Month: December 2021

Baghdadi survivors of WWII Java camps tell harrowing stories

For the first time,  the harrowing stories of Iraqi Jews interned in Japanese camps on Indonesia during WWII are being documented.

Sybil Sassoon,pictured  aged 35 in 1955: had a pistol held to her head (Courtesy and Deborah Cassrels)

In the 19th century, Jews  left Baghdad to flee persecution or follow the trade routes of the British Empire: they went to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They  were relative latecomers to  the Indonesian archipelago, and only settled there in any numbers when it became the Dutch East Indies. The community comprised a few thousand Ashkenazi Jews from Holland. But some 600  Baghdadi Jews also settled in Surabaya,  the port capital of East Java. They led a charmed life until World War II.

During the war they were joined by refugees escaping Nazi persecution in Europe.  When the Japanese occupied Java  in early 1942, most of the community was  interned for being Dutch civilians. In the latter half of 1943,  the Gestapo mounted antisemitic campaigns in Indonesia. They persuaded the Japanese to intern all the Baghdadi Jews simply for being Jews.

This little-known episode was researched by Rotem Kowner of Haifa University. However, more stories have come to light thanks to an investigation by Australian journalist Deborah Cassrels, who interviewed several survivors for a book she is writing. Deborah was the guest speaker in an online ‘Lockdown Lecture’ organised by Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Beginning in 1943, Jews were rounded up, men and women segregated and sent to four separate camps. In one camp the prisoners were made to build a railway which was never completed. Most inmates did survive, but  suffered infected mosquito bites and diseases like amoebic dysentery. It was a daily struggle to stave off hunger. The prisoners ate stray dogs, worms, snails,  anything they could find.

Five-year-old Edward Abraham’s father died after eating raw cassava, which can contain poison. Edward’s  pregnant mother was made to stand all day staring at the sun without food and water – a favoured Japanese punishment –  until she fainted. Solomon Elias recounts how his sister Hannah was punished for trading jewellery for rations and confined to a rat-infested dungeon for two weeks. The Japanese guard who helped her was shot. Hannah bore the mental scars  of  her ordeal for the rest of her life.

Sybil Sassoon, pregnant with her second child, had a pistol held to her head if she refused to go to the local hospital for the delivery.  Thankfully the baby was born without complications. She remembers being so thirsty during a train journey to a camp that the inmates tried to capture rainwater in their cupped hands.  The prisoners still managed to observe Yom Kippur by asking for the guards not to give them rations of rice with worms and vegetables that day, but bring them tea and bread at night. Sybil remained in the camp for one and a half years.

Benjamin David, 4 at the time, recalls eating banana skins. One day he picked up some green beans from the ground. When his mother tried to boil water for green bean soup, the guards instructed her let the boiling water run over her hands.

When the the Japanese were defeated in 1945,  the Jews found themselves caught up in anti-colonial struggle for independence no less brutal than what they had been through during the war.

Today the survivors are in their 90s and live in Australia, California and Israel. There are no more than 10 Jews still in Java.

Link to Harif ‘Lockdown Lecture’, Lost Jewish Voices of Indonesia


Official affirms, then denies, that Mufti photo was ever at Yad Vashem

The former director of international seminars at Yad Vashem has withdrawn  his earlier remarks that Yad Vashem used to feature the photograph of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini meeting Hitler.

In a letter to Breibart News  received on 16 December 2021, Ephraim Kaye stated: “after conferring with several colleagues that still work at Yad Vashem and also remember the old museum (which, by the way opened in 1965) and seeing old photos of the area of the old museum where there were several pictures of the Mufti in the exhibition – I want to categorically state that we NEVER had a picture of Hitler and the Mufti in that museum.”

Kaye also stated in his letter, “The historical facts surrounding his [the Mufti’s] efforts are well documented and his participation in the Final Solution of the Nazis was peripheral at best and a side story to the enormity and scope of the mass murder of the Jews throughout the European continent.”

But in an earlier conversation with a Breitbart reporter, Kaye had said: “Let me be very concise and to the point. There was a large picture of the Mufti and Hitler in the old museum. I started guiding there in the early 1980s.”

Ephraim Kaye’s denial is the latest twist in a saga that began when veteran guide Shalom Pollack challenged Dani Dayan, the new chairman of Yad Vashem, to re-instate the photo. Pollack and and 20 other guides remember the photo in the old museum, which was re-designed in 2005.

Pollack was supported by Morton Klein of the Zionist Organisation of America. Klein accused the museum of  appeasement and ‘appalling’ censorship of the Mufti’s ties with Hitler . He called the image absence’s ‘abominable’.

Dayan has denied that the image was ever displayed at Yad Vashem. He  also claimed that  the notorious Mufti’s role in the Holocaust was “marginal,” and that his meeting with Hitler had“a negligible practical effect on Nazi policy.”

However, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem David Cassuto, a longtime member on the museum’s council, told Breitbart Newsthat the photograph was absolutely part of the museum’s previous exhibition.

“I remember it; I saw it there,” Cassuto said, as he expressed his bafflement as to why it was ever removed. “They have to bring it back and out it in a prominent point in the exhibition,” he added.

Cassuto, who met with Dayan over the issue last month, disregarded Dayan’s denials.“[Dayan] has no idea because he was not there at the time.”

Arabs are torch-bearers for Nazi antisemitism (JNS News)


Blockbuster on MENA Jews in Paris accused of ‘normalisation’

A blockbuster exhibition on Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, Juifs d’Orient: une histoire plurimillenaire, has opened in Paris at an institution dedicated to the Arab world. But it has not been without controversy.

David Zabari studying a holy book in Saa’da, Yemen (Photo: Naftali Hilger)

President Emanuel Macron hailed the exhibition as a tribute to ‘coexistence’ between Jews and Muslims through the ages.

It is the first exhibition of its kind at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) to deal with Jews and follows two others, one on the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and a second on the Christians of the Middle East.

The IMA has partnered with the American Sephardi Federation and the Zilkha family to create the exhibition. Describing the project as ‘a testament to the increasing integration of Jews back into the historical memory and contemporary Muslim cultural milieus’ the ASF states: ‘It will undoubtedly be a revelation for a wide audience and symbolizes the reassertion of classical Middle Eastern values.’

Institutions in Israel such as the Israel Museum and the Yad Ben Zvi Institute, among others,  have collaborated to bring together 3,000 objects in an enormous  space of 1,000 sq.meters. Co-sponsors include JIMENA. Visitors cannot fail to be impressed by manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza, richly embroidered marriage garments, tiks (Torah scrolls encased in wood) , videos of  Moroccan-Jewish singer Neta  Elkayam and of the Yemenite Henna ceremony in Israel. But it also features academic Ella Shohat inveighing against Israel for its ‘discrimination’ against Jews arriving from the Muslim world.

However, the exhibition has elicited controversy. In an open letter to the IMA, which has been circulating on the Internet since 6 December, more than two hundred members of the Maghreb and Mashreq intelligentsia,  such as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman *and the Tunisian musician Anouar Brahem,  inveighed against  “explicit signs of normalization”, with Israel which they call an ‘apartheid’ state. The IMA finds itself called into question by the very people whose work it has been promoting for almost 35 years.

Jews too have criticised the exhibition, which was designed by the Algerian-Jewish historian Benjamin Stora. While historians such as Denis Charbit have denied this, critics say it does not dwell on the dhimmi status of Jews under Islam. The  exhibition mentions the 700,000 Palestinian refugees, while glossing over the causes and conditions leading to the exodus of 800,000 Jews.

Professor Paul Fenton of the Sorbonne {at 1: 29 minutes into the video (French)} accused the exhibition organisers of ‘falsification’. Those Jewish institutions co-sponsoring the event will always lose out to a narrative promoted by non-Jewish bodies flush with money, he says.

But  the exhibition  breaks a  longstanding taboo. It acknowledges that Jews have been in the MENA for thousands of years,  predate Islam, have a rich heritage and have made a huge contribution to the region’s culture.

The IMA exhibition is on until 13 March 2022.

*in fact Suleiman was born in Nazareth, Israel.

Albert Antebi, forgotten Ottoman Zionist

He is almost forgotten now, but despite his premature death aged 46, Albert Antebi had exceptionally good relations with the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century. He became an effective intermediary between the Zionists and the Ottoman Turks, obtaining Turkish passports for Palestinian Jews during WWI and the release of Ben-Gurion from jail.  David Ben-Gurion described him as the ‘mirror image of Lawrence of Arabia’. Interestingly,  this article by Mehmet Hasan Bulut in the Turkish newspaper The Daily Sabah shows Turkish sympathy for the Zionist enterprise.


Albert Abraham Antebi

Albert Abraham Antebi was born in Damascus in 1873. His family was famous for their rabbis. He studied at the Alliance School and went to Paris with a scholarship he won at the age of 15. He met his wife there and graduated from the Paris Institute of Technology. After graduation, he returned to Palestine.

Antebi, who started his duty at the Alliance schools in Jerusalem as a teacher, later became the administrator of these schools. He wrote columns for the newspaper ha-Herut, published by Sephardic Jews. He became Baron Rothschild’s right-hand man and translator in Palestine. He began buying lands from the Arabs and settled refugee Jews there. Through the Anglo-Palestine Company, which had a branch in Jaffa, he provided loans to Jewish colonies to start and expand their businesses.

He gained the trust of Ottoman administrators, foreign consuls and Zionists because he had good relations with people. But he could not get along with the conservative chief rabbi of Jerusalem. He worked hard for the replacement of the chief rabbi with someone else. When Chaim Nahum became the chief rabbi of the empire after the 1908 Young Turkish Revolution, Antebi’s wish was fulfilled and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem was dismissed like all other conservatives in the country.

In this period, Antebi became close to the people who would be the founders of Israel in the future. Journalist Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda – considered the father of modern Hebrew – was one of them. Antebi was even the one who first introduced Ben-Avi’s wife to him. Israel Shochat and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who founded the Hashomer (The Watchman) organization for armed struggle with the Arabs, were also among his friends. Antebi visited Shochat, Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion while studying law in Istanbul in 1912. Taking advantage of the tolerance shown by the Young Turks to the Zionists, they engaged in political activities together.

With the start of the World War, the Young Turks, who had dethroned Sultan Abdülhamid II by joining hands in 1909, had a falling out with the Zionists. The Ottoman entry into the war on the side of Germany would lead to the deportation of Jews who were Russian citizens in Palestine. To prevent this, the Ottomanization Committee was established. Antebi, Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion joined this committee. The members of the Zionist office in Jaffa and the committee immediately started to work to provide Jews of different nationalities with Turkish citizenship. Antebi called for Turkish citizenship in the ha-Herut newspaper. But only 8,000 Jews took Turkish citizenship, some of the rest left Palestine while some were deported by the Young Turks.

Read article in full 

Morocco to fund restoration of hundreds of Jewish sites

Morocco's King Mohammed vows to push for Israeli-Palestinian talks
King Mohamed VI

The press may think it is a new development, but the decision to restore hundreds of Jewish sites, as flagged up by Israel Hayom,  has been ongoing since at least 2013. What’s not to like in this initiative, which cements the Jewish component in Moroccan heritage? But restoration cannot conceal the reality, which is that the synagogues will be empty buildings without Jews.

According to Arab media reports, the move is part of the rapprochement between Rabat and Jerusalem, which resumed their diplomatic relations earlier this year as part of the Abraham Accords.

The plan is expected to see the renovation of hundreds of synagogues, cemeteries, and Jewish heritage sites in several cities in Morocco, among them the Jewish cemetery in the city of Fes, which includes 13,000 graves.

The monarch has also reportedly decided to reinstate the original names of some of the country’s Jewish neighborhoods.

Several Jewish museums have already been opened in Morocco, alongside other initiatives seeking to cater to the growing interest in preserving Moroccan Jewish heritage.

Israel welcomed King Mohammed’s initiative, which comes as the two countries mark the first anniversary of their newfound alliance.

Read article in full


Why is the Moroccan King funding Jewish sites?


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