The climax of the High Holidays is Simhat Torah, when Jews rejoice at having been given the Torah – the five books of Moses. It marks the end of the Torah reading cycle. They will begin all over again with the first chapter of Genesis.
It is customary to chant Mi Pi El (from the mouth of the Lord) while dancing around the synagogue – or in the street – with Torah scrolls.
Some of the Torah scroll silver filigree finials and casings and other artefacts on display at the Yemenite Heritage Center
Rehovot is a town in central Israel known for its Weizmann Institute. But now it might also become famous for its Yemenite Heritage Center.
The Center, opened in 2017, is a handsome three-story building housing exhibition space, cafe, library, classrooms and a semi-circular auditorium.
The Center focuses on the aliya of the 50,000-member Jewish community from Yemen. A film hammers home the message that Yemenite Jews had been ascending to the Land of Israel since the 16th century. Yemenite Jews even preceded the first modern Zionist immigration of the late 19th century from Russia. They called the wave of immigrants arriving in 1881 ‘I will climb the palm tree’ (Song of Songs, 7:9). The journey was not without its tribulations. The Jews found themselves shipwrecked on a Red Sea island until they were rescued by sailors on a Jewish-owned ship. On arrival in the promised land they endured untold hardships. But today Yemenite Jews are a lively and integral part of society making a vital contribution to all walks of Israeli life.
There are some choice examples of the signature filigree work made famous by Yemenite Jewish craftsmen, but the exhibition space is mostly composed of photographs. Visitors can take photos dressed up in traditional Yemenite costume. There is a timeline of the history of the Yemenite community through the ages, but the Center could do with a visual exposition of the origins of the community and conditions for Jews under Islam.
The growing love affair between young middle class Iraqis and Israelis of Iraqi origin has been fostered by social media. Over 400,000 Iraqis follow ‘Israel speaks Arabic’, an official Israeli Facebook page, out of a total of a million and a half Arabic-speakers. Yet Iraq has treated its Jews abominably from the 1940s on. Linda Menuhin Abdel Aziz examines this curious phenomenon for the Washington Institute:
And as time went on, Iraqi policies continued to put Jewish lives at risk. In 1969, nine Iraqi Jews were executed in Baghdad’s Liberation Square after being falsely accused of spying for foreign entities, and the government declared a national holiday on the execution day. Moreover, during that period, merely uttering the word “Israel” was sufficient grounds for detention.
In light of this history, the apparent open mindedness of Iraqi social media users’ toward Israel is a phenomenon worth exploring.
One factor that may have contributed to the change in Iraqi public opinion is a growing realization in Iraq that Israel is not the enemy. Although Iraq has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause, interactions on Facebook indicate that Iraqis have come to believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the responsibility of the two feuding parties and that the conflict does not mandate an overall hawkish policy toward Israel.
In addition, many Iraqi intellectuals have underscored the role that diverse ethnic components played in the history of Iraq, particularly the role of the Iraqi Jews in building modern Iraq in the first half of the twentieth century, and the impact of the absence of this component on Iraqi identity. Moreover, it seems that many Iraqi social media users think that Iraq could benefit from Israeli technology.
Tsionit Fattal Kuperwasser, Iraqi-Israeli author, whose Pictures on A Wall book was exhibited at the Baghdad International Book Fair
However, it is not only rational calculations that have led to the apparent shift in Iraqis’ perception of Jews and Israel, but also a sense of nostalgia, which is reflected in a number of books now available in Iraq whose subject matter is Iraqi Jews, and which conjure the sense of a mutual history. This year, translated versions of books such as The Conflict of Identities in Iraq, written by a group of Israeli researchers, and The Pictures on The Wall by Israeli-Iraqi author Tsionit Fattal were exhibited at the Baghdad International Book Fair. Such works have the power to overcome language barriers and establish a new line of communication between contemporary Iraqis, many of whom have never met a Jewish person, and Jews of Iraqi heritage.
The formation of dialogue between two populations whose nations are not engaged in diplomatic relations is highly interesting considering the fact that such intimate communication does not exist between Israelis and citizens of Egypt and Jordan, where a formal peace treaty exists at a state level yet there little interaction exists at the popular level.
However, despite these winds of change, serious challenges to the growing rapprochement remain due to Iran’s interference in Iraq and its efforts to curry favor with Iraqi politicians, which has fueled and cultivated anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. It is noteworthy that this hostile policy is paralleled in Iran’s calls for the annihilation of Israel as a vital goal. Opponents of the idea of establishing normalized relations with Israel also find its efforts to use social media suspect, arguing that Israel is exploiting social media to deceive the youth about the comforts of life in Tel Aviv and trick them into thinking that Israel is a modern democratic state.
Nonetheless, many of the Iraqis following “Israel in the Iraqi Dialect,” are calling on the younger generation of Iraqi Jews to return to their “original” homeland and advocate for returning their property. Others are expressing their desire to see the opening of an actual Israeli embassy in Baghdad in order to reconnect with Iraq’s former Jewish history.
When David Collier, a popular blogger, Tweeter (@mishtal) and pro-Israel activist in the UK, announced that he was visiting his Egyptian-born father-in-law, his Twitter feed received an outpouring from Tweeters describing the plight of relatives similarly thrown out of Arab countries for being Jews. Here is a selection (with thanks: Carol):
Going to see my father-in-law today. He was expelled with all his family from Egypt and rendered stateless. Their business and property taken by the state. One of almost a million Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab lands. The @UN didn’t say a word.
My father-in-law was also expelled from Egypt, rendered stateless, his family’s business and property taken by the state. He built his life in London UK and now he has to witness the same antisemitism as he did back then. #RelentlessAntiSemitism
My great grandfather was arrested and tortured in Morrocco after attending a meeting to discuss Jewish interests in the country, a few years later they were rendered stateless and refused service in every business in their town, the forgotten refugees.
My relatives were expelled from Libya. I think that they’re currently live in the US, but we lost contact with them a long time ago. I wish I could meet them& get to know them. It’s saddens me that I don’t even know what happened to them.
You’re lucky to know him. Have fun
Ariel Dloomy and Vered Cohen-Barzilai are two Israelis of Iraqi origin who are holding meetings with Gilgamesh (a pseudonym) and a group of young Iraqis risking arrest to deepen their interest in their country’s Jewish past. Their relationship does not attempt to deny Jewish suffering in Iraq, not does it seek to turn the clock back but to build bridges between Israel and Iraq. Haaretz reports (with thanks: Lily, Boruch) :
“I envision similar networks of connections between Israelis whose parents fled other Arab countries and people their own age from those countries. It’s a long process, and it’s very fragile, but I believe we are proving it can happen,” says Dloomy.
Gilgamesh even hopes to see Israeli tourists visiting Iraq, where there are many historical sites of Jewish significance. The modern city of Mosul, for example, is associated with the ancient city of Nineveh, and many believe it is the site where the prophet Daniel is buried. Tradition locates the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel in the small town of Kifel, near Baghdad.
The tomb of the prophet Ezekiel, one of several sites of Jewish significance in Iraq
However, given the unstable situation in Iraq, tourism to the country remains almost nil. Still, Gilgamesh believes Israelis and Jews could alter that situation. “Israeli and Jewish tourists have reasons to visit our country, and this would be good for our economy and for relations within the Middle East,” he says.
Cohen-Barzilay notes that the motivations of the Israelis participating in the meetings differ from those of older Jews who were born and raised in Iraq. “Some of the first generation, those who fled Iraq, may see themselves first as Iraqis. I see myself first as an Israeli Jew, and we will have to discuss not only the Farhud and the troubled history – but also the present, and the relationship between Israel and Iraq today.”
Gilgamesh, meanwhile, acknowledges that the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli confused the Iraqis. “At first, I thought that many Jews would want to come back to Iraq to help create a new, pluralistic Iraq. I did not distinguish between Judaism and Zionism, or between Israel as a Jewish state and the policies of the Israeli government. It is important that we try to create a space to understand these complexities.”
He concludes, “I am fearful and yet, at the same time, I believe that nothing will destroy my dream of a new Iraq and peace among peoples in the Middle East.”
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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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.