Is it better to see the synagogues that Jews have left behind rot, rather than become a corpse all made up for a wake? In his Unherd review of Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews Matti Friedman questions the motives of states without Jews who restore Jewish heritage :
I remember being in the alleys of downtown Cairo a decade ago and coming to the ruins of a synagogue, one of dozens that once housed the religious life of the thousands of Jews who gave this neighbourhood its name. It is still called The Jewish Quarter, even though by the time I arrived in 2009 the actual Jews who had crowded the alleys up to the 1940s had been hounded out by state persecution and mob violence. As far as I knew, the Jewish population of Cairo’s Jewish Quarter on the day I visited was one: me.
The synagogue was named for the philosopher and physician Maimonides, who led the Jewish community here in the 12th century, when Cairo was the most important Jewish centre in the Middle East. The building was nothing but a roofless shell, but I discovered a work crew laying planks in one of the rooms, up to their knees in fetid water. It turned out that the Egyptian government — the same regime that took possession of much of the property of the 80,000 Jews who’d been forced out of the country two generations earlier — was engaged in a restoration project.
A polite young engineer on the site showed me the location of the stand where the Torah scroll was once read. Another man, in civilian clothes but with some vaguely military authority, told me not to take pictures.
There couldn’t be anything bad about the restoration of a synagogue, could there? It was hard to explain why none of this felt right; why I preferred to see the building left to rot, rather than see it made up like a corpse at a wake. I had the same feeling when I saw other journalists refer seriously to the “Jewish community of Cairo”, quoting a woman who was its “President”.
There was no community, just a regime-approved simulacrum designed to allow everyone to pretend that an ethnic cleansing hadn’t taken place, and that something dead was alive. It was Weekend at Bernie’s. At the time of my visit, the Egyptian Government was trying to get one of its officials elected to a top cultural post at the UN, an effort hindered by this same official’s past support for burning Hebrew books. A synagogue renovation couldn’t hurt his cause! The real Jews were long out of Egypt, but their imaginary avatars were still hard at work serving the narrative needs of others.
The Iraqi Jewish Archives have revealed interesting details about the exodus of Kurdish Jews from Iraq, according to amateur historian Sami Sourani, who helped translate documents from Arabic.
The Kurdish Jews had to travel down to Baghdad in order to join the airlift to Cyprus and on to Israel.
During their exodus from Iraq during 1950 -1, the Baghdad Jewish community took charge of the welfare of the 18,000 Kurdish Jews who passed through the capital. It had to request a special budget to bury the many elderly Kurdish Jews who died in Baghdad.
According to Sami Sourani, who volunteeered to translate some files, the Baghdad Jewish community stepped up to the challenge of caring for the refugees during their short stay at the Massouda Shemtov synagogue.
The community took on the responsibility of feeding the refugees. The cook was Shalom Saleh who was hanged in January 1952 together with Yousef Basri on charges of Zionism.
Saleh worked very hard to feed the Kurdish arrivals. A ladies’ committee boiled 100 eggs a day.
The Community appointed a rabbi to take care of the Kurdish refugees. Some of the very old who could not stand the warm weather of Baghdad and passed away. To their credit, the Jewish community of Baghdad made sure that the dead were buried with dignity, regardless of their financial situation. This was done by the Hebra Kadisha – the Burial Society. The rabbi in charge wrote a letter to the Rabbanut of Baghdad asking for a special budget to buy cloth for shrouds.
The rabbi wrote that the dead people were so numerous, he could not afford to buy shrouds. He told how he was working every day until midnight just to talk to the refugees and deal with their welfare. Sometimes he had to buy them material using his own money. He requested a raise in his salary – about eight dinar per month, at that time. The Rabbanut responded favourably and he got what he wanted.
Against the backdrop of rising Iran-Israel tensions and accusations by the Iranian regime that Israel has a military presence aimed at Iran in Iranian Azerbaijan, MEMRI reports that the “Iranian Regime Countdown” group, which is opposed to the regime, claimed that a senior official had stated, in an October 11, 2021 post on its Telegram channel, that Iran’s Jews are risk. If true, this is the first time that the regime has treated its Jews as hostages to its conflict with Israel (with thanks: Lily):
In an unprecedented speech, Mohsen Rezaee, [President] Ebrahim Raisi’s deputy for economic affairs, took Iran’s Jews hostage, warning that they would be punished by the [Iranian] regime if Israel makes a mistake!
“Rezaee told members and directors of [the ideological organization] Tharollah Tehran: ‘The Israeli government knows very well that if it makes a mistake, the regime will treat the 10,000 Jews living in Iran differently.’
“Elements in the Islamic Republic [of Iran] have in the past threatened Israeli citizens and cities such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, in order to confront the Israeli threat, but this is the first time that a senior [Iranian] regime official is threatening the Jews, who have been living in Iran for thousands of years.”
“In previous statements, Rezaee threatened to capture 1,000 Americans as hostages in the event of a U.S. attack on Iran and to demand a $1 billion ransom from the U.S. for each of them.”
In August, Israel’s Supreme Court denied Holocaust compensation for the Jews of Morocco who immigrated to Israel. The justices ruled that their suffering because of the Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic legislation enacted by Nazi-aligned Vichy France, does not entitle them to monthly stipends under Israeli Nazi persecution law. Yet survivors of the Vichy regime in France have received such compensation. Edith Shaked writes in the Times of Israel:
But Israel must recognize a simple historical truth: During the Holocaust in France, the Nazi collaborationist Vichy government and Nazi Germany considered the Vichy Jews of French North Africa to be part of the Jews of “the whole of France,” and thus the Moroccan authorities were not responsible for the persecution of the Jews.
During WWII, from July 1940, the pro-Nazi French Vichy regime controlled the French protectorates of Morocco, Tunisia and French Algeria. Following the Nazi invasion of France, the regime enacted the ‘Statut des Juifs,’ a catalog of Nazi-inspired discriminatory laws. Jews lost their jobs in the professions and were excluded from public schools and spaces. Thousands of Jews were sent to forced labor camps in the three French territories in North Africa, and, in Nazi-occupied Vichy Tunisia, thousands wore the yellow star.
French Morocco was then nominally ruled by the Moroccan sultan. The Israeli justices ruled that the Moroccan authorities acted to harm Jews on their own accord, without being forced to do so by Nazi Germany. As JTA reported, they ruled that “Moroccan authorities acted to harm Jews on their own accord, without being forced to do so by Nazi Germany.”
As a result, those victimized by Nazi-inspired anti-Jewish measures are not recognized as Holocaust survivors under Israeli Nazi persecution law and are not eligible for compensation.
But the Israeli judges ascribed more power to the Moroccan authorities than they actually exercised. The Nazi collaborationist Vichy government was fully in charge, and it treated the 400,000 Vichy Jews of French North Africa – France on the other side of the Mediterranean – no differently from Jews in metropolitan France, implementing there the same Nazi-inspired anti-Jewish measures as they did in metropolitan France.
My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, told me how in the 1930s French schoolchildren learned about “France on both sides of the Mediterranean [sea],” and that, “the Mediterranean divides France, like the Seine River divides Paris.” The websites of Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum make it clear that French North Africa was an integral part of Vichy- France.
Under the French-German ceasefire agreement of June 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the new French Vichy government, de facto and de jure ruled the two protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia, and French Algeria. Every Tuesday, a Vichy official met with Nazi officials at the German embassy in Nazi-occupied Paris because Pétain decided to collaborate with Hitler in the matter of a solution to the Jewish Question.
In his book, “The Holocaust,” no less an expert than Yehuda Bauer writes that the Nazis themselves, who were targeting and killing Jews, considered the Jews of Vichy France North Africa as ‘French’ Jews living in France. At the January 1942 Wannsee conference, the Nazi top brass determined that 700,000 Jews of France would be targeted for the Final Solution. This figure necessarily includes the 400,000 Jews in Vichy North Africa, since only 300,000 Jews lived in metropolitan France.
Clause 9 of the 3 October 1940 Statut des Juifs expressly demanded its implementation not only in metropolitan France, but also on the French soil of Vichy Tunisia, Vichy Algeria, and Vichy Morocco.
In June 1941, Xavier Vallat, head of the Office for Jewish Affairs “for the whole of France,” which was created under Nazi pressure on Vichy, enacted the second antisemitic Statut des Juifs. Clause 11 demanded its implementation in Vichy Tunisia, Vichy Algeria, and Vichy Morocco. The Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime liaised with the German embassy in Nazi-occupied Paris. There, the Jewish Affairs representative stressed the special clauses applying to Vichy Tunisia/Algeria/Morocco, and forwarded the Statut to Adolf Eichmann’s bureau IVB4, the branch of the Reich Central Office for Security (RSHA) devoted to Jewish matters in Berlin.
In August 1941, Vallat traveled to Vichy Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to check that the solution to “the Jewish question” was being properly implemented. Before his departure he appointed Franceschi, a Vichy official, to head a new “Aryanization” service in Vichy North Africa. Upon his return to metropolitan France, Vallat visited the German embassy in Paris and met with such Nazi Germany officials as SS Dr. Best, an active proponent of ridding Europe of its Jews, and SS Captain Theodor Dannecker, head of Jewish Affairs office, and Adolf Eichmann’s personal representative in France.
Thus between 1940 and 1942, the Vichy Jews of “France on both sides of the Mediterranean,” were persecuted and discriminated against by the same Nazi collaborationist Vichy government, applying the same Nazi principles, the same language, and the same methods. They were identified, counted, ostracized, segregated, isolated, systematically discriminated against, pauperized, dispossessed, objectified, incarcerated, demonized and deprived of their civil rights and property. Civic, social, and economic deaths were the preparatory measures for the annihilation of the 700,000 Jews of Vichy France. The bureaucracy and the machinery to deport them to the death camps were set in motion.
Maxime Weygand, Vichy’s delegate general and commander-in-chief in French Africa, rigorously attempted to implement the Nazi-inspired antisemitic racial legislation in Vichy North Africa. The rules were sometimes even harsher than the laws in metropolitan France.
Fortunately, the Allies liberated Vichy North Africa by May 1943. The 400,000 Vichy Jews were spared the mass deportations that took place in metropolitan France. Their fate was comparable to that of the 7,000 Jews of Denmark, who were spared deportation.
The Holocaust evolved in different stages and affected countries and territories differently, whether they were occupied by Nazi Germany or in the Nazi Germany sphere of influence, depending on local conditions and the course taken by the war.
The Nazi goal remained unchanged in all these different countries and territories – namely, to kill all the Jews within reach, and create “a world without Jews.”
To paraphrase Holocaust scholar Gerhard Weinberg, “the Holocaust did not function according to rules of procedure established by Holocaust historians” – or, indeed, according to rules of procedure established for the Israeli Supreme Court.
The Israeli justices declared that “the role of the historian is separate from that of the court. ” They would do well to heed English Judge Charles Gray, who presided over David Irving’s libel action against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. His words “no objective fair-minded historian would have serious cause to doubt” could apply to the Moroccan authorities. The Moroccan sultan was ruler in name only. He rubber-stamped decrees submitted to him by the Vichy French authorities, as per the Constitution of the Protectorate.
The Nazi-aligned Vichy authorities drafted the anti-Jewish Nazi-inspired laws, had them translated into Arabic, submitted them to the sultan for his signature, and implemented them.
The correct verdict should have been to approve immediate payment by the Israeli Finance Ministry of a monthly stipend, as had been received by the Jews in metropolitan France, who were not forced to resort to the courts. The Jews of Vichy Tunisia and Vichy Algeria had also to sue.
The Israeli government must also clarify that the Muslim Arab authorities were not responsible for the suffering of the Jews in Nazi collaborationist Vichy North Africa. It was the Nazi-aligned Vichy government.
As Kais Saied, Tunisia’s president, arrogates more power to himself, Robert Zaretsky writing in Haaretz is sceptical of his ability to protect Tunisia’s Jews. (With thanks: Lily)
While Djerba is several hundred miles south of Tunis, the 1,500 or so Sephardic Jews who live on this island off the Tunisian coast are following events with great care.
They constitute not only the oldest Jewish community in North Africa – historians are uncertain if the community’s ancestors arrived on Djerba after the destruction of the First or Second Temple – but also the second largest.
But while the Moroccan Jewish community is larger, it is also mostly old (and getting older). The Jews of Djerba are, remarkably, young and getting younger. (This demographic upside, unfortunately, results from the communal emphasis on women staying pregnant and home.)
Yet this community represents the last hurrah of Tunisian Jewry. Although the country’s religious minorities, including Jews, have enjoyed full citizenship since its independence in 1956, the great majority of Tunisia’s 100,000 Jews decided that their future lay either in Israel or France (or, indeed, both).
Even the Islamist Ennahdha, which has participated in several governments since Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, sought to reassure Djerba’s Jews that they belonged to the nation’s cultural mosaic. The party’s vice-president, Abdelfattah Mourou, affirmed that Tunisia “will protect its Jewish population. A monolithic culture always leads to radicalism, while a multicultural society allows us to accept one another.”
But the position of Kais Saied, an arch-conservative Muslim, seems more ambivalent to some critics. Perhaps “ambivalent” is too ambivalent a description.
During an exchange in January caught on video between Saied and a few interlocutors, the president, his voice muffled by a mask and street noise, seems to have attributed public disorder to “Jewish thieves.” At least, this was the understanding of The Jerusalem Post, which published an article whose title turned a questionable translation into an indisputable fact: “Tunisian President sorry for antisemitic remarks, rabbi says.”
In the story that followed, the paper allowed that the remarks by Saied, who was indeed masked and showered in ambient noise, were hard to decipher. Less concerned with such details, the influential Jewish radio station in France, Radio J, affirmed a few months later that Saied had, in fact, made this accusation.
On the basis of this claim, along with a handful of incidents seemingly directed against Jews, the station concluded that Saied rules a country where “antisemitism is omnipresent.”
What are we to think? On the one hand, Kais Saied is a friend of neither Zionism nor Israel. Indeed, he is quite the opposite, a point he made clear during a 2019 presidential debate, declaring that the normalization of ties with Israel was tantamount to “high treason.”
Saied reiterated his rejection of normalization in the wake of the accords with two Gulf states and Morocco, with his foreign ministry insisting it was a stance based on immutable principle.
The lamentable claim of “treason” leads to equally unfortunate consequences: Saied will not allow tourists carrying Israeli passports to attend the annual pilgrimage to Djerba’s ancient La Ghriba synagogue. A quiet agreement to allow Israelis, many of whom are among the 100,000 Jews who left Tunisia in the late 1960s or their descendants, to enter for the event had held for decades.
On the other hand – and there is another hand – Saied insists on the distinction between Judaism and Zionism. In the words he used in a televised election debate in 2019, “We’ll engage with the Jews but not with the Israeli government.”
While this is a distinction without a difference for many, there remain reasonable people who insist a reasonable case can be made for this contrast. Saied also reminded his critics during that debate that, along with the country’s grand mufti and Catholic archbishop, the grand rabbi of Tunis was his guest when he took his oath of office.
He also revealed that his father, Moncef Saied, is one of the Just, for having accompanied the young Gisèle Halimi when she cycled to school to protect her from the Nazis during their during their occupation of Tunisia. Halimi went on to have a brilliant future as one of France’s most courageous and consequential civil rights lawyers.
No one can know the future of Tunisia’s Jews, but there is no reason for despair. At the very least, we should know that details matter. On restoring and safeguarding the future of Tunisia’s democracy, Saied may have somewhat fewer protective instincts.
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
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