Month: February 2019

Can Israel-Arab peace be built from the grassroots up?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu“breaking bread” with Arab leaders at
the Warsaw conference on Middle East security was a warming and
unprecedented sight. But no sooner had a video been leaked online of a
friendly interaction between Netanyahu and the Yemen foreign minister
than it was deleted. This is symptomatic of the push-me, pull-you
relationship between Israel and its Arab “frenemies.” Two steps on the
road to normalization, two steps back.

In February, an Iraqi poet who
had written about the Jews of his country was murdered. At about the
same time, Egyptians complained that the Israeli ambassador had attended
the Cairo Book Fair, albeit
he had queued to buy an admission ticket like other members of the
public. “If we had known, we would have beaten him up,” they wrote on
social media.

A few years earlier, the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem found
that his career took a nosedive after he had traveled to Israel and
written about his experiences there. Contact with Israel, or advocating
normalization, are most definitely the “kiss of death.”

The late Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, ostracised for travelling to Israel

On the other hand, since the Arab Spring, a startling revolution has
been taking place regarding Arab attitudes to Jews and Israel. “The
seeds are unmistakably sprouting,” says broadcaster, author and Middle
East specialist Joseph Braude. As well as a top-down strategic
rapprochement in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat, social media is
penetrating from the outside in. The Arabic Facebook page of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has 1.7 million followers from all over the Arab world, with more joining all the time. The Arabic page of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous from the Middle East and North Africa) has 5,000 new followers every week. The Dove Flyer, Eli Amir’s novel set in 1940s Iraq, has been translated into Arabic, as has Lucette Lagnado’s Egyptian memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. 

Braude sees an unprecedented opportunity to foster change. He views culture as fluid. The new subculture is driven by
revulsion at Islamist terrorism, fear of Iran and its nuclear designs,
and recognition of the Holocaust. Reversing the thinking that peace is a
prerequisite for cultural change, the United States could help build a
coherent policy on a peace between peoples. In his monograph Reclamation, Braude pulls out a tool kit of instruments that America might use to encourage partnership between Arabs and Israelis.

Morocco is an anomaly worthy of emulation. There, the monarchy has
fostered a culture of moderation towards Israel, and in the face of
powerful counter-currents of rejectionism, has caused an
anti-normalization bill in parliament to be shelved.

Such optimism is not shared by Israeli researcher and commentator Edy Cohen. The
road to better relations is littered with empty promises. The Arabs are
in distress. As soon as it is no longer expedient to do so, they will
drop Israel like a hot potato. “If we haven’t learned from past
experiences, let us at the very least read the present situation
correctly,” he writes.

Braude is realistic enough to know that decades of anti-Semitic
brainwashing in Arab mosques, media and schools, now reinforced by
Iranian and jihadist propaganda, will not dissipate overnight. Nasserism
and Islamism weaponized anti-Semitism. For every positive current,
there is a backlash. Political opponents are excoriated as “Jewish

“It’s an unfair fight,” he acknowledges. But many of the tropes now
current in the discourse were imported into the Arab world from Europe.
Two generations ago, in a more liberal atmosphere, Arabs remembered the
good relations they had with the 800,000 Jews who were driven from the
Arab world. At one stage, Zionism was not the dirty word it is today.
Accommodation with Zionism was the “road not taken.”

But Arab expressions of sympathy remain rare. As long as individual
advocates for normalization with Israel put their careers—or even their
lives—on the line, the price of significant change will remain too high.
Can American pressure make the price for intimidation and ostracism
even higher? It’s worth a try.

Read article in full 

 ‘More and more Arabs are positive towards Israel’

Friedman: the narrative of European Israel is wrong

Fascinating interview by Calev Ben-Dror in Fathom with Matti Friedman, author of a new book on Israel’s ‘Mistarav’ spies. They are emblematic of  Israel’s unacknowledged character as a Middle Eastern state whose dominant narrative is that of the Jews expelled from Muslim countries. (With thanks: Lily)

Matti Friedman:westerners struggle to understand Israel 

Calev Ben-Dor (CB-D): Your new book Spies of No Country tells the story of four young Jewish men from the Arab world who form the beginnings of Israel’s spy network. What drove you to focus on this?

Matti Friedman (MF): The book follows four of Israel’s first spies through the 1948 War of Independence. The main characters are young men on the margins of the Zionist project who are recruited by a small, ad-hoc intelligence outfit within the Palmach called the Arab Section, which encourages Arabic-speaking Jews to cross enemy lines and gather intelligence in the Arab world. They actually don’t call themselves agents, but Mistarvim, which means ‘ones who become like Arabs’ and it’s a term used today, made famous by the TV hit Fauda. At its height at the onset of the war, the section was no more than 20 agents, only half of whom survive. Their mission expanded to attempted assassinations of Arab leaders, and in Haifa they carried out a pre-emptive attack on a garage where the Arab militia was preparing a car bomb in the spring of 1948. And then when Haifa fell to the Haganah in 1948 and the Arabs begun to flee, the people in charge of the Arab Section realised that they have an opportunity to insert their agents into the Arab world by disguising them as refugees. They ran away to Lebanon and spent the first two years of Israel’s existence as Palestinian refugees, so the way they experienced the birth of the state is radically different to most of the stories people have heard about at that time.

For many years, I have had the feeling that the stories we tell about Israel no longer explain the country; nor are they useful as a map for navigating the country in 2019. Israel has always told its story in a very European way, about socialism, Theodor Herzl, the Holocaust, the Kibbutzim. That is very important if you want to understand how the country was founded, but it doesn’t explain the society that we live in. So I was looking for other stories that would explain the state of now, particularly from the Middle Eastern perspective, which reflects the fact that half of Israelis today actually come from the Islamic world rather than from Europe. In 2011 I met a 90-year-old former spy, Isaac Shoshan, who lives in a small working class suburb of Tel Aviv with whom I had a series of fascinating conversations. Isaac told me a story about the founding of the state that I hadn’t heard before. He experienced 1948 as a Palestinian refugee, which was his job as part of the very small, embryonic intelligence outfit that as part of the Jewish military underground and that story struck me as worth telling.

CB-DI recently interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi about his book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour and one of the things he emphasised was how he wanted to tell a 21st century Zionist story. You touched on this earlier, in that the story often told is overly Euro-centric – the narrative begins with the pogroms in Russia and ends with the Holocaust. Your book, which is different in many ways, has a similar idea in that if we are to tell the story of Israel today – both to Israelis and outsiders – we need to make it more accurate to include a Mizrachi component.

MF: People still tell the story of Israel as: When the Jews of the Islamic world moved to Israel they joined the story of the Ashkenazim – so the story of Israel is the story of the Jews of Europe. But having thought about this, and having lived here for 23 years, it is clear to me that what actually happened is much closer to the opposite. The remnants of the Jews of Europe come to the Middle East and inserted themselves into the story of the Jews of the Islamic world. The State of Israel is shaped by our contact with Islam and Jews who have lived here for centuries. The dominant narrative of the European Jews is wrong.

Looking ahead, telling Israel’s story in the 21st century will have a lot less to do with the Warsaw Ghetto than it will with Kurdistan and Aleppo. And Western observers find that difficult. But if we want to understand Israel, we are going to have to make an effort to move our centre of consciousness to the Middle East because that’s where we are. (….)

CB-DSomething that struck me while reading is the how the story of the Jews from Arab lands end. You remind readers that these Jews had survived a lot of crises – they had been present before the conquest of Islam, and even before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. There is nothing inherently to suggest that they shouldn’t also have been able to survive the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet now, when we look back, we see it as inevitable that they would not be able to continue to live in the Arab world. But in 1947, for the heroes of the story, it was far from clear that we were approaching the end of Jewish presence in Arab lands after 2,000 years?

MF: In 2019 it is clear to us that if the state of Israel exists then the Jewish presence in the Arab world isn’t going to exist. This was a world of about a million people in the 1940s – almost every major Arab city has a Jewish quarter, with some estimates putting the Jewish population of Baghdad as a third. The idea that this was going to suddenly disappear at the time was crazy. And we should remind ourselves of the fact that it did vanish is crazy. If you grow up in a Western Jewish community you’re very much aware of the loss stemming from the Holocaust, but less aware and appreciative of the loss of the smaller and much older Jewish world in the Middle East, which was alive and well into the 1940s.

The remnants of that world are largely here in Israel and they and their experiences are a very important part of the life of the country. It’s one of the things that makes this county different to a Western Jewish community, and why Westerners sometimes who struggle to get their heads around the country. These spies are a way of talking about all of that. They see it collapse. When they leave Palestine in 1947, they still see that world intact, but when they return to the State of Israel in the 1950s that world is doomed. That collapse of that world has both incredible significance for the Middle East and huge impact on the development of the State of Israel.


CB-D: In addition to Israelis and Westerners having to shift their perception about Israeli society, there is a third component you mention in your book that needs to be shifted, namely those within the Arab/Muslim world who view Israel as a Western implant rather than a country populated by people indigenous to the region. You talk about a mural in Egypt showing Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 and facing blond Israeli soldiers. You point out that Israelis are generally not blonde, but it helped the Arab world to see Israel as a European story.

MF: There are two main reasons why the Arab world has tried so hard to portray Israel as a colonialist implant: the first is that it help plays on European guilt for what happened in the Second World War; the second is that it obscures their own responsibility for why over 800,000 Jews, most of whom came to Israel, lost their homes in the Islamic world. Once you understand what happened, you will have a lot of criticism of Arab states for what drove out the Jewish population, so in order to make that go away, the Israelis have to be portrayed as blonde. Rather than blonds, many of those soldiers fighting the Egyptians on the Suez Canal looked like Egyptians (in fact some were originally from Egypt). So this a purposeful attempt by the Muslim world to erase that history, which suggest their own culpability in this story.

Read article in full

Disappeared children still seeking answers

The New York Times examines the still unresolved Yemenite children affair,in which hundreds of families arriving in Israel in 1949/50 were told that their babies had died – when they had been taken away for adoption. But suggestions that there was a conspiracy by the authorities to abduct the children remain unproven. 

ROSH HAAYIN, Israel — Ofra Mazor, 62, had been looking for her sister, Varda, for 30 years when she submitted her DNA samples to the Israeli genealogy company MyHeritage in 2017. Her mother, Yochevet, who is now deceased, said that she got to breast-feed her sister only once after giving birth to her in an Israeli hospital in 1950. She was told by the nurses that her newborn daughter had died. Ms. Mazor’s mother didn’t believe the nurses and had her husband demand their child back. He was never given the child.

A few months after submitting her DNA, Ms. Mazor received the call she’d been waiting for: A match had been found. Last January, the sisters were reunited. Varda Fuchs had been adopted by a German-Jewish couple in Israel. She was told at a young age that she was adopted. The sisters are part of a community of Israelis of Yemenite descent who for decades have been seeking answers about their lost kin.

Ofra Mazor and Vera Fuchs were reunited after a DNA match found that they were sisters

 Known as the “Yemenite Children Affair,” there are over 1,000 official reported cases of missing babies and toddlers, but some estimates from advocates are as high as 4,500. Their families believe the babies were abducted by the Israeli authorities in the 1950s, and were illegally put up for adoption to childless Ashkenazi families, Jews of European descent. The children who disappeared were mostly from the Yemenite and other “Mizrahi” communities, an umbrella term for Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. While the Israeli government is trying to be more transparent about the disappearances, to this day, it denies that there were systematic abductions.

Read article in full

‘If Jews return, Egypt will build them synagogues’

The Jerusalem Post has more about last week’s historic meeting between American-Jewish leaders and Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El Sisi. While his call to Jews to return to Egypt – there were once up to 100,000 Jews in the country – is a sign of progress, it must be stated that Jews will never return to Egypt while the general atmosphere remains deeply antisemitic. (With thanks: Lily)


American-Jewish leader Ezra Friedlander shakes hands with President Sisi of Egypt

If Jews are interested in establishing a Jewish community in Egypt, the government will build synagogues and other communal institutions, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told a US delegation during a two-hour meeting last week.

The delegation was made up of the Anwar Sadat Congressional Gold Medal Commission that advocated the granting of the US Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to the slain Egyptian president who made peace with Israel. Its members traveled to Egypt to invite Sisi to the ceremony in the fall, when the medal will be given to Sadat’s wife, Jehan.

The group was headed by the founder of the commission, Ezra Friedlander, an ultra-Orthodox consultant and lobbyist from New York who spearheaded efforts to have the award granted to Sadat. This required the passage of a bill that needed to be sponsored by two-thirds of Congress and was signed by US President Donald Trump in December.

“President Sisi spoke fondly not only of Egypt’s past vibrant Jewish community, but also said that should there be a resurgence of the Jewish community in Egypt, the government will provide every religious necessity required…  that was a very warm embrace,” he said. “He [Sisi] basically said that should there be a resurgence of the Jewish community, the government will build synagogues and other related services.”

Read article in full

Sisi authorises Bassatine clean-up

Sisi authorises Bassatine Cemetery clean-up

Some good news at last: Following a historic meeting with two dozen American Jewish leaders, President Sisi of Egypt has given the green light to the cleaning up of Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo: The American Jewish Committee (AJC) commends Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decisions toclean and protect the historic Jewish Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo and to make available the country’s Jewish Communal registers.

AJC, the global Jewish advocacy organization, has long called for these and other measures to preserve the heritage of the Egyptian Jewish community, which once numbered more than 80,000 and today is estimated to be fewer than 20.
Egypt’s commitment to preserve Jewish sites and records is vitally important,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs, who has visited Cairo.

AJC also has raised these issues in meetings with Sisi in the past. Sisi’s announcement this week followed his meeting with a delegation of Orthodox Jews visiting from New York.

Bassatine Cemetery, which dates to the ninth century, contains thousands of Jewish graves. Neglected for years, most of the inscribed headstones have been looted and squatter’s apartments cover much of the original site. Broken walls leave it unprotected, and garbage is strewn throughout the cemetery.

One day after Sisi’s announcement bulldozers and other equipment were dispatched to the cemetery to begin the clean-up process.

 The Communal Registers contain important personal data, including births, deaths and marriages, of the Jewish Communities of Cairo and Alexandria. “For many Egyptian Jews these are the only formal records which might otherwise be inscribed in civil records. And there are cases where they are very important in proving a person’s Jewish identity, for burial or for marriage,” Baker said.

 Access to this official documentation is important to the religious life of Egyptian Jews and their descendants around the world. AJC, together with the Nebi Daniel Association of Jews from Egypt, the Jewish Community of Cairo, and the Consistoire of France, has called for a copy of the registers to be deposited with the Chief Rabbinate of France.

AJC expects that Sisi’s decision will lead soon to implementation of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s unfulfilled promise to AJC in May 2017 to allow the registers to be copied.

Read article in full 

Vosizneias blogquotes a report on the meeting with President Sisi (with thanks :Boruch):

Drawing on the Jewish people’s ancient links to Egypt, Henry Manoucheri, a leader in Los Angeles’ Persian Jewish community, told Sisi that Egyptians and Jews are linked by a common historic bond that connects their souls. Manoucheri said that he found Sisi to be positive, emotional and clever, blessing him with a long life and many years in the Egyptian presidential palace.

Sisi politely refused Manoucheri’s offer to cover the cost of much needed repairs to Egypt’s dilapidated Jewish cemeteries.  Two hours later, the requested work was already underway at the cemeteries, reported New York City’s City Planning Commissioner Joseph Douek, a member of Brooklyn’s Egyptian Jewish community who was also part of the delegation.

“Representatives of what is left of the local Jewish community told me that shortly after our meeting, they received a call from the municipality saying that the work had started and that the local Jewish community would be called in to inspect their efforts,” said Douek, the great nephew of Egypt’s last chief rabbi, Rabbi Haim Moussa Douek.

 Douek also spoke with Sisi about the return of several Torahs and archived documents that are being held in Egypt but was told that those items would remain in the country.

“He told me that they were all being well maintained and well preserved, something that I know for a fact to be true,” said Douek.

“He offered to make us the best possible copies of any documents but insisted that the originals were part of Egyptian heritage and history.  While it wasn’t the answer I wanted, he was honest and forthright and I respect his response.”

 Lebanese born Rabbi Elie Abadie, rabbi of Manhattan East Synagogue, head of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan and president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, conversed with Sisi in his native tongue, inviting him to Washington to see the Congressional Gold Medal and explaining its significance.

 “I told him that we appreciate his strategic alliance with Israel and his friendship with the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Abadie.

 “After discussing Egypt’s Jewish heritage sites, I gave him the special blessing that is said for heads of government. It was all in Arabic and he responded in kind saying ‘Āmīn, Āmīn’, the Arabic form of ‘Amein.’”

 Ezra Friedlander said that the meeting surpassed all of his expectations and that he was grateful for the opportunity to be able to demonstrate American Jewry’s staunch support for Sisi and the pivotal role that he plays in the Middle East and in addressing terror worldwide. 


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.