Month: April 2020

President’s message features Egyptian-Jewish memories

Levana Zamir, president of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel, was one of the participants in a message broadcast by the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, on the occasion of the state’s 72nd independence celebration.

The president and all the participants wished the country a very Happy Independence Day.’We have no other country’, he said.

Then a 10-year-old child, Mrs Zamir said she could not forget the great joy her family felt on the day of the UN vote on Partition in November 1947. Her father was listening in secret to the radio and the family brimmed with excitement as the votes were announced: Yes -No-Yes-Yes. But as soon as the vote was passed, no Jew could utter the world Israel: their lips were sealed – until they were thrown out of Egypt.

She recalled her enormous excitement on seeing the IDF Independence Day parade, in which women soldiers marched.

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The Ashkenazim who came to the Levant

Ashkenazim settled in Syria and Lebanon in the 19th century, while German doctors came to Iraq fleeing Nazism.  These interesting snippets come from Nagi Zeidan, the historian of the Lebanese Jewish community,  and from the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel.

The now demolished synagogue of Misgab Ladach, Beirut, opened in 1817. (Courtesy: N Zeidan)

In 1902 Bernhart, son of Adolphe-Gabriel Israël and Hermine Morgenstern, born in 1884 in Schneidemül, Poland  arrived in Aleppo as director of the Orozdi Bak Store in this city. Israël was a common family name among Sephardim, but this branch of the family had married Ashkenazim.

As there were no Ashkenazi families in Aleppo, Bernhart headed to Beirut where there was an important Ashkenazi community.

Two brothers from the Ashkenazi family of Grünberg, Moise and  and William, both born in Hamburg, lived in Beirut and Zeidan found their graves in the Jewish cemetery of Beirut.

In 1902 Bernhart Israël married Pauline, daughter of William Grünberg and Sophie Brasseur, who was born in Beirut in 1888.

 They had four children: Adolphe, born in 1909 became the greatest cardiologist in Lebanon.
He was a member of the doctors’ union in Beirut in 1948.

Another daughter of William’s, Wanda Louise, died in childbirth. Her husband Isaac Sakkal raised his two daughters alone. He was later abducted by the Gestapo in 1942, presumably in Europe.

 William’s son Armand married Ilona Laszlo whose father Moritz was born in Vienna. The Lazlos arrived in Beirut to escape the Nazis in 1938. During WW2 many Ashkenazi Jews fled Eastern Europe illegally to escape the Nazis and settled in Wadi Abu Jamil (the Jewish quarter of Beirut). Elderly Lebanese Jews still remember that marriages of convenience were arranged with  refugee girl students. They came to study at the American University of Beirut because the Hebrew University was still in its infancy, or because they could not get permits to enter British mandate Palestine.

 A group of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim arrived in Beirut in the 19th century.

Historian Nagi Zeidan says that this community intermarried with the Jews of Beirut but continued to retain an Eastern European accent in Hebrew. In time their Yiddish names were replaced with Sephardi ones. By the 20th century, French first names were also popular.

Nagi Zeidan points out that following the Crimean War in 1853 between Russia and Ottoman Turkey, several Ashkenazi families from Eastern Europe settled in Baghdad. The Austrian  couturier Hermann Rosenfeld had two sons who joined him later. One was an engineer and the other, Joseph, had graduated in medecine at St-Joseph’s College in Beirut.

Ashkenazi doctors fled the rise of Hitler in 1933 and came to Iraq. Dr. Sustmann, Dr. Tucker, Dr. Rossano  and Dr. Strauss left Germany with passports.  They arrived in Turkey and from there made their way to Iraq.

At that time, Moshe Cohen, the shaliah (envoy) from Israel, commonly known as “Moshe Abu al-Laban”because he sold yoghurt as a camouflage for his activities, lived in Baghdad. Learning  of the arrival of the  doctors from Turkey, he managed to find accommodation at the Alliance school for them through his contacts.

They could not leave the building. Community members supported them. The Jewish community wanted to employ them but they were not granted a work permit nor permission to remain in Iraq.

Just then the wife of Jamil al-Madfai, who was to become Prime Minister, requested a female doctor to treat her. Dr Tucker, a specialist in women’s ailments, fitted the bill. Both she and Dr Sustman managed to find work at the Meir Elias hospital. Thus the Jewish community could use these doctors’ expertise – and save Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

Iraqi-Jewish historian foresaw disastrous Middle East politics

Baghdad-born Elie Kedourie is one of the most under-rated of historians, yet he foresaw what Middle East experts today now acknowledge with despair: that the post-WWI newly-independent Arab world would be a disaster for society and minorities. On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kedourie’s The Chatham House Version, Robert D. Kaplan  has this long but worthwhile read in National Interest: 

Kedourie’s essential diagnosis of Great Britain’s Arab policy in his lifetime was that the British Foreign Office’s awe of an exotic culture, combined with the “snare” of a misunderstood familiarity towards English-speaking Arabs—who used the same words, but meant very different things when discussing such issues as rule-of-law and constitutions—led to a profound lapse of policy judgment: towards which, one must add guilt regarding the post-World War I border arrangements that allowed for, among other things, a Jewish national home in Palestine. In the minds of this naïve generation of British officials, once Zionism and imperialism could be done away with, the Arabs would enjoy peaceful and stable institutions.

Fifty years ago, Kedourie countered with what in recent decades has since become a commonplace: that neither imperialism nor Zionism were the problems. As he put it, it is only a “fashionable western sentimentality which holds that Great Powers are nasty and small Powers virtuous.” In any case, he continues, even without imperialism and Zionism other outside powers would naturally work to involve themselves in this vast, energy-rich region as part of the normal course of history. The West was a problem, certainly, but in a different way than late British colonial officialdom and some of their American Cold War successor-acolytes had imagined it: Westernization and modernization were only amplifying the coercive, illiberal power of newly independent Arab regimes themselves.

Consequently, the nascent Arab middle classes were even more dependent on the goodwill of those vicious new regimes than they had been on the colonial powers. Indeed, everything from import licenses to securing jobs to school admissions required a silent pact with the authorities. And when oil wealth was suddenly added to the sociological fire of a falsely Westernizing Arab world, as Fouad Ajami (echoing V.S. Naipaul) explained: inhabitants of the great cities of the Middle East began experiencing the West only as “things” and not as “process,” importing the “fruits of science” without, as societies, producing them themselves. The results were sophisticated milieus, West Beirut being one for a time, of “Western airs and anti-Western politics.”

The Arab youth were especially dangerous, Kedourie unsentimentally observes: full of “passion and presumption,” they possessed the techniques of Europe without intuiting the cultural processes that had made Europe what it was. They hated their fathers’ world, and saw utopia rather than civil society with all of its messy backtracking, compromises, and checks-and-balances; thus, they paved the way for replacing Arab nationalism with Islamic fundamentalism—a phenomenon of a rapidly urbanizing Middle East, where the traditions of the village have been weakened and must be fortified anew in more abstract and ideological form.

The despair with which the class of Middle East experts in Washington now view the region is one that Kedourie arrived at long ago, and not cynically. Rather, it came about through painstaking historical research.

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Egypt’s Ramadan TV demonisation of Jews disappoints

If you think that the annual Ramadan TV series is an indicator of the improving image of Jew in the Arab world, you will be sorely disappointed by this year’s offering, according to the Jerusalem Post. The Jewish Quarterin 2015 turns out to have been a flash in the pan: El Nahaye (The End), a 30-episode show due to air in Egypt, continues the dehumanising trend. In one scene, a history teacher tells his class  claims that “the overwhelming majority of
Israel’s Jews fled and will return
to their countries of origin”adding“in Europe”, as if the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa never existed. The director Yaser Sami has said that the Arab dream of the end of the the Zionist entity, depicted in the series,  will come about in  2120.

 On the other hand, this year’s Saudi-produced series for the Gulf States does have a Jewish heroine.

A scene from the 2015 series The Jewish Quarter: its philosemitism was a flash in the pan

Ramadan in 2013 featured Khaybar, a drama showing relations between Jews and Muslim in Medina that led to the Prophet Muhammad expelling the Jews from Khaybar, an oasis in the western  Arabian Peninsula. In 2017 the show Kalabsh featured an American Jewish woman using her guiles to get an Egyptian diplomat to harm Egyptian national security.

And in 2019 the Egyptian viewer was treated to Alzyb’a, which portrayed Jews as being in control of the world.

One exception was in 2015, when a series aired called The Jewish Quarter did not dehumanize the Jews to the degree expected, something that led to praise for the series in some Western press, but criticism inside Egypt itself.

In other words, during Ramadan – the time when television viewing is at its peak – the Egyptian viewer is exposed nightly to shows featuring popular actors that demonize Jews and Israel.

And this year is no exception, with a private Egyptian station airing during Ramadan a 30-episode show called El Nehaye (The End) that tells of a future war to liberate Jerusalem, the destruction of Israel and the dispersion of its Jews to their countries of origin.

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TV series Fauda is a runaway success in the Arab world

The Israeli Netflix series Fauda is a runaway success in the Arab world, the Algemeiner reports. The series is based on the adventures of a Mossad hit squad operating in the Palestinian territories. It features Arabic-speaking Jews posing as Arabs and this itself shatters stereotypes about Israelis. The main character, played by Lior Raz, is of Iraqi and Algerian parentage. 

Lior Raz plays the main character, Doron

Asked why the series is so popular, co-creator Avi Issacharoff noted that a large amount of the show’s dialogue is in Arabic.
“I think part of it is the language, which means that ‘Fauda’ has crossed over into the Arabic language, and we are also bringing the story on both sides, not just from the Israeli side,” he said.

 “Of course, the corona also — that is, the fact that people are sitting at home and have nothing to do, so it certainly encourages people to watch, even if it means an Israeli series,” Issacharoff added.

Lior Raz, who plays the series’ main character Doron, said the show’s success in the Arab world was “very, very exciting.”

 “We are really pleased that we were able to reach the Arab public that we usually have no contact with,” he commented.

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