Month: January 2022

Poll: majority of Israelis learned nothing about Mizrahi history and heritage

The results of a poll into how far Mizrahi history and culture are taught in Israel has returned shocking results, according to the Jerusalem Post: only 14 percent of those polled recalled having learnt anything about Mizrahim at school. The businessman and philanthropist who commissioned the poll, David Dangoor, called the results ‘disappointing’ but is heartened that so many wish to bring about change.

Children performing in a Purim play in Benghazi, Libya (photo: DIARNA)

Although the majority of Jewish Israelis have been of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish descent for more than a decade, the reality of that seems to be completely unreflected within the Israeli school curricula. According to a new survey, the history, heritage and culture of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are largely and sometimes entirely unrepresented in Israel’s educational system. The poll was presented to Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen on Thursday, January 20th.

While 74% of all respondents claimed that the history, heritage, and culture of Ashkenazi Jewry is taught in the educational system to a large or somewhat large extent, only 14% could say the same about Mizrahi Jewry. A whopping 80% said that it was either taught to a small or no extent. Only 7% of respondents could identify the Farhud, an Iraqi pogrom in which hundreds of Jews were slaughtered in 1941, whereas 58% could correctly identify Kristallnacht, the night that paved the way to the additional antisemitic events leading to the Holocaust.

Furthermore, only 75% of those polled said they could not recall any program or lesson in school that reinforced a positive perception of Mizrahi Jewry.

According to a law passed by the Knesset in 2014, November 30th is the formal Day of Commemoration for the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran. However, 89% of respondents had never heard of such a day. Still, 74% were in favor of establishing a government-funded museum dedicated to the history, heritage, and culture of MENA Jews.

When asked what the leaders of Arab countries should do to compensate the Jewish families that were forced out from their former MENA countries, or their descendants, 59% said they should provide full monetary compensation for the loss of their property and/or assets in their countries of origin, while only 11% said that they should waive the demand for compensation in exchange for waiving all demands from Palestinian refugees.
The poll was commissioned by Iraqi-British Jewish businessman and philanthropist David A. Dangoor CBE, of Dangoor Education, a subsidiary of the Exilarch’s Foundation, a charity that supports educational initiatives, including many in the field of Sephardi/Mizrahi heritage, culture, and education.
“The results are both disappointing and heartening,” said Dangoor. “Disappointing that so little has been done to educate about the history, culture, and heritage of MENA Jews in Israeli schools, but heartening that so many from different backgrounds seek to change that. I hope that these results serve as a wake-up call to the Israeli Government and those involved in education that the history and heritage of the majority of Jews in Israel are largely ignored.

A Tunisian tradition: Jethro’s feast for boys

In the week in which the story of Jethro is read in synagogue, Tunisian Jews have a special celebration – Se’udat Yithro, also known as the Feast of the Boys. Here is an explanation from Harissa, the Tunisian Jews’ blog:
Se’udat Yitro: a child’s banquet
This is the second specifically Tunisian tradition of the winter period, between the Tishri and Passover holidays, The first is The Feast of the Girls (Rosh H’ odesh El-Bnat], the second the boys’ party [Seu’dat Ytro] and finally, the  Bsisa [or Bchicha] of Rosh H’odesh Nissan [Leilat Nishene]. There is something for everyone, the first is for girls, the second is for boys and the last is for everyone. However, for the Jew of Tunisian origin, Se’udat Ytro is above all and above all a very well furnished table and a very good meal with typical Tunisian dishes.
Here is a brief presentation of Se’udat Ytro in the form of answers to questions a small child might ask: 
What is this party called?
Se’udat Yitro or the boys’ party
– What is it ?
It’s a se’uda [meal in Hebrew] that we make at home.
– When do we do it?
Thursday evening of the week of the parsha of Yitro (between 15 and 24 Shvat)
– Who’s celebrating?
All the Jews of Tunisia, old and young, religious and non-religious. Each family makes a Se’uda in their home and often invites their relatives.
For several years, Associations in Israel have been organizing community Seudat Ytro celebrations in public places with Tunisian dishes, a musical accompaniment of songs and Piyutim and sometimes with a Torah lesson or a rabbi’s blessing.
– How do we celebrate?
It is a feast in which many condiments of all kinds are served in very small utensils and cutlery, like for a children’s dinette. They say the blessings of the Torah and sing songs and Piyutim.
– Since when does this tradition exist?
To date there is no precise information to answer this question. However, according to various testimonies, this custom has existed for tens or even hundreds of years, but at least since the beginning of the 20th century (see quote from travel researcher Nahum Slouchts from 1906). – What is happening these days?
Today, the tradition is celebrated in Israel and France by Jews from Tunisia. Over time, the custom has undergone slight modifications, however the essentials have remained unchanged.

Meet the keeper of Izmir’s Jewish heritage

Nesim Bencoya returned from Israel  to his home town of Izmir in Turkey in 2010, and now devotes himself to restoring the city’s collapsing synagogues. Paul Benjamin Osterlund reports in Tablet: 

But for Bencoya, the project goes far beyond restoration, and he has two distinct personal reasons for being involved in this demanding, grandiose project.

“I didn’t know it at the beginning but now I know better. I see this project not as an architectural project within the framework of rebuilding or preserving the old, collapsed buildings. First, I want to tell a story that I find very interesting which is linked to the story of İzmir and of Turkey, and of the Ottoman Empire. So it’s a universal thing and it excites me,” he says.

“The second thing, which is also very important for me, I have been a Jew who has lived in a community of Jewish people who hid their identity. They went to pray in the synagogues, they knew they are Jews, they kept traditions but they changed names, for example,” Bencoya goes on, mentioning that instead of Nesim, people would call him Nedim, a Turkish name

As in Istanbul, which was also a more cosmopolitan city before the establishment of the Turkish republic, minorities in İzmir left or were forced out due to a series of ethno-nationalist policies, like the “Citizen, speak Turkish!” initiative, which scapegoated Jews in particular as many chose to speak Ladino and French in public. In addition to economic reasons, this eventually left only a small remaining Jewish population in Turkey, between 15,000 and 20,000 today, most of whom live in Istanbul. (One reputable source estimates a peak Jewish population of 300,000 during the late Ottoman period.) Persistent antisemitism has resulted in many young people leaving for Israel, and in recent years, Islamist groups have protested outside of Istanbul synagogues, holding the Turkish Jewish community responsible for episodes of escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians. According to Bencoya, many of the country’s Jews simply left for a better economic future, adding that the wealthiest members of the community have stayed.

Despite numbering no more than 1,000, İzmir’s Jewish community is Turkey’s second largest, a result of its historical role as a pivotal port city and trade center. Nevertheless, congregations are still active at three of the intact synagogues in Kemeraltı: Signora Geveret, Algazi, and Shalom, in addition to the Bet Israel Synagogue in the neighborhood of Karataş.

Sephardic Jewish culture and cuisine have left their mark on the city, and İzmir’s signature snack is boyoz (etymologically linked to the bollos of Latin America) a flaky, savory, fist-size pastry served in carts all over the city that goes well alongside slices of boiled egg doused in black pepper. The late singer Dario Moreno, who was born in a neighboring province and grew up in İzmir as an orphan, remains among the city’s most iconic artists.

The Portekiz Synagogue, built by Sephardic Jews from Portugal in the early 17th century, today functions as a museum. It has been fully restored, though the structure was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1976. Just across the main avenue lies the ancient Agora of Smyrna, built in the Roman period in the fourth century BCE and excavated in 1933 just 10 years after the establishment of the Turkish republic.

In the corner of the agora stands the restored home of the infamous Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi who claimed to be the messiah and attracted the ire of both Jews and Ottoman Muslims alike. He nevertheless assembled a serious following, the center of which became the Portugal Synagogue. Associated with Jewish converts to Islam who historically maintained their faith in secret, the term “Sabbatai” is still found in the rhetoric of Islamist pundits in Turkey who employ it as an antisemitic trope when attacking their opponents.

The Forasteros Synagogue is one of those that has been newly emptied of tons of rubble due to roof collapse. I find a tiny scrap of paper printed in Ladino tucked in a divot of one of the old walls, which are designed intricately with mid-Ottoman era brick and stand proud amid the absence of any interior. I show it to Bencoya, who nestles it into a crevice in another wall next to a small piece of Hebrew text.

Immediately next door is the Signora Giveret Synagogue, built in the 16th century and still in good shape due thanks to its small but active congregation. The courtyard and garden are stunning, with looming palms, fruit trees, and large swathes of ivy. Nestled in the same area, the Etz Hayim Synagogue was on the verge of collapse, but was stabilized and restored in 2019 following a grant from the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund. Etz Hayim is thought to be the city’s oldest synagogue, dating back to the Byzantine era.

Synagogue Street, or Synagogue Market, as Bencoya called it, retains certain traditions dating back to İzmir’s cosmopolitan past. In those days, Jews would go out in their yarmulkes while market sellers would bellow out what goods they were hawking in Ladino, Greek, Armenian, and Turkish. Today only Turkish is heard, and the Jews of İzmir no longer live in Kemeraltı but mainly in the nearby district of Alsancak.

Shopkeepers and hoteliers in the area are in favor of its restoration, lamenting the shabby surroundings and the fact that most of the market is pitch black at night, which spooks tourists. “Muslim neighbors feel that something important will happen in the neighborhood. They usually are empathetic to the project,” Bencoya says.

Some involved with tourism in the area want to tidy up the street and liberate it from the smelly fish and organ meat vendors, but Bencoya believes it should remain as is. A stone’s throw away is a small shop owned by Rafael Palombo, the city’s last Jewish caviar salesman. It was closed during my visit, but Palombo’s number was written in a note on the window for interested customers. Amid the chaos and overwhelming scents of Synagogue Street, one might spend considerable time there without ever realizing that there are nine synagogues in the immediate area. But there they are, standing as they have for centuries, hidden in plain view.



Land dispute involving a Jew led to colonisation of Tunisia

How did North Africa come to be colonised by the French in the 19th century? The European powers seized the slightest pretext to intervene in local affairs. Some involved Jews.

According to Ron Boublil’s book Silencing the Past, a land dispute in 1880 in Tunisia led to the colonisation of the country by the French.

Silencing the Past: The Arab Spring, Israel and the Jews of Tunisia by [Ron Boublil]

A Tunisian general by the name of Kahyar tried to sell 250,000 acres of agricultural land between Tunis and Sousse to a Marseille company for two million francs. The Bey of Tunis objected, claiming  that the land was the property of the General for personal use and could not be transferred to foreigners. Also objecting was  Youssef Levy, a naturalised English Jew who owned the land adjacent to the property. He wished to buy the land in dispute.

The British sent battleships to uphold Levy’s rights. The French withdrew their support, not wanting to confront the British over this land deal. Levy remained in control of the disputed land until 1882, when it was purchased by the French soon after the Treaty of Bardo, by which Tunisia became a French protectorate.

Some argue that a property deal to a  non-Muslim was what triggered the colonisation of Tunisia. Land in Tunisia was then governed by Koranic law: in theory, it belonged to no one. Only God owned the land and claims to private property  could be made by individuals who proved their connections to the land – ergo, only Muslims. Koranic law allowed those who proved they worked the land and produced ‘the fruits of their labour’ to own land. But in 1887, under pressure on the Bey from the British and the French, the law was changed to allow anyone to own land.

Until the French showed up there were no official deeds, especially in the south of the country where the Berber population did not register land ownership in order to escape heavy taxes. In 1901,  certain tribes were given some rights of use with government permission.

Boublil argues that the pre-colonial land ownership allowed the Beys, the local Ottoman governors,  to exploit the population without giving anything in return: “The corrupt  land and economic system was designed to  guard the fortunes of the elites under the umbrella of Islam.”


Rabbi Ovadia Yosef served as cantor for Sheikh Jarrah

It is not often that we hear the inside story of the Sheikh Jarrah properties from which Palestinian families are claiming they have been unfairly evicted. One home was owned by the Jewish Haddad family and has come into the ownership of Jonathan Yosef, grandson of the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi  Ovadia Yosef. Via Honestreporting:
Grandson of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to marry boyfriend
The late Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef


Some eight months after the Hamas terror group used an eviction battle in eastern Jerusalem as a pretext to start an 11-day armed conflict with the Jewish state, another Palestinian family in the Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood has received an eviction notice.

Fatima Salem, 69, has been requested to leave by her home’s new owner, Jerusalem city council member Yonatan Yosef. Initially scheduled for the end of December, Israel Police have now asked for a flexible eviction order for between late January and early February.

While Salem maintains that she has lived in the two-story home her entire life, the property was until recently owned by the Haddad family, who were expelled from Shimon HaTzadik when Jordan occupied Jerusalem in 1948. After Israel gained control over the holy city in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Haddads, a Jewish family, reclaimed ownership.

According to their lawyer, following a 1980s legal fight, the Salem family paid rent to the Haddads through the Jerusalem district court. However, when Yonatan Yosef bought the house from the family, he successfully won a new eviction order from Israel’s civil enforcement agency.

Yosef’s grandfather, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — who between 1973 and 1983 was Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi — in the 1930s served as a cantor for Sheikh Jarrah’s Jewish community. “This place rightfully belongs to Jews, and I’m acting according to the law,” said Yosef, who previously lived in a different house in the neighborhood and acted as the community’s unofficial spokesperson.

Read article in full

More about Sheikh Jarrah



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.