Month: July 2022

The Jewish architect who rebuilt Damascus

This is the amazing story of how an architect from Tel Aviv was sent to Damascus to  improve the city in 1916,  at the behest of the Ottoman military governor, Jamal Pasha.  The memoirs of Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz, who had been responsible for a number of public works in Palestine, were unearthed by his grand-daughter last year, reports Ofer Aderet in Haaretz. But Aderet fails to give the context to this extraordinary story:  while Wilbushevitz had a cordial relationship with Jamal Pasha, the First World War was raging and  10,000 Ashkenazi Jews like him, suspected of disloyalty to the Turks, would be deported from Palestine in the following year. (With thanks: Boruch)

Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz: from Tel Aviv to Damascus

Djemal Pasha would often visit the workplace, take an interest in its progress, and would urge us to complete the work as soon as possible. He asked me to come to him whenever I encountered difficulties and allowed me to come to his residence even in work clothes, as long as I wouldn’t lose time,” Wilbushevitz wrote. “The group of government officials treated my demands and orders with all seriousness,” he added.

Pasha, he noted, “would take every opportunity he had to enhance my reputation in the eyes of the officials.” For instance, he would invite the engineer to festive parties, “and when I entered the party, he would greet me with a handshake in front of everyone. Under such conditions, I was able to overcome many difficulties I encountered in executing the work,” he wrote.

Along with the soldiers, he enlisted about 300 craftsmen – including quarriers, stonemasons, builders, plasterers, carpenters and blacksmiths. “With these experts I myself created all the materials I lacked,” he wrote. Among other things, he built quarries and workshops, where they worked limestone, chiseled stones and more. When he needed means of transportation, he commandeered empty carts and mules from Damascenes, with the aid of soldiers on the main streets.

One of the chapters from that period is devoted to a confrontation with German officers and soldiers who were posted in Syria at that time as part of the wartime alliance between Turkey and Germany. “It was easy for me to arrange my business with Turkish officialdom and with the residents of Damascus. But it was not so easy for me to manage when I encountered Germans. Antisemitism typified the Germans even in those days, and the toxic hatred of Jews welled up in them already then.”

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1947 Aleppo riots forced out almost all Jews

It is 75 years since the outbreak of vicious riots in Aleppo, Syria,  forced the exodus of almost all its Jewish inhabitants within five years. Joel D Parker met a survivor of the riot. History books claim that 75 Jews were killed, but the witness seems to corroborate a contemporary report that there was extensive property damage, but no Jew died. 
The courtyard of the Aleppo Great Synagogue. The building was burnt in the 1947 riots (photo: Diarma)

Joel D Parker tweeted the following survivor’s account:

I got to speak to an 88-year-old Jewish man from Aleppo yesterday and it was so amazing. He was able to describe details of the November 29, 1947 riots like it was yesterday. He was about 13, and his school was burned down.
In his schoolyard which was adjacent to the main synagogue of the Jewish quarter he witnessed torn and burned Torah scrolls, and claims to have been one of the first people inside the synagogue to look for the Aleppo Codex (Keter Aram Tzova). 
He recalled that during the riots he and his family were hiding in their house, unarmed, and tried to block the front door with their furniture. He said they knew it wouldn’t hold. They could hear the mobs of people outside. 
He estimated that there were 100,000 people [likely an exaggeration] of all political streams, mainly Muslims but not exclusively, running around chanting “Filastine Biladna, wa’al-Yahud Kalabna” (Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs). 
Although virtually every Jewish institution was damaged in the riots, including 13 synagogues, three modern high schools, and other Jewish clubs, etc.,  not one Jew was killed by the rioters [he believes]. Only one old man had a heart attack.
He said that the government at the highest levels [i.e., President Quwatli] personally ordered the protestors to avoid bloodshed. They wanted to send a message, but did not want to squander their newly-found independence. 

Unfortunately, this very clear message was translated by the Jewish community as a warning to leave, as the next time might not be non-violent. About 6,000 out of 10,000 Jews would leave in the coming months, and by 1954 there were virtually no Jews in Aleppo.

Abraham Elmaleh  reports  in Had HaMizrah, 12 November 1948:

 “In the month of Kislev 5578, some time after the beginning of the sad events in Israel, terrible riots broke out among the Jews of Aleppo. And this famous Biblical  Jewish settlement was completely destroyed. More than a hundred Jewish homes, five Jewish warehouses and shops, five Jewish schools, the Jewish youth club, the Jewish orphanage and more than ten synagogues were looted for their furniture and contents.  One hundred and five thousand Torah scrolls together with their crowns and the silver and gold crowns on them, about four thousand prayer books,  Talmud and commentaries, everything was burned and destroyed by Arab rioters.

A page from the ‘Keter’

“The greatest damage was caused to the ancient synagogue that was built about 1, 500 years ago, and it was set on fire. Thousands of researchers and scholars and famous Orientalists would turn to it  to examine its precious collection of books and Torah scrolls. Among the precious old treasures destroyed by the rioters in Aleppo in this synagogue, we should especially mention the ancient Torah book known as “Keter” which is attributed to Ezra the scribe, and which was written in gold  letters,  whose price was estimated at thousands of pounds. (The Keter was actually recovered, although some of its pages were missing, smuggled out to Israel and is now in Jerusalem – ed) . The same Keter that was sent to Professor Kasuto  from the Hebrew University so that he  could copy original verses from it. Hundreds of Jewish students wander the streets without Torah, without education, because the  governments of Syria and Lebanon confiscated the school buildings of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and other  institutions to house hundreds of  Arab refugees from Israel.

“Widows who responded to everything with charity have been turned into desolate poor, rolling on piles of leaves without covering for their skin and without a shred of  shade over their heads. Hundreds of other Jews are now naked, thirsty, and barefoot, waiting for the mercy of heaven. These are the  greatest blows inflicted on the heads of the Syrian Jews.”

The Aleppo riots made our family  want to flee Syria

Chabad’s ‘Thirteen facts about Syrian Jews ‘ (With thanks: Leon, Nigel)




Exploring the remnants of Algeria’s Jewish past

Although there are no links between this North African country and Israel, Nathan Alfred’s ambition was to ‘Rock the Casbah’ *in Algeria and find traces of its ancient, but now extinct, Jewish community with his friend Nicolas. This year Nicolas,  the descendant of Algerian Jews,  decided to make the trip on his own. This armchair travelogue  in the Times of Israel is illustrated with Nicolas’s photos and the lyrics of songs which made Algerian cities famous. 

The grave of musician’Sheikh’ Raymond Leyris, whose murder sparked a mass exodus of Jews from Algeria (Photo: Nicolas)

Today, no Jewish communities exists in Algeria, and just a handful of Jews are thought to remain. The North African country is not part of the Abraham Accords, and indeed remains hostile to them, in particular to the participation of neighboring Morocco. At a time when Moroccan King Mohammed VI has recognized his country’s Jewish community as “a component of the rich Moroccan culture,” the contrast is stark with Algeria. Don’t expect flights from Tel Aviv to Algiers opening up any time soon.

Back in 2014 my friend Nicolas and I (both then living in Luxembourg) began planning a trip to Algeria. Nicolas grew up outside Paris and was interested in exploring his Jewish family roots – his great-great-grandfather left Algiers at the end of the 19th century. For me I was happy to accompany him and have an adventure. Clearly there were reasons why people didn’t go to Algeria and were warned against going there, but I hoped that my British passport would provoke less hostility than a French one. And neither of us had obviously Jewish surnames, which might help. But unfortunately for one reason or another, life got in the way and our plans to Rock the Casbah never came to fruition.

This year, Nicolas decided to take the plunge. He traveled alone to Algeria. Rabbis are not vicars, but vicariously I was able to enjoy the trip too, through his frequent updates and photographs. He spent time in Algeria’s three largest cities: Algiers, Constantine, and Oran, and in each place explored the remnants of the country’s Jewish past.

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*Famous 1980s song by the punk band The Clash




Last rabbinic book of seven found in Iraqi Jewish archive is still to be published

The publishers of  hitherto unknown works by two famous Baghdad rabbis are appealing for funds to complete their project.
Three volumes are by the Ben Ish Hai
The Rabbi curators of the Sephardic Heritage Museum inspected the Iraqi Jewish Archives that were rescued by the US Army in Baghdad in 2003 and are now being stored at an undisclosed location in the US. They found  unpublished manuscripts by two famous Baghdad rabbis extensive enough to make up seven volumes.
So far the Sephardic Heritage Museum has published five volumes and has raised most of the funds for the sixth volume. They are now appealing for funds to pay for the seventh volume.
Three volumes are by Hakham Yosef Hayim, better known as the Ben Ish Hai., who died in 1909. The other four volumes are by the 18th century rabbi Hakham Sadka Hussein. Three pertain to his discussions of the Torah and the fourth on Jewish Law.
Sami Salem, who is overseeing the project, says: “This is material that was never known before and therefore would be of great value to scholars.”
The manuscripts are being printed in modern Hebrew. Two thousand copies will be produced and will be distributed free of charge to yeshivot and universities.
It costs $30,000 to produce each volume.
The unexpected discovery of the rabbinical  manuscripts lends credence to the argument that the Iraqi Jewish archive, which is due to return to Iraq after restoration, should stay in the US.
To donate by credit card visit this link.  Cheques may be sent to  Sephardic Heritage Museum (Att. Rabbi Raymond Sultan) 619 West County Line Road, Lakewood, NJ 07042, USA (Please email Sami Salem  to inform him that you have made a donation).

Abraham Accords have caused barrier between MENA peoples to crumble

Travelling through Lebanon, Andrew Doran of the Philos Project met surprise when he told Arabs that Jews had once lived among them. He hopes that the Abraham Accords make it possible for the first time for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews driven from Arab countries to re-visit them. Perhaps special visas should be issued to them, he writes in The Hill: 

Recently-arrived Yemenite Jews in Israel, 1950s: Arabs never knew Jews lived among them

The Lebanese, for their part, were fascinated to learn about Israel. They were most surprised to learn that Israel is essentially a Middle Eastern and North African country — that most of Israel’s Jews today descend primarily not from Europe but from the Arab world: Morocco, Iran, Yemen, Central Asia and beyond. This often surprised the Lebanese, much as it stuns others in the region.

Too few Westerners and Middle Easterners – in fact, few outside Israel – know the story of the exodus of Jews from the region after 1948. Until then, many Middle Eastern countries had substantial indigenous Jewish minorities, called Sephardim, or sometimes (even derogatorily) Mizrahim (“Easterners”). These Jews lived and died for centuries in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Upwards of 1 million fled their homes after neighbors and governments turned on them following the creation of modern Israel.

Few of them were Zionists. Many knew nothing of the movement. Most wished to remain in their homes, but they weren’t given that choice. Apologies and invitations to return have been few, and one hears little of these exiled Jews from international human rights groups. Nor is it often acknowledged, outside Israel, that 20 percent of its population is Arab, the consequence of a decision in 1948 to grant citizenship to many Israeli Arabs on the land, despite the declaration of war by five Arab states against Israel that year.

Since 1948, being an Israeli citizen has made it nearly impossible for one to travel to most of the Middle East. Thus, for nearly three quarters of a century, Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Sephardi Jewish refugees haven’t been free to travel or encounter their Arab neighbors in the region. For Sephardic Jews, their encounters with other Middle Easterners typically occur in Europe or North America. When they meet the countrymen of their parents and grandparents, the response is invariably the same: “I had no idea there were Jews from my country.”

Today, however, for the first time, Israel’s Middle Eastern communities – most of Israel’s citizens – have begun to travel to places in the region that were heretofore impossible because of laws forbidding contact with Israelis. A powerful and purposeful barrier between Middle Eastern peoples is thus crumbling.

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Israel is a nation of Middle Easterners


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