Month: October 2019

Pakistan: The Australian Consul-General’s wife’s tale

If you visit the Israeli town of Ramleh, you will find a synagogue built by Pakistani Jews. It is named Magen Shalom, after the synagogue in Karachi which no  longer exists. The Jews of Pakistan once numbered about 3,000, but the violent repercussions to the Arab-Israeli conflict have driven the community  away. (In addition, as the case of Asia Bibi has shown, Pakistan is hardly today a beacon of religious freedom.)  The following story is based on real events and centres around the Jews of Karachi, who were desperate to  cross the closed border with India in the 1970s. Wayne Croning has recreated the story in his own words…names are made up.

Hannah made the driver cover the number plates of the Mercedes, even made him remove the flag
from the bonnet.  She got in front and gave him the address. Jamila Street, in the
Ranchore.

Her husband David was posted to Karachi a few months previously,  as the Australian Consul-General. Hanna and
their children arrived a few weeks later. They had been to several countries, including some in
South America. The city reminded her of Bombay, where she and her family once lived.

Crowded, bustling, hot and
humid. But she loved it. She loved the food, the people and the culture. The first thing she did on
arriving at any new country was to look up the Jewish
population; being Jewish herself.

After a short search with help through a high ranking local official, she found to her amazement, that there was indeed a small but thriving Jewish community with a decent-sized synagogue in the commercial hub of the city.

 As they drove from Clifton to Saddar, they eventually got onto Bunder Road (M.A.Jinnah
Road), and took a turn off this busy street.The street they were on now was narrow, but crowded with people, cars,
rickshaws, motorcycles. The synagogue was not hard to find. A large stone and brick building soon
appeared on their right. Above the steel gate, and on the building itself was a sign: ‘Magain Shalome Synagogue’.

An early picture of the Magain Shalome synagogue, Karachi (Photo: Haroun Haidar blog)

 They pulled up to the side of the street and parked. Hannah got out, walked to the gate and was stopped by the chowkidar or watchman.

 “Who is it you wish to see?” he asked, in Urdu. Hannah had
picked up a bit of Hindi after spending a few years in Bombay.“Rabbi sahib say milna chatha hoo.” (I would like to
meet the Rabbi).

 He replied that this was Saturday and to come back in one hour. She waited in the car, and soon observed a
number of people entering the premises. Men, women and children, families, all dressed for Shabbat, in their finest. They all appeared to be East Indian, but some of their features were a little different.

The gates
were fully open now and she decided to walk in. The main door of the synagogue was made up of
solid oak. She entered and was greeted by a high-ceilinged, cathedral-like room.and
spacious, wooden benches flanked each side of a narrow aisle. Women on the left, men on the rght. Men wore kippot, women wore shawls around
their head.

An elderly, bearded man stood to the side of the entrance on the inside, greeting everyone. He looked surprised when he saw Hannah.

Smiling, he introduced himself.“Hello and Shalom. I am Rabbi Simone Isaac. And you
are…?”

 Hannah smiled back. “I am Hannah. She had covered her head with a silk scarf. After
guiding her to a seat, the Rabbi went to
the back of the building. Large chandeliers hung down, brightening
up the space.

The Ark stood on a raised wooden pedestal in the middle of the wooden prayer platform. Torah scrolls were stored here. The Rabbi climbed the two stairs,
removed one of the large scrolls, holding it high above his head with both hands.  He walked around the prayer platform, reciting prayers in Hebrew.

After the service ended, Hannah managed to meet the Rabbi again. She learned
a lot after their hour -long conversation. Most of the Jews here were from the Bene Israel
community, that originated on the South West coast of India, just South of
Bombay. Some were Baghdadi Jews and a few had Afghani connections. Most of them spoke Marathi, Urdu and of course
English. Many had left in 1948, one year after the Partition of India and the birth of a new nation: Israel.

By the mid 1960’s the population had further dwindled. Most left for the UK, Israel and even India.

 This was now 1972, India and Pakistan had just gotten over a major war. The border was closed between the two countries.

 Hannah was seen regularly at the synagogue; attending Shabbat prayers, weddings and social events. She had even attended two funerals, where the dead were laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery not too far from the  synagogue. She got
to know most of the families, made close friends
with some of the women, hosting many parties and get-togethers at her home. Her own children
also attended prayers at the synagogue every Saturday.  She would supply the community with Kosher
wine, grape juice, etc., even medical supplies.

 As she grew closer to the community, and came to know several of them wanted to make
Aliyah’ to Israel, especially the younger generation, she devised a plan: Travel to Israel for
Pakistanis was not allowed (passports were stamped as such).But many had immigrated to Israel via
Iran and India.

 The bizarre idea came into her head one day.  She would drive
with two or three Jews to Lahore and then drive across the border at Wagh, hiding them in the
trunk of the same consular car.

“Are you
insane?” her husband asked as she prepared for the trip. “What if you are
caught? What if they are caught? Even if you do, what
will happen to them in India? They could
be arrested there!”

 Hannah smiled but said with confidence .“They will not stop a foreign consular car. I have made
arrangements with the British Embassy in Delhi. They will be given British passports.
The ones
who want to immigrate to Israel can do so as well.

There is a representative from Tel Aviv who will be in Bombay at the end of the year. They
are inviting Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

 When the day arrived, Hannah and two young women and one man, got into the Mercedes and bid tearful
goodbyes to relatives.

The long drive to Lahore took about two days, with stops along the
way. Hannah also took the family pet dog
along for the trip. The morning before crossing the border, she
hid the two young women in the trunk of the car. The rear middle armrest was removed and a plastic
pipe fitted to allow cool air from the air conditioner to reach them in the
trunk. The young man was given a consular uniform with a badge and would act as the chauffeur.

They drove
to the border. It was heavily guarded with signs posted along the fence. Guard dogs
began barking at the car. The guards
took a walk around and noticed Hannah’s dog in the back
seat.  in Delhi.” she told them, holding out her
passport.“This is my chauffeur and these are his papers”, she added, handing them his passport.

 After informing her that she would be allowed to cross, they refused to let the
chauffeur through. She looked up at the guard, half annoyed.
“I cannot drive! Do you want me to walk to
Delhi??

”He appeared confused for a second. After consulting with a senior official, he came back.“You can
both go through, but at your own risk. We cannot be responsible for your safety, or the safety of
the driver.” With that he handed back
the papers, opened the gate and let them through.

 On the other side, she encountered similar problems. “I can’t walk to Delhi!” and an
annoyed look finally got her through.

“I have to
make this trip two or three times a year. Make a note of my name and my number plate,”she said,
as they slowly drove away from the border.

 The two young women made it to the UK. The
chauffeur had to return with her to Karachi, so as not to raise
suspicion. She made several such trips
back and forth. Things became more
relaxed at the border
crossing.The chauffeur made it out to
Israel after the third border crossing.

Hardly any Jews
remain in
Karachi.
Many of them married into other
communities, changed their religion or just left for
good.

 Many years later, a journalist
interviewed the Karachi Jewish community who had settled in Israel
in a place called Ramleh. They had set
up a new synagogue and named it Magen Shalom after the one in
Karachi.

When one elderly man was
interviewed he had tears in his eyes.“I miss
Karachi. I was born there, I miss the
place dearly.What really hurts is that
I can never go back for a
visit. Never!”

Diplomat’s wife smuggled Jews out of Pakistan

Pakistani Jews go to court over synagogue

Friedman: kudos to Netflix for telling Mizrahi spy story

Matti Friedman is pleasantly surprised by The Spy, the Netflix series about Eli Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy. It is long-overdue recognition of a marginalised, yet invaluable group of Arabic-speaking Jewish agents. Read his article in Mosaic:


Sacha Baron-Cohen as Eli Cohen, Israel’s legendary spy in the Netflix series

Hollywood’s Mossad movies haven’t been
good in part because most Western observers have never really grasped
Israel’s secret identity, which is also the secret that made the
Mossad’s reputation in its first decades. This is the fact that more
than half of the new state’s population came, like Eli and Nadia, from
the Arab world and included people who could move in that world with
ease, as Arabs. That fact has been obscured by Israel’s own Europe-heavy
narrative, by the West’s Holocaust fixations, and by the Mossad’s own
PR about derring-do and technical wizardry.

The truth is that Mossad recruiters had at their disposal an
invaluable reservoir of people who were loyal to a fault, ideologically
motivated, and capable of passing for the enemy. One of them was Eli
Cohen. There were many others who, unlike Cohen, remain anonymous
because they were lucky enough to make it home.

The series deserves credit for broaching, if only in a peripheral and
inelegant way, the harsh ethnic irony of the Cohens’ life: namely, that
the same characteristic that made Eli useful to Israel’s young
intelligence service was what kept his family on Israel’s margins. Being
an Arabic-speaking Jew in those years was useful if you were a spy. In
real life it was a handicap to be overcome.

“You know what they see when they look at me?” Eli says to Nadia
after a party at the poolside mansion of Ashkenazi friends, where the
host mistakes Eli for a waiter: “They see an Arab. That’s it. Jewish,
yes. But just an Arab.” Never mind that no such mansion could have
existed in socialist Israel circa 1960, or that the host’s
1970s shirt and haircut are off by at least a decade. Eli’s point to
Nadia gets at something true, and if there are to be more—and
better—Mossad stories told on screen, they’ll have to address it again
and in much greater depth.

Read article in full

Eli Cohen’s story dramatised on Netflix

Libyan Jew will help draft new Libyan Constitution


A Libyan Jew based in the UK is set to contribute to the drafting of the war-torn country’s new constitution, according to Jewish News. But scarred by his arrest and interrogationon a visit to Libya in 2012,   Raphael Luzon will only agree to take part in the drafting via Skype.


 Raphael Luzon, who came to the UK in 2001, said he had been invited to take part in the process by Muhammed al-Hosh, president of the High Council of Reconciliation.

Luzon said it was “historic” that he had been appointed an “observer and representative of Libyan Jews” in the country’s newly-established Council of Sheikhs, which is the equivalent of Libya’s upper chamber or Senate.

Speaking to Jewish News, he said: “The current constitution, which dates from the days of the King in 1951, talks about equal rights for all citizens, but I am trying to introduce a line that says this should be irrespective of religion.”

He added: “While there is some reluctance from the Salafists [fundamentalists] most Libyans agree that something like this is needed.”

 The activist, who chairs the Union of Libyan Jews, was born in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi but was forced to flee during a pogrom as a result of the 1967 Six Day War fought between Israel and Arab states.

He has since been back several times, including in 2012, when he was briefly abducted. As a result of this, he said he would participate in the drafting via Skype “despite a lot of pressure on me to travel back.”

Read article in full

More about Raphael Luzon

Women helped Mashadi converts retain their Judaism

This year is the 180th anniversary of the mass forced conversion of the Jews of Mashad to Islam.  Largely thanks to their women, who remained isolated from social and religious pressures,  the Jews proceeded to lead a double life – Muslim outwardly, but Jewish at home – which helped preserve their identity at the height of adversity. Dr Mehran Levy summarises their story in Kinloss magazine (with thanks: Michelle)

 The
extraordinary history of the Jews of Mashad began during the reign of
Nader Shah (known as the ‘Napoleon’ of Persia) of the Afshar Dynasty, who
ruled from 1736, and his empire briefly stretched across present-day Iran, India,
and parts of central Asia.

 At the time,
for over 2500 years, Jews lived in various provinces of Persia. They were engaged
in trade but were also bankers, and ran depositories. The Shah brought
forty Jewish families – trustworthy and reputed for being good financiers and honest business people – to his capital Mashad to run his business, while
seventeen families were sent to the nearby city of Kalat,
his seat of residence.

Jews were
appointed to manage the Shah’s vast treasures (including the largest diamonds –
Kohinoor and Dariyanoor) brought in after the conquest of India. Initially, they
resided in a shanty precinct called Eidgah (Ghetto). Meanwhile, the Zoroastrian
community of Mashad, subjected to religious annihilation, were fast evacuating
the area. This gave the opportunity to the Jews to purchase their lands and
properties, and the Shah sanctioned them to build synagogues and community
centres.

Nader Shah, the community’s only hope and saviour, was assassinated shortly
afterwards in a rebellion (1747).  The
country was fragmented and revolts erupted between his successors. Several
families tried to flee eastward, to Herat, Bukhara and on to India.  In
spite of the long and dismal period that followed, the rest of the community
remained united, alert, vigilant. It designated elders to solve disputes and
to liaise between the Jewish and the Muslim population. The whole of Eidgah was interlinked with small inconspicuous doors,
which could be used as escape routes at times of trouble. The windows faced
alleyways rather than areas where onlookers could see into the private
dwellings.

Migratory routes taken by Mashadi Jews

 The Jews established business links with local Muslims as
means of survival including trading woollen clothes, silk, and other textiles.

There were many
assaults on  Mashadi Jewry, the most poignant in 1839. The 180th anniversary of this event  falls this
year and the community is commemorating and reflecting upon it
. An incident
occurred when the inadvertent misconduct of a Jew resulted in the killing of
several Jews by a mob. This was the catalyst for more persecution, giving  rise to one of the darkest epochs in the lives of Persian Jewry, followed
by the forced ‘conversion’ of Jews to Islam. Within days, the entire community
of about 400 families was forcibly converted to Shia Islam, some were killed and most
community centres, including synagogues, destroyed.

These Anusim (forced converts) among the Mashadi Jews were known as Allah-dadi (God given)
and recognized as Jadid al-Islam (New Muslims). The sceptics, to ensure they no
longer practised their ‘idolatrous’ religion kept the ‘New Muslims’ under
surveillance. The ghetto was renamed Mahalleh Jadid (The New Precinct). This
grim situation motivated a large number to leave for  the Land of Israel and the nearby
cities in Persia where they assimilated into the existing Jewish communities, or moved to  more tolerant Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

However,
those who remained continued to adhere tenaciously, although undercover, to their orthodox religious activities and began to live a dual life. Kashrut,
marriage, and burials were all conducted under strict Jewish laws.
Intermarriage was unknown within the community – girls were betrothed to Jewish boys
at an early age to avoid a forced marriage to outsiders. The marriage ceremony
would be first conducted in a local mosque by the Imam, and then carried out
under rabbinic auspices; having two marriage certificates, one in Persian and one
in Hebrew, was common. Men had dual names, a Persian Arabic name as well as
their Hebrew birth names.

Men attended
mosques for daily prayer followed by davening in their secluded synagogues. To
make them inconspicuous, miniature Tefillins, Siddurim, and Torah
Parshiots printed as separate smaller booklets (read in services even to
this day) were in use. A unique form of scriptwriting known as Jadidi (new) was
created – this was a mixture of Persian and Hebrew only understandable by the
Jews at the time. Some even went on to Mecca for pilgrimage and were commonly ennobled by the title Hajji after returning from Hajj.

Mini-parashiot booklets printed in Lithuania in 1900 and used in Mashad c. 1918 (Photo: UMICA)

Because of this duality, there were no openly Jewish schools
in Mashad. Pupils attended local primary and secondary schools while the elders, behind closed doors, taught Jewish studies. When the Alliance Israelite offered
education classes, the elders, fearful that their secret faith may
be exposed, rejected it. This inevitable but wise decision had damaging
ramifications for the community because they were comparatively less educated
than their Jewish counterparts in Iran in the first half of the twentieth
century.

Under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925), life for the
Mashadi Jews improved immensely. As the courts made strong attempts at
secularism and eased many religious restrictions, Jews cautiously began
practising their faith publicly. The city thrived as a business and economic
centre and the Jews benefited from this and the favourable trading environment
of the nearby Russian provinces.

However, with the rise of the
Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War, prejudice and anti-Semitism
re-ignited in the country. In search of a safer and more prosperous life,
the Jews gradually left Mashad in favour of larger cities, settling mainly in
the capital Tehran. The exodus reached its peak in 1946-1948. By the 1950s, Jewish life in Mashad was
almost non-existent
. This momentous move and the moderate reign of the
Pahlavi Dynasty, presented the community with enormous social, vocational and
work opportunities and, in particular, they could openly practise their faith
with little fear or hindrance. That period also saw the first group of Mashadi
Jews going onto higher education and, a few held senior positions within
their disciplines in Iran, among whom are remembered and honoured: ‘Mohandes’
 Nourollah  M., Dr 
Aghajan  R., Dr Lotfollah  Y., Dr Yousef  H.

By 1979, with the creation of the Islamic Republic, the
majority of the Jews had left Iran. Some moved to Germany, Italy,
and America. Israel was also a favourite choice. Mashadis  joined earlier
migrants from 1901, forming the largest Persian Jewish
community. Those who immigrated to Britain joined the well-established but small
community that settled there in 1910. The Anglo-Mashadi community founded their own Synagogue in Stamford
Hill in the mid-1920s. This evolved into the present-day magnificent Persian shul.



 Mashadi Jews have been unique in the diaspora because for centuries, they maintained their Jewish faith and
practised Orthodox Judaism to the full, if underground, in an Islamic
environment. Historians argue that this was due largely to the women who were
somewhat excluded and segregated from the public domain and the city’s
fervently religious atmosphere. The characteristics of the traditional Iranian home
and the segregated closed unit of the Jewish household meant that the women
had, comparatively, a greater
degree of liberty to live as Jews in their homes. Hence, they upheld their ancestral traditions and passed on that
unadulterated faith to the next generation. 

Young Mashadis never witnessed or
experienced the lives of their parents in Iran. However, in their unique and
highly integrated social life outside Iran, and the negligible rate of
intermarriage, they have upheld their traditions. They are well-educated,
informed and are involved in wider academic, corporate and political
institutions. 

 From the outset, the crypto-Jews of Mashad, consciously or not, believed that it was best not to assimilate and to
remain unnoticed and united within their tightly-knit community. Some
attribute this to the community’s double life in the past as a means of
survival and believe that their parents’ socio-cultural lifestyle has
perpetuated itself and is apparent in the present day. However, it is certain that this unique lifestyle has worked in their
favour, keeping the community integral, safe, prosperous and, remarkably,
preserving their orthodox Jewish identity unhindered for centuries in the face
of extreme adversity.This trait is unlikely to erode in the near future
and perhaps unwittingly, they have formed their own diaspora within a diaspora.

This article, written in memory of the author’s father, has been reproduced with the kind permission of  Dr Mehran Levy.



More about the Jews of Mashad



IDF Arabic instructor tells her incredible story

Now an Arabic instructor in the IDF, V. was one of the last Iraqi Jews to make aliya. She tells her incredible story of growing up under Saddam’s regime to Israel Hayom (With thanks: Lily)


A photo which V brought out of Iraq shows her with family members and friends

 The family decided not to forgo their Jewish identity, but for their own safety, they chose to hide it as much as possible.

One of V.’s first childhood memories was drawing shapes on a piece of paper. One was a Star of David. Her family panicked and made her promise never to do it again.

V.’s first encounter with the Hebrew language was also scary.

 “I remember one time I was sitting at home with my dad and he was looking for something to listen to on the radio. Suddenly, we heard a broadcast in a language I couldn’t identify and sounded very strange to me. My dad looked at me in total silence and changed the station.”

 “I noticed what station it was and he saw me looking. And he whispered, ‘Don’t you dare to look for it later. That’s Hebrew. It’s illegal. If they catch us, we’re done for.”

 V. falls silent.

 “You have to understand. We didn’t show anyone that we were Jews. We weren’t taught the language, the religion, or the customs. From age four I knew what I could say to those around me and what I couldn’t. I knew we were Jewish, but I didn’t really understand what that meant at that age. I only knew I wasn’t a regular kid.”

  Leading a double life from such a young age came at a price, which was declaring loyalty to the regime. When she started elementary school, V. was recruited for the scouts, the youth movement of the Saddam regime.
Unlike youth movements in Israel, the Iraqi scouts was actual military training. V. was given a uniform, a gun, and a hefty dose of Ba’ath party propaganda.

 Israel was always the enemy. “I realized that I had to prove that I was more loyal to Iraq than anyone else. That I was the most Iraqi anyone could be,” V. says.

 Her school studies only increased her exposure to the propaganda of the regime and put V. into a permanent dilemma.

“The brainwashing was absolute. In school, in the media, the message was always the same. If there is a situation of war or danger, our loyalty was first and foremost to Saddam and the regime. I was confused between my identity at home and the one I adopted when I was with friends at school and in the youth movement.”

 When V. reached high school, things only got more complicated.

“I finished elementary school without any of my childhood friends knowing I was Jewish. When I got to junior high and high school I encountered difficulties being accepted because of the lessons in religion. It was the first time I talked with my mom about religion. I asked her to stop hiding so I could show myself for who I was. She scolded me and once again there was the threat and the stories about what my father had been put through.”

 But this time, V. would not be deterred from revealing her true identity to her friends. She was sick of hiding.

“In the end, I decided to tell my friends I was Jewish. I prepared myself for the worst, for anti-Semitism and even violence. There was no violence, but there were anti-Semitic questions… even the blood libel about Passover matzah was brought up. I needed to explain that I was a Jew, not a monster, but in the end it went fine and made me stronger.”

 Although her high school friends accepted her, V. began to realize that she had no future in Iraq. The family was living in constant fear that the regime would discover that her brother was living in Israel and that her father would be taken in for interrogation again.

V. secretly started to dream of making aliyah to Israel, and some Jewish girlfriends helped her.

“From a young age, I had two Jewish friends and we’d play a game that had real meaning,” she says.

“We invented all sorts of written codes so in case one of us left Iraq, we could communicate freely in letters. Innocent lines like, ‘What’s the trendy color there now?’ or ‘When can you start studying in Holland?’ became codes for getting visas to leave Iraq and make aliyah. That funny game eventually helped us a lot at the moment of truth.”

Surprisingly, the memory sparks a need for V. to explain that while the Iraq of her childhood was a tough and frightening place, it was not hell on earth.

Read article in full

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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.