Month: February 2018

Iranian Jewess hopes for Purim salvation in Holland

With the festival of Purim beginning tonight, it seems appropriate to feature the story of Sipora, an Iranian-Jewish refugee in Holland. Sipora was sentenced to death in her native Iran for helping abused wives, but has not been offered asylum by the Dutch authorities, who are tightening up their immigration policies. She could go to Israel, but fears putting her husband, still in Iran, at risk. (In the past, Israel has insisted on being the sole destination for Jewish asylum seekers: it is not clear if this is also a factor in Sipora’s case). JTA reports:

Sipora at her daughter’s house in Holland (photo: Cnaan Lipshiz)

Sipora, 60, was sentenced in absentia to death by public execution in 2013 by a Tehran court that convicted her of “violating Islamic rules [of the] Islamic Revolution” and “anti-regime activity.” Her crime: running an underground organization that found housing solutions for women with abusive husbands who could not obtain a divorce.

 Luckily for Sipora, she had already left Iran a year prior to her sentencing to help with the pregnancy of her daughter — herself a political refugee who has been living in the Netherlands since fleeing her native land in 2010. Sipora’s daughter, Rebecca, fled in connection with her involvement in the making of a documentary film about the fight for democracy in Iran.

 “A few weeks after I came to Holland, I called my husband on the telephone. He asked me to go on Skype. I knew something was wrong,” Sipora recalled.

Sipora’s husband of over 40 years, a Jewish building contractor with a heart condition, told her online that Iran’s dreaded secret police were looking for her and other members of her group.

“In that moment I knew there is no going back,” Sipora recalled.

 Unfortunately for her, Sipora’s legal troubles back home coincided with a toughening of immigration policies in the Netherlands, where the center-right ruling party is bleeding votes in favor of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom, which favors a shutdown of immigration from Muslim countries.

 Rebecca received a temporary residency permit and later citizenship without delay even though she had no death sentence against her in Iran. Meanwhile, the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service has consistently declined requests by Sipora two years later. Instead, she is in legal limbo — neither granted asylum nor deported, despite her whereabouts being known to authorities.

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Wishing all Point of No Return readers a Happy Purim!

The Purim ‘days of Miracle’ in Basra

A feast at the court of King Ahasuerus

The boisterous and joyful festival of Purim is upon us, beginning tomorrow evening. It celebrates the liberation of the Jews of Persia from the evil Haman. His plan to destroy the  Jews was foiled by Mordechai and his niece Esther. She had been chosen by  King Ahasuerus as his queen.

The story of Purim is told in Megillat Esther, but different Jewish communities have celebrated their own miraculous deliverance at different times. The Jews of Basra celebrated the Persian Purim of 1775.

The British Library Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic collectioncontains an imprint which prefaces the Megilla with an account of the ‘miracle’ of Purim in Basra in 1775.

Events surrounding the capture of Basra by the Persians indicate the clear preference of the Jews for Turkish rule over that of the Persian rulers. The rising importance of Basra’s Jewish merchants had led to Persian fears that their own coastal ports on the Persian Gulf would decline.

Despite the aid of the Saraf (banker), Jacob Aaron Gabbai, the Turkish governor of Basra could not stand up to the Persians. The Persians demanded a ranson from the Jews and when they could not meet this heavy tax, ordered troops to search Jewish homes for the money which they thought the Jews had hidden. This they did with great brutality. Jewish women died rather than submit to rape. The heads of the community were exiled to Persia.

Four years later, the Persians left Basra unexpectedly. Following the death of the Shah of Persia. Jacob Aaron Gabbai returned from exile, was granted state privileges by the Turks and was appointed Nasi of Baghdad Jewry.

It was to celebrate 2 Nissan 5535, the  ‘days of miracle’ of the disappearance of the Persians that the Persian Megillah was authored by Jacob Shaul ben Eliezer Jeroham (Eliashar) and printed by Ezra Reuven Dangoor in 1905/6.

Point of No Return articles on Purim

International team works to save Nahum’s tomb

Emergency work has been carried out to save the tomb of Nahum in northern Iraq by Cheryl Bernard with a team from the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage. But the restoration work will only prolong the shrine’s life for another two years. Seth Frantzman reports for the Jerusalem Post: (with thanks: Lily) 

 “I was struck by the beauty but it looked like it might be too late,” recalls Cheryl Benard.

 The tomb of the Prophet Nahum lies in the ancient Christian town of Al-Qosh overlooking Nineveh Plains. Nahum was one of the minor prophets who predicted the destruction of the city of Nineveh located in the outskirts of modern-day Mosul.

The tomb is on the border between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Mosul.

For centuries the tomb was a major site of Jewish pilgrimage and many Kurdish Jews would come to the tomb and synagogue around it, which is thought to date back more than 800 years. In the 1940s and 1950s Jews of the region moved to Israel, and the town’s Christian residents took care of the tomb as best they could.

 “It’s noteworthy, the community there is amazing, it has been a place of sanctuary,” says Benard. “They are proud of their shrine but they were not in a position to maintain it.”

 After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was talk of restoring the tomb and the US Army Corp of Engineers even paid a visit.

In 2014, Islamic State conquered the plains below the tomb and threatened the site. Kurdish Peshmerga and the US-led coalition pushed the extremists back. I visited the tomb in 2015 and saw the tremendous state of disrepair. There was a rusted metal awning over the collapsing building to keep rain out. The tomb itself had a green blanket over it and showed signs that some pilgrims still



The tomb of Nahum has now been stabilised (Photo: Lisa Kiara/Springs of Hope)

 In 2017, conservation experts told Benard that it looked worse than it had been a few years before and might not survive another winter. Benard, who holds a PhD in international relations and has worked at the RAND Corporation, hoped the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage could help save the site.

“The structural integrity was imperiled and they explained that the way it was constructed, the columns and arches were connected so that if the outermost ones collapsed, then it could destroy the others.

Benard and her team rushed to get funding. There happened to be a Czech firm working on preserving the ancient citadel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region. Called Gema Art Group, the Czechswere experts in construction and preservation and had experience not only in the Kurdistan Region but also in preserving religious buildings.

About an-hour-and-a-half drive south of Nahum’s Tomb, the Czech experts were also familiar with Al-Qosh and said they could help stabilize Nahum’s tomb and would do it for the cost of the materials.However, hurdles remained.

In September 2017, the Kurdistan Region held an independence referendum and Baghdad punished the Kurds by ordering the Erbil international airport closed. Suddenly the equipment the Czechs wanted to bring in couldn’t come directly to Erbil but had to go through Baghdad on a local airline.

“They were concerned for their equipment but they went ahead with it and you can see the results,” says Benard.

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More about the tomb of Nahum

US memo to Libya is licence to steal Judaica

A US move to curb the illegal trafficking of goods and artefacts from Libya becomes a mechanism for the state to ‘steal’ what does not belong to it. As with the Iraqi-Jewish archive, there are fears  a conflict between national and communal heritage  will legitimise the nationalisation of movable items such as Torah schools and books. The Times of Israel reports: (with thanks: Lily)

 On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the US will sign a memorandum of understanding that will impose restrictions on importing ancient materials from the country. In the announcement, the State Department said the memorandum continues “similar regulations” imposed in Decemberthrough an emergency restriction. The agreement, which is set to be signed on Friday, prohibits artifacts dated 1911 and earlier from being brought into the country from Libya.


The Dar al-Bishi Synagogue, Tripoli

 The State Department further said in the announcement that the import limitations are meant to curb illegal trafficking on goods.
Jewish activists said the agreement gives the Libyan government ownership of materials taken from the Jewish community.

The emergency restrictions from December list many general categories of artifacts, and specifically mention “scroll and manuscript containers for Islamic, Jewish, or Christian manuscripts.” Among objects listed in the memorandum request last year were Jewish ritual objects, including antique Torah scrolls, tombstones and books.

 Gina Waldman, a Libyan Jew who is the president and co-founder of the group Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, or JIMENA, said in a statement to JTA on Thursday that the agreement legitimized Libyan confiscation of Jewish property.


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The War of 1916, and the War of the Veils

 All photos Picture-a-Day/IWM collection

With thanks: Robin

In the same year as the battle of the Somme, one of the great catastrophes for the British army took place on eastern front: the battle of Kut al-Amara. The Ottoman army laid siege to British forces from December 7,
1915 to April 29, 1916. Thousands of soldiers died in combat and from
disease.  After the British surrender, more soldiers died in
captivity as they were marched to Aleppo in Syria.  The British
recaptured Kut in February 1917.

These photos, published at a Picture-a-Day, are from the Imperial War Museum’s collection.The top one shows Jews and Christians disembarking from steamers as they return to their homes in Kut in 1917. The middle photo shows Jews and Muslims being taught to sew at a military base. The bottom photo was taken in Baghdad: It shows a group of Jewish women. The  fully-veiled one on the left is betrothed.

How come the women in these pictures can be identified as Jews? Because they wear coloured or white veils, in contrast to the black abayas worn by Muslim women.

These photos of veiled women were taken during a period known as the ‘war of the veils’: Jewish women were succumbing to modernisation and European influences.  Many were tempted to copy their teachers, who wore western dress. But according to Shmuel Moreh’s Studies of the History and Culture of Iraqi Jewry,  fathers and even heads of the community resisted the abandonment of the veil, which was meant to cover a woman from head to toe, arguing that the very fabric of the community was being undermined. After WW1, women stopped wearing the veil and in 1932 the production workshops for veils closed down. In the 1950s, however, a time of great tension between Jews and Arabs, Jewish girls resumed wearing the black abaya so as not to stand out. Female members of the Zionist underground found the veil a useful camouflage for smuggling illegal weapons.


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.

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