspired great fear in Israel. On 3 November, a new Government was installed in Israel, with Ben-Gurion returning to the prime minister’s office. On 16 November, the exiled Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef (later King Mohammed V) returned to Morocco and the country’s march to independence gained momentum.
The country’s faster-than-expected progress towards independence added a new concern: no longer just the safety of Morocco’s Jews during a revolt against the colonial authorities, but now their very ability to leave an independent Morocco. If the fear for their safety was abstract, the fear that they might be trapped in the country was all too concrete.
Jewish Agency report pleading for greater aliya from Morocco, written about a month after the return from exile of the sultan, Mohammed V, to Morocco in 1955, and four months before Morocco received independence
from France. It describes the insecurity and economic boycotts to which the Jews
in Morocco were exposed. (Zionist archives, s6/ 7260)
The newspapers of the nationalist parties often asserted that the Jewish Agency’s activity in Morocco revealed the Jews’ lack of allegiance to the country and demanded that the Agency’s offices be closed and Jewish emigration
halted. In addition to their call on the Jews to show loyalty to the country, the
nationalists’ hostility to aliya was fed by the Arab countries’ unwavering opposition to it,because of aliya’s demographic contribution to Israel and because young olim were available for service in the armed conflict with the Arab states.
In the wake of the political developments, Moroccan Jews grew apprehensive and thousands applied to make aliya. But the aliya pipeline was too narrow to meet the demand. While Israel permitted the immigration of 3,000 Jews a month – 36,000 a year –there were more than 100,000 Jews left in Morocco who wanted to get out, and the clock was running down for their freedom to do so. In late 1955, Berl Locker, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, estimated that within nine months, the Moroccan government would ban Jewish emigration. In fact, the gates slammed shut within six months.
Given this situation, the Government and the Jewish Agency Executive held a joint meeting in December 1955. The discussion focused on ways to deal with the increased demand for aliya from Morocco, given the risk of war with Egypt and need to allot budgets for security and weapons purchases. Golda Myerson (later Meir), then the minister of labour, believed that Morocco’s Jews were in grave peril:
Perhaps this is a bit strange.… [Look at yourselves] the day after Morocco declares that no Jew can leave there… No one knows when… We have already experienced such disasters.… I don’t know how deeply France will be willing to get entangled with Morocco about Jewish emigration.… The aliya of Moroccan Jews does not allow me to rest.… What will I do, myself,after aliya from Morocco and Tunisia is barred and I have the feeling that I could have done
something but did not.… I know that from the cold intellectual perspective it is quite absurd to speak about a large aliya.… However, we cannot tell these Jews ‘we won’t take you’.… I saw a cable from a responsible person that said: ‘even to transit camps’. I view the danger soberly and do not delude myself. I know that if we place them in transit camps there will be scandals and sit-down strikes.… I know that it will be catastrophic if we don’t take them to frontier districts and development areas but house them near Tel Aviv, but all the same I cannot
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. Although the event is not remotely
comparable to the mass extermination of six million Jews, it is also
49 years since the Ba’ath party regime hanged nine innocent Jews in
Baghdad’s Liberation Square. Half a million Iraqis came to sing and dance under the corpses. Of the nine victims, four had their ages falsified because they were under the legal age for hanging of 18.
A few days ago, Richard Atrakchi appeared on the Israeli Arabic Channel to recall his memories of that fateful time. You can see his interview (Arabic) from 16:47 minutes into the video below. The clip has some rare footage of the scenes in Liberation Square on 27 January 1969.
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.