Month: June 2020

The 1945 Tripoli massacre that never was

A historian has questioned whether a massacre of up to 14 Jews in the Lebanese town of Tripoli actually took place in 1945.

History books have long recorded that a massacre took place in Tripoli, Lebanon ( aka Tripoli de Syrie)  on 9 November 1945. Twelve to 14 Jews were allegedly killed. The authoritative history of the Jews of Lebanon published in 2001 by a professor at the London School of Economics, Kirsten E. Schulze, cites the massacre. So does the Encyclopaedia of the Jews in the Islamic World, published in 2010.

But no newspapers of the time  – the Palestine Post,  the Lebanese and international press – report such a massacre.

The Lebanese- Jewish newspaper Al- Alam carred a report of the massacre in Tripoli, Libya in November 1945. It made no mention of a massacre in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Historian of Lebanese Jewry Nagi Georges Zeidan believes that the misconception, recycled in published works,   arose out of confusion with a massacre that occurred in Tripoli, Libya ( aka Tripoli de Libye) between 5 and 7 November 1945. Some 130 Libyan Jews were murdered in that episode. A Jewish source told Zeidan that he had not heard of a massacre in Lebanon and  that relations between Jews and non-Jews in the country only began to deteriorate at the time of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

The synagogue in Tripoli, Lebanon, now a dry cleaner’s.

Nagi Zeidan says that  there is no evidence of a mass burial, nor is such a massacre commemorated by the Jewish community.

According to Zeidan, there were 84 Jews in Tripoli, Lebanon in 1930. The census of 1932 puts their number at 25. Zeidan lists eight households from the town. The family of Ibrahim Cohen had moved to Beirut.  Isaac, son of Simon Ninigan, had no children. The only daughter of rabbi Chehadeh moved to Sidon. Selim, son of Jacob Srour,  died in 1951 and is buried in Beirut. The Mizrahi family emigrated first to Israel then to the US. Youssef, son of Chehadeh Mizrahi, died in October 1945, three weeks before the massacre, and is buried in Beirut. He had no offspring. There was another surviving son, Mourad.

Nagi Georges Zeidan, who is  Lebanese Christian,  first began researching the history of the Jews of Lebanon 25 years ago. He is about to publish a book in France this summer 2020, Les juifs du Liban d’Abraham à nos jours et leur tragique disparition  For details and to donate towards  publishing costs, click here.

Liberal fought for Jewish citizens’ rights in Iraq

This interesting Tablet  piece by Raad Yahya Qasim, an academic based in Brazil, profiles his father Yahya, editor of the newspaper Al Sha’b until 1958. Yahya typified a breed of liberal Iraqi who worked with, and was sympathetic to, the increasingly oppressed Jews of Iraq. However, it is not clear how his work as a lawyer helped mitigate the 1951 Denationalisation Law, which froze the property of Jews departing Iraq, and remains on the statute book to this day. (With thanks to all those who flagged up this article).

Yahya Qassim at the editor’s desk of Al Sha’b

Returning to the core of my story—Al-Sha’b (the people in Arabic) was launched in 1945 by Yahya Qassim with the aim of using the editorials he penned to advocate daily and emphatically for a pluralist, democratic Iraq, where citizens—whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or of any other set of personal faiths and beliefs—are considered fully equal under the rule of law. In less than a year, Al-Sha’b rose to become the leading newspaper in Iraq in terms of its circulation, its liberal editorial policy, and its independence from any political party or group. True to Qassim’s pluralist principles, there were several Jewish professionals working at Al-Sha’b alongside Muslims and Christians, both as journalists and in administrative positions.

 In 1946, with Al-Sha’b in its second year of publication, the political atmosphere in Iraq started to grow increasingly tense in view of the expected creation of the State of Israel. Iraqi public opinion was roughly divided into three views on this matter: The first view was that of Iraqi political parties and newspapers pushing the Arab nationalist approach of considering Iraqi Jewry and Zionism as one and the same and exhibiting outright hostility toward the Jewish community in Iraq. The second view, predominant in the ruling establishment, looked at the question through a somewhat more moderate and pragmatic lens, taking into account the pressure exerted by some other Arab governments, particularly Syria’s, to follow a hard-line policy toward Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel.

 The third view was that of a minority, in which Yahya Qassim was a leading example. This view was embodied in Qassim’s daily editorials in Al-Sha’b, arguing that Iraqi Jews were—both de jure and de facto—fully equal to other Iraqi citizens, and that the creation of the State of Israel was a separate and distinct question of Iraqi governmental foreign policy. Furthermore, Qassim argued that sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinian Arabs in no way conflicted with the recognition of the full rights of Jews as Iraqi citizens.


Read article in full

The author pays tribute to New Babylonians by Orit Bashkin, which mentions his father Yahya Qasim on page 215:

Al-Sha’b, a paper edited by Yahya Qasim, critiqued Zionism, yet made the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. Qasim was close to Hesqel Shemtov, acted as the lawyer of the community, and negotiated many of the deals regarding the Denationalisation Law. Menashe Somekh came to work for Al Sha’b and quickly became one of Al-Sha’b’s leading workers. .. In a story about a discussion in the British House of Lords concerning the sufferings of the Palestinian refugees, Al Sha’b published an article about a prominent Jewish author who sought to alleviate their misery…The article suggested that a Jew, despite his religion, could sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians since ethics and compassion, and not religion, were what determined how one responded to the refugee problem…..Unlike the right, which urged jews to leave Iraq as soon as possible,  Al Sha’b implied that leaving for Israel would not solve their problems.”

Jews of Mosul escaped intimidation and injustice

In tribute to Ezra Laniado,  the author of one of the few books about the Jews of Mosul, Dena Attar in The Jewish Chronicle recalls the suffering of this small community in the north of Iraq. The period before their mass flight to Israel was replete with threats, extortion and anti-Jewish agitation.

Mosul, Iraq’s second city, was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Jews were conscripted into the Ottoman army from 1908 and many did go to fight, with about 100 joining the “matches” battalion, nicknamed when they had to hold up matches to find their way to the frontline at night.

 Many other Jews from Mosul, like my grandfather, escaped conscription and probable death by going into hiding in local Kurdish villages or in cellars, aided by the community who stalled Ottoman officials searching for them.

One story even told of a father retrieving his conscripted son from the Syrian city of Homs as the Ottoman army was in such chaos nobody could stop him.

 The war brought extreme suffering, especially during the famine of 1916-17 when the army seized all of Mosul’s food supplies.

Two rabbis, Hakham Yahya Hamo and Hakham Eliyahu Barzani, who both sold spices, perfumes and herbal medicines, raised money to feed the starving population.

One man who sold his home and entire possessions to feed his family but was still destitute went to “Babylon” (Baghdad) to plead with Rabbi Dangoor to help famine-stricken “Assyria” , lamenting “there is no pity and there is no mercy and hunger is outside every door.”

Haham Yahya Hamo, Dena Attar’s great uncle: raised money to feed starving Jews in 1917

 The British were welcomed to begin with as one of the first things they did was reopen the grain barns, but nationalist feeling in the 1930s following Iraq’s independence was fiercely anti-British and becoming influenced by antisemitism.

In April 1939 when the young king died in a car accident but was rumoured to have been assassinated, a crowd gathered in Mosul to attack the Jewish quarter. The rioters were diverted at the last moment, storming the British consulate instead and murdering the consul George Monck-Mason.

 Two years later during Rashid Ali al-Gailani’s pro-German regime the Jewish community was again terrorised with threats and absurd spying allegations. Many Jews were searched, imprisoned and tortured. The military governor Kassem Maksoud summoned 14 community leaders and attempted to extort a huge sum from them in gold coins, beyond what they could possibly raise. Eyewitnesses recalled that he was unable to look them in the eye when he claimed this was to guarantee their loyalty.

 One informant recalled the day news of the June 1941 Farhud in Baghdad — in which hundreds were robbed and killed — was intercepted by Habib Salah Shaoul, a Jewish telegram worker in the post office.

Shaoul decided at the risk of his job to shelve the telegram and warn the community rather than passing it on. That delay gave the Mosul community a chance to prepare and defend themselves, averting an attack.

 There were a few years when conditions in Mosul improved but in the late 1940s Jews from nearby Kurdish villages began leaving after numerous threats and murders, and anti-Jewish agitation intensified at all levels.

The old system of Kurdish Jews relying on local chieftains for their livelihoods and protection was breaking down.

 Mosul’s one Jewish MP, Sasson Tsemach, had made a point of cultivating good relationships with Christian religious leaders. In 1946 he interceded in customary informal style with a Christian patriarch to get justice when a large number of Jewish pilgrims travelling to the tomb of Prophet Nahum in the Kurdish Christian village of al-Qosh were attacked and robbed. Tsemach was only partially successful as local people threatened reprisals when the perpetrators were identified and arrested.

The community had little recourse to justice when police and army officers in Mosul harassed them, raiding homes on flimsy evidence and jailing anyone they alleged was a Zionist agent.

The community was forced to pay bribes to get prisoners released.

Mail between Iraq and Palestine was legal before 1948 but possession of mail from Palestine, and later from Israel, became a crime.

As letters took time to arrive, emigrants from Mosul and Kurdistan had already written asking after friends and family. When such letters were intercepted, houses would be searched and people arrested and interrogated.

 Shoshana Arbili, who eventually became a member of the Knesset, wrote from Israel to Raful Chai Hamo asking after his sisters and her friends. One of them, a child named Lillian mentioned in her letter, was detained and questioned for hours in the police station.

Once it seemed they had no future in Iraq, Mosul’s Jews endured a long wait for transport and permission to leave.

 Entire Kurdish Jewish communities driven from their villages were stuck in transit in the city for a year, housed in school and synagogue halls. When they ran out of food, and fuel Ezra Laniado and his friends raised funds to support them.

Mosul’s Jewish population was a tenth the size of Baghdad’s, less wealthy and less influential, but their loss of homes, businesses, property and culture was as traumatic and perhaps even more complete.

Read article in full

Far-left magazine makes allegations of ‘Mizrahi-washing’

It was bound to happen: the Israeli far left, through its mouthpiece at +972 magazine, is making accusations of ‘Mizrahi-washing’.

An article by Lihi Yona, who is a student at Columbia university in New York, comes as ‘push-back’ against the writings of  Hen Mazzig and Nave Dromi.  Yona claims they are ‘hasbara-niks’  in the service of Israel, working to make the Jewish state look better than it deserves. According to Yona, Israel indulges in ‘Mizrahi-washing’.  That is to say it  exploits Mizrahim as it does gays through  ‘pinkwashing’:Israel  allegedly promotes its tolerance and protection of lesbians and gays only in order to obscure its ‘oppressive’ treatment of Palestinians.

Hen Mazzig: accused of being a ‘hasbara-nik’

Yona admits that it is good to recognise the existence of Mizrahi Jews, but only if they can be portrayed as victims of ‘white’ European Jews. Thus she lumps together examples of Israeli police or army brutality against Mizrahim, Ethiopians and Palestinians, without spelling out the particular circumstances leading to each death. And why not add instances of historic discrimination  into the mix – when Israel ‘dumped’ Mizrahim into tent camps and ‘kidnapped’ Yemenite children?

Dromi’s op-ed in Newsweekcriticises Palestinian activists and their fellow-travellers for hijacking the Black Lives Matter campaign in order to to draw parallels with ‘privileged  white’ Israelis’ oppression of ‘black’ Palestinians.

In fact Dromi turns current misconceptions, straightjacketing people into facile categories of identity politics, on their head: Mizrahim see Arab and Muslim privilege in a similar way to how a person of colour might see a white person in the US. In his work Mazzig, too, evokes the Arab antisemitism experienced by his Tunisian and Iraqi family before they moved to Israel.

Yona concedes that both Dromi and Mazzig are correct – Mizrahim suffered violence and displacement. But they are ‘fixated on the past’ and ‘deny the power Israel possesses with  regard to Palestinians’. These are perpetual victims, and  never have any agency in the oppression of Jews.The pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, terrorism and Hamas missiles simply do not exist in Yona’s ‘woke’ narrative.

Tablet tribute to Memmi – a complex intellectual giant

Albert Memmi, who died in May 2020 aged  99, was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century – although probably one of the most underrated. Now that he is dead, his true worth may perhaps be truly appreciated.  In-depth account of Albert Memmi’s work in Tablet magazine by Jonathan Judaken.

Memmi in 1988 (Photo: Getty iimages)

Unlike postcolonial theorists who have tended to treat Zionism as allied with colonialism, Memmi made a compelling case for aligning Zionism with anti-colonial nationalism, rather than empire. This was initially undertaken in a period when Israel was broadly understood by the left as a decolonizing, socialist, humanist undertaking. Nurtured on the Jewish traditions of Tunis, Memmi came of age as a socialist Zionist in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and he believed that Zionism articulates the national liberation struggle of the Jewish people. Just as he argued for other postcolonial states, he maintains that the State of Israel is necessary to liberating Jews from millennia of degradation and humiliation.

 Memmi was always a steadfast secularist, skeptical about many aspects of Judaism. He understood the Bible, the Talmud, and Kabbalah as “monuments of world literature,” that contain, “an inexhaustible reservoir of themes, designs and symbols” but they become desiccated when they are treated as sacred texts. These views would emerge with clarity in his two masterworks on Jews in the 1960s, Portrait of a Jew (1962) and The Liberation of the Jew (1966).

 Following the Six-Day War, Memmi continued to compose essays on the Arab-Israeli conflict, gathered in his collection, Jews and Arabs (1974). Published in the hostile year between the bitterly fought Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the U.N. declaration that Zionism is a form of racism in 1975, the book was dedicated to both his Jewish and Arab “brothers/so that we can all/be free men at last.” Memmi clearly hoped the light he cast on relations between Jews and Arabs would bring them closer, despite the growing antagonism and polarization created by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He wrote the book as a self-described “Arab Jew” and a left-wing Zionist, distilling his position on the conflict.

In his essay, “What Is an Arab Jew,” Memmi explains that most Jews in Arab lands were culturally Arabs: in their language, clothing, cooking, music, and daily habits. But a peaceful and unproblematic coexistence between Jews and Muslims is a myth, he insists—a narrative fostered mostly by Arab propagandists and European leftists. He also suggested that the myth of peaceful coexistence appealed to Israelis hopeful of a utopian coexistence in Israel and the nostalgic viewpoint of Jews from North Africa looking back on the places where they grew up.

 Even Western Jewish historians who compare the experience of Jews in Russia less favorably to the experience of Jews in the Maghreb reinforce the legend, according to Memmi. The relationship between Jews and Arabs was fragile, and occasionally erupted into overt hostility or violence.The myth of peace before the rise of Zionism has its double in the role played by “Israel” within pan-Arabism, he argues. In “The Arab Nation and the Israeli Thorn,” Memmi explains how Arab states constituted “Israel” as the evil Other in order to create Arab unity.

 In the face of their divergent social structures and internal challenges, “Israel” enables Arab regimes to symbolically coalesce around an enemy. It provides coherence, but at an exorbitant cost—“for this policy of waging war exhausts their economies’ possibilities in advance, [and] impedes all efforts at democratization.”

Who is an Arab Jew?

More about Albert Memmi


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