Point of No Return will be taking a short summer break. Back soon!
Point of No Return will be taking a short summer break. Back soon!
Point of No Return is saddened to learn of the passing of Zvi Gabay, former Israel ambassador to Ireland and a dogged advocate for the rights of Jews from Arab lands. Gabay was born in Iraq in 1938 and made his career in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, travelling around the world. But the issue closest to his heart since his retirement was always the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
He never failed to keep the issue alive in the Hebrew press, and some of his pieces were published in the English-speaking press, most recently this Jerusalem Post article on 77th anniversary of the Farhud pogrom in Iraq.
Zvi Gabay’s memoir, From Baghdad to the Pathways of Diplomacy, reflects modesty and restraint. Typically, his memoir understates his tireless advocacy in newspapers and fora for the rights of almost a million Jews driven from Arab lands. As a tribute to him we are reproducing Lyn Julius’s review:
“In his book he barely mentions the issue which
– apart from his love of Arabic poetry – has consumed much of his time
since his retirement.
Born in Baghdad in 1938, Zvi Gabay (brother of
the famous film actor Sasson Gabay) was just old enough to remember the
turmoil of 1947, when the Iraqi government tried to divert popular
attention away from domestic issues to the Jews. Iraq was among the
seven Arab countries that declared war against the new state of Israel.
Arrests of local Jews, executions and travel bans followed. The writing
on the wall was clear to Zvi: the Jewish community of Iraq was doomed.
Although he comes from a comfortable middle
class family, several frightening incidents stick in Zvi’s childhood
memory: Palestinian youths hurling stones at Zvi’s bicycle, for
instance. The hostility he encountered in Baghdad made Zvi loathe the
city and strengthened his determination to emigrate to Israel.
There was a two year stint at a ‘cold and
alienating’ kibbutz, night school, then military service in the IDF.
Expecting to be punished for playing without permission his passion,
tennis, in his lunch break, Zvi tells an amusing anecdote when the base
commander insisted, davka, on playing with him. It was ‘tennis under orders’.
His family having sought security in Israel,
then came a terrible twist of fate: his father was murdered in his Haifa
grocery store by a Christian Arab.
Zvi undertook intermittent higher studies and
embarked a long career in the Israeli Foreign Ministry which took him to
Ireland (where he served as ambassador) and Australasia. As a fluent
Arabic speaker he was one of the first diplomats to be assigned to the
Israeli embassy in Cairo. Much of the work was unglamorous: arranging
official visits, undertaking painstaking mediation behind-the-scenes for
the release of Israelis in Egyptian jails. His disappointment at the
cold peace which followed the 1979 Israel-Egypt Treaty is palpable. The
Egyptians he dealt with remained smiling and polite but ultimately
uninterested in advancing relations with Israel.
Zvi Gabay z”l: thoughtful and restrained
The most fascinating section of Zvi’s memoirs
relates to Egypt. He tells a hilarious story of Israelis stuck in a lift
‘with a mind of its own’. The repairmen’s stock answer was ‘patience,
patience.’ The doorman refused to help, convinced that the cries of the
trapped Israelis were the voices of jin (spirits). The firemen
arrived, put out an imaginary fire and left. Zvi and his friends had no
choice but to free their suffocating colleagues with their own hands, by
breaking a hole through the adjoining wall.
A suitable metaphor for the Israel-Egypt peace
treaty, perhaps: the Israelis make all the running, while the Egyptians
imagine Zionist conspiracies, pay lip service, and urge ‘patience’.
In the light of the controversy over the status of Arabic in Israel– ‘special’ but not official’ – it is interesting to examine what the status of Judeo-Arabic was in Iraq. Few Iraqi Jews, and almost no non-Jewish scholar could read the Hebrew characters in written documents called Hetzi Kalmus. In the 1940s, writes historian Sami Sourani, the Iraqi government demanded that all official records be translated into Arabic. Today in the Arab world there is renewed academic interest in Jewish history and language.
official documents of the Iraqi Jewish Community are written in
ancient Hebrew letters (modified) and called Hetzi Kulmus. The letters
were modified to accommodate words from various languages that were
assimilated in the spoken Jewish dialect over
time. There were words that were adopted from classical Persian, Greek,
Mongolian, Arabic, Turkish, and some words from other ethnic
communities that lived in Iraq.
A document written by the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad in Hetzi Kalmus (NARA)
The documents were written by different writers and each has his
style of writing. There are very few Iraqi Jews who can read and
understand what was written and what was behind the words and
contemporary expressions. There is no doubt that there is hardly
an Iraqi non-Jewish scholar who can read this language. A few years after the Farhud, the Iraqi Government demanded that the
Jewish Community of Baghdad translate into Arabic all important
documents and records of meetings and send a copy to the Ministry of
Interior Affairs. This Ministry had the right to ask
questions and elaborations of anything in those documents.
When the Jews lived in Iraq and when they felt that they were an integral
part of this country, there was no academic interest in their history
or language or anything related to their culture. There was hardly
anything mentioned in textbooks studied at schools.
The Iraqi Government closed Jewish newspapers even though they did not
deal with politics but mostly with Arabic literature.
In recent years there has been some interest in Jewish culture, in general.
The University of Cairo has now a Department of Jewish studies and some
research studies were written about the Jews of Spain. The University of
Baghdad has a new Department for Jewish studies
with a faculty teaching Hebrew and you even find such a department at
the University of Najaf. Thre are a few Ph.D. dissertations about the
history of the Iraqi Jews! The common thing in all those is that they
show the nice side of the coin and the good life
of the Jews once upon a time.
A recent article written
about the Jews of Iraq was written by a professor at the University of
Baghdad. There is nothing new in it, except that there is an appendix to this
research showing the names of Iraqi Jewish families
that hold the highest number of land deeds registered at the
Department of Land Deeds Registration in Baghdad, that is called TAPO
in spoken Arab Iraqi Language.
Israel’s Nationality Lawhas provoked a furious reaction around the world. Some have criticised it because they are not comfortable with any expression of Jewish self-determination. It has been pointed out that many countries around the world, including European democracies, have similar laws asserting the pre-eminence of the majority ethnic group, religion and language, but only in Israel’s case is this deemed ‘controversial.’
(Others – including in Israel’s own government – think that more should have been done to reaffirm minority rights in Israel, pointing out that the ‘downgrading’ of Arabic from an ‘official’ language to one of ‘special status’ has frightened loyal minorities such as the Druze.)
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Leaguecountries have joined the chorus of disapproval. Jews who have lived in Arab countries – and were forced to leave them – can only marvel at their monumental hypocrisy: not one of these countries has every treated their minorities fairly and nearly all are Judenrein, yet they have the gall the lecture the Jewish state.
Naturally, the Turkish dictator Tayyip Erdogan has not missed this opportunity to slam Israel. This post from Elder of Ziyon is interesting because Erdogan is often blamed for a resurgence of Turkish antisemitism. Secular, westernised Turkey under Mustapha Kamal Ataturk is held up as a model for Muslim nations to follow. But as this snapshot of the anti-Jewish atmosphere in 1934 shows, not only were Jews at the mercy of the mob, but Ataturk himself declared himself unwilling to stand between the Jews and the destructive will of the people.
From the blog of Yekta Uzunoglu, quoted in Elder of Ziyyon (with thanks: Jeanette):
May 25, 1934
The Jewish community in Turkey, in despair and fear of the coming
pogroms, approached the Prime Minister Ismet Inönü himself and to the
Minister of Interior Affairs Sükrü Kaya and appealed for protection
provided by state authorities, against the attacks by crowds, goaded by
mysterious forces… The appeal was never answered.
June 14, 1934
The Turkish government responded in a special way, by approving a
shameful fascist law aimed especially against the Jews and their
The law begins with a quotation: This law has been approved to make sure
that one language is spoken in the country, there is one thought, one
and identical feeling and consciousness, especially for the Islamic
homeland, and therefore:
a) The areas where Turkish culture represents a minority are nationalized
b) All of the areas and regions, where representatives of Turkish culture could be relocated, are nationalized
c) All of the buildings, facilities, including houses and factories
belonging to those who are not Mohammedan, are nationalized. They will
serve for our health, culture, politics, army and civil guard.
Section 11 of the same law states:
“Those who do not speak Turkish as their mother tongue have no right to
set up new neighbourhoods, new villages, new workplaces, artistic
groups or societies, new schools, and they have no right to cede their
trade, their professions or companies to their descendants, relatives or
people of the same origin.”
June 21, 1934
The Turkish Government issued the Surname Act
All minorities living in Turkey were obliged to accept the Turkish
surnames they were assigned etc. They were the Jews, Kurds, Armenians,
Greeks, Assyrians, Roma, simply all of them. A new wave of forcing
minorities to become Turks began and it continues until now. Just
exceptionally, a member of such a minority succeeds in making the
Turkish authorities to approve the change to the original surname. Well,
in recent years some of them may have succeeded in claiming the
original surnames back but it happened only due to bribes, but the ban
is still in force. The order was not related just to peoples’ names but
also to the names of mountains, rocks, streams, animals, plants or even
Immediately, after the law was passed, a lot of Jews dwelling in the
European part of Turkey, i.e. near the borders with Greece and Bulgary,
were relocated to the steppes of Central Anatolia, under the pretext of
June 21, 1934
In the City of Dardanelles, where nearly 1500 Jews lived at that time,
attacks were started against Jewish shops. “Unofficial” guards were
standing in front of the shops and did not let citizens enter. They
placed notices on Jewish house doors, with a threatening appeal saying
that the people must leave the city immediately to avoid being murdered.
June 25, 1934
All of the Jews of Dardanelles and the city of Gelibol left the cities
and they were allowed to take just personal belongings with them… On the
same day, “purely by coincidence”, the city was visited by the Turkish
President Atatürk, the Father of all Turks, accompanied by the Iranian
Shah Riza Pehlevi… they came as conquerors. And they were greeted by
applause and cheering by the fanaticized crowds…
Mustapha Kamal Ataturk meeting Shah Reza Pahlavi I of Iran
One of the witnesses described the arrival of “the Father of the Turkish
Nation” Atatürk, just on the fatal day when the Jewish residents were
forced to leave the city, saying:
“… the crowd cheered at Atatürk’s arrival, shouting “May he live
forever!” and Atatürk’s car stopped among the cheering crowds, he got
out of the car, more self-confident than ever, his appearing put the
crowd to the top of ecstasy. Atatürk enjoyed the feeling of being
admired, as the person giving wealth to his pears, he walked among them,
stopped for a while, and at that moment a citizen broke away and ran
towards him. The guards tried to stop him but Atatürk, believing that
the man is one of his admirers, ordered the guards to let him come and
they had to obey.
The disillusioned citizen knelt down on the ground and raised both arms towards heaven, saying in despair,
“-My Pasha, for the God’s life, are they driving us out of our own city? Where are we to go? What shall we do, oh my God?”
Atatürk understood immediately who the man was and what he expected from
him, nevertheless he asked him ironically and in a mocking way, “-Who
“-My Holy Pasha, I am a local Jew from Dardanelles, Avram Palto.”
“-And who is driving you out? The Government? The Laws? The Police? The Gendarmerie? Go ahead, tell me”!
The Jewish citizen of Dardanelles, who was to lose all his property on that day and to leave his own city, replied in despair,
“No, my Almighty Pasha, the people are driving us away!”
And Atatürk started laughing and then said with a strict look,
“Well, if they are the people, nothing can be done, if the people
wished, they could drive away even myself,” and he returned to his car
where there was his guest, the Shah of Iran.
There is a good case for not sending the Iraqi-Jewish archive back to Iraq, writes Sheldon Kirchner in the Times of Israel. Now that the archive has been digitised, there is no reason why Iraq should not have a copy. (With thanks: Imre)
A compelling argument for maintaining the status quo with respect to
the present locale of the archive was made last year by Gina Waldman,
the founder and president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and
North Africa. As she put it, “There is no justification in sending (it)
back to Iraq, a country that has virtually no Jews and no accessibility
to Jewish scholars or the descendants of Iraqi Jews. The U.S. government
must ensure that (it) is returned to its rightful owners, the exiled
Iraqi Jewish community.”
Detail from Torah scroll tik found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive (photo: NARA)
That doesn’t mean that Iraq should be totally deprived of its
cultural patrimony. Since the archive has been fully digitized, there is
no reason why a copy of it should not be made available to Iraq. The
Iraqi authorities could then display the most important pieces in a
permanent exhibition, thereby enabling Iraqi Muslims and Christians to
learn a valuable lesson in history.
With the flight of most of Iraq’s 120,000 Jews following the
declaration of Israel’s statehood, a succession of governments
demonized, marginalized and persecuted Jews, obliterating their stellar
contributions to Iraqi society. This policy hardened after the 1963
Baathist coup, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1979 accession to power of
A digitized version of the Iraqi Jewish Archive in Baghdad could have
a positive influence on Iraqis who wish to expand their knowledge of
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.
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.