Month: August 2022

Don’t let Libya ‘legitimise the confiscation of Jewish property’

A number of Jewish organisations have been pleading with the US State Department not to renew  a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya. Instead of protecting Libya’s Jewish and other minority cultural heritage, the MOU, the organisations claim, has permitted Libya to loot and confiscate Jewish patrimony with impunity. The organisations are asking for a derogation in the MOU to exclude Jewish heritage,  as  is the case with Morocco.  Cultural Property News reports: 

At a July 26, 2022 State Department hearing on the proposed 5-year renewal of the Libyan agreement, Rabbi Eric Fusfield, deputy director of B’nai B’rith International spoke eloquently to members of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, the body that makes recommendations for the terms of cultural property agreements:

“…no issue is of greater importance to the Jewish community than the rights of the nearly one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. These refugee populations have been largely ignored by the international community, despite their centuries-long history in Arab and Muslim countries prior to their forced expulsion in the wake of the Middle East conflict.

“Nowhere did this Jewish presence end more tragically than in Libya, where Jews had lived since the 4th Century B.C.E. and numbered as many as 40,000 in the early 1900s, but lost their entire population as a result of anti-Semitic pogroms and immigration to Israel. A brutal pogrom in Tripoli on November 5, 1945 killed more than 140 Jews and wounded hundreds more; almost every synagogue was looted. Subsequent riots and government actions resulted in more deaths, destruction of Jewish homes, property confiscations, and the denial of Libyan citizenship, ultimately prompting thousands of Jews to flee the country in the 1950s and subsequent to the Six Day War of 1967.

“The rise to power of Muammar Gaddafi in 1969 led to the confiscation of all property belonging to Jews; the cancellation of all debts to Jews; the destruction of Jewish cemeteries; the conversion of synagogues into mosques; the denial of civil rights for Jews; and barring the return to Libya of Jews who had taken refuge abroad…

“It is with sadness, then, that I note that the cultural patrimony of the Libyan Jewish diaspora is gravely threatened by the absence of guarantees to custody of materials that are rightfully theirs.

“This MOU legitimizes the confiscation of Jewish property seized by Libya’s government when Jews were forced from the country. It is therefore necessary to ask why the US government would put faith in Libya, a regime that has shown blatant contempt for the rights of Jews and other minorities, to act as the protector of the heritage of minority and exiled peoples.”[2]

Dar El Bishi Synagogue, Tripoli. Courtesy JIMENA.

Other speakers at the Libyan MOU hearing from the Jewish community included Gina Waldman, founder and president of California-based JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Waldman described how, as a child, fleeing to the airport with her parents, she narrowly escaped death when the driver stopped the bus, got out, poured gasoline under it and set it on fire. The family’s lives were saved by two British Christians who rescued them. Waldman told the CPAC committee:

“In this case, Libya is the looter. Libyan authorities have looted all our Jewish religious artifacts, our private and community property. They desecrated all of our holy sites and converted all our synagogues into mosques. It makes them, the looters, the custodians of our patrimony.”[3]

Waldman noted that a specific carve out excluding Jewish artifacts was done in the case of a cultural property agreement with Morocco and asked that – at a minimum – this carve out for both Christian and Jewish property be applied in all MOUs with Middle Eastern countries.

Dr. David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who spent years working through diplomatic channels to obtain permission to restore Libya’s last surviving synagogue, described his several attempts to do so to the CPAC committee:

“In 2007 Gaddafi gave me permission to restore the Dar Bishi Synagogue, visit holy sites in Libya and give psychology lessons at a psychiatric hospital. During this visit I was arrested and interrogated by Libyan Security. They told me that if I talked they would kill me.”

Gerbi survived an assassination attempt in Rome and had to go into hiding in Israel. Nonetheless, he persevered. “In 2009 I met Qaddafi in Rome, he again invited me to restore Dar Bishi, but he didn’t keep his word.”

In 2011, after the fall of Gaddafi, Gerbi met with the head of the then ruling National Council, Mustafa Abdujalil, who once again told him that restoration would be possible as a step to welcome back Libyan Jews. Gerbi told CPAC:

“When I tried to restore the synagogue, a mob tried to kill me. The Italian Consul saved my life and sent me back to Rome. It was a very traumatizing experience, which will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Raphael Luzon, an expert in Libyan affairs, and President of the Union of Libyan Jews, also spoke to the committee, noting that seized Libyan Jewish objects have been taken and stored away without records or access, and that a synagogue he attended as a child has been converted to a Coptic church.

Pnina Meghnagi Solomon, who was born in Tripoli, described having to flee the city with her family in 1967, taking only a single suitcase and being strip-searched on leaving. She said that because Jewish cemeteries were uprooted and bones tossed anywhere, she can only hope that her grandfather’s bones are somewhere in the sea. She brings flowers and tosses them in the Mediterranean to remember and honor him.

After the announcement of the first 2017 Libya emergency MOU and Designated List of objects blocked from import[4], a number of major Jewish organizations arranged to meet with the Education and Cultural Affairs section (ECA) and other State Department representatives to protest the granting of rights to Jewish religious community and personal property to the Libyan government.

ECA representatives assured the Jewish organizations their concerns would be heard. State Department staff claimed to have removed explicit references to Jewish objects that had been in the December 2017 list from the July 2018 Designated List,[5] but in fact its vague language ensured that Jewish religious, community, and personal property could be blocked from import. Instead of carving out exceptions for Jewish and Christian religious and personal property, the same all-inclusive categories remained in the Designated List. The “revised” July 9, 2018 MOU simply removed the descriptive terms “Jewish”, “Hebrew” and “Christian” while utilizing the term “Ottoman,” a political descriptive that could cover all of the cultural identities of peoples in Libya during the period of Ottoman rule. At the same time, the introductory text of the Designated List stated that “Import restrictions are now being imposed on the same categories of archaeological and ethnological material from Libya as a result of a bilateral agreement entered into between the United States and Libya.”[6]

In December 2018, frustrated with the State Department’s continued execution of all-inclusive MOUs with countries that had forced out Jews, destroyed or converted synagogues to mosques and uprooted graves from Jewish cemeteries, eighteen Jewish organizations, including B’nai B’rith International, JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, The American Sephardi Federation, the ADL: The Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the World Jewish Congress North America, Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and others, signed a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. The letter stated in part:

“The recent statement by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, Joan Polashick, that the State Department is working on an additional five MOUs with Middle Eastern and North African nations makes it essential that a policy is in place that protects Jewish and Christian heritage by explicitly excluding them from any import restrictions and rejecting any state claims to individual and communal property.”

Read article in full

Stop Algeria claiming Jewish heritage as its own

Cultural property agreements and the rights of ethnic minorities

 

Rare Auschwitz survivor (of Libyan origin) passes away aged 97

One of the rare survivors of the Auschwitz extermination camp died earlier this month. Martine Barda-Meer was a descendant of Jews from Tripoli, Libya. Some 2,000 Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin and resident in France are thought to have been murdered in the Holocaust. Martine was one of the lucky ones, and lived to 97 : (with thanks: Rosemary):

Martine Helene Barda-Meer in her youth and  in her last years

Martine Barda-Meer was born in Paris, the daughter of an Ashkenazi engineer, Raymond Meer. He invented a type of glass which broke without shattering into pieces.  Her mother Doris, née Hassan, was from a family of Libyan Jews.

Martine’s family had left Paris in WW2 fleeing southward. They settled in or near Nice, were betrayed and  were all taken to Auschwitz. Only Martine survived.

Hundreds of Jews from North Africa are thought to have settled in Europe before the war. Doris’s parents, Albert Joseph Hassan (son of Meborah Hassan & Rosine Arbib) & Giulia Mazaltob Hassan (daughter of Isach Hassan & Fortunata) left their native Tripoli to settle in Warrington Crescent, London.

Martine’s parents were not French nationals, and thus were at greatest risk of deportation by the Nazis. They moved several times during the war,  eventually travelling by bicycle to a village outside Nice called Gillette where they thought they would be safe.

In June 2021 she gave her testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation. Hers was one of 1,646 interviews by survivors which have been recorded in France.

Obituary (French)

 

The link between the anti-Rushdie fatwa and Islamist Sayid Qutb

14 February 1989 was the fateful date when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced a fatwa, or  death sentence,  on Salman Rushdie, author of the supposedly blasphemous work, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie lies critically injured in hospital following an attempt on his life 33 years later. ‘Blasphemy against Islam’ has  long been a favourite pretext for persecuting Jews in the Arab world, dissident Muslims and western satirists. But with its doctrinaire adherence to, and aggressive advocacy for, sharia law,  the forces of political Islam have declared lethal war on freedom of expression in the West. Sephardi Ideas Monthly points to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayid Qutb:  From Egypt it is a little-known fact that Qutb’s ideology has travelled to Iran, where four of his books have been translated into Persian. (With thanks: Edna)

Salman Rushdie, sentenced to death by the Ayatollahs

Sephardi Ideas Monthly traces the little-known but very consequential line of influence that transcends the traditional Sunni-Shi’a divide and connects Sayyid Qutb to the Islamic Republic of Iran (IR). Qutb met with and encouraged Iranian revolutionaries and his writings played an important role in the Iranian Islamist revolution.

The current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, translated four of Qutb’s books into Persian! One scholar summed up the issue concisely: “The influence of Sayyid Quṭb on the Islamist movement and the revolutionaries of Iran is still not acknowledged sufficiently and remains largely unknown in the West.” (See: “Sayyid Quṭb in Iran: Translating the Islamist Ideologue in the Islamic Republic.” Yusuf Ünal, Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 2016), pp. 35-50).

Qutb’s connection to Shi’ite activists dates back to the early 50s, when Iranian cleric Navvab Safavi, leader of the Iranian “Fedayeen of Islam,” visited him in Egypt. Safavi was impressed by Qutb, took his ideology back to Iran, and promoted the vision of an Islamic state among Iranian revolutionaries. Translations of Quṭb’s works soon followed. In many cases, the Persian-language translators were also activists who went on to play important roles in the Iranian revolution, the most prominent being Safavi’s student, Khamenei. Among the books that Khamenei translated was, The Future of This Religion, a work in which Quṭb:

…argues for the political supremacy of Islam, which will lead to the future submission of all humanity to Islamic ideology, and calls upon all Muslims to fight against the imperialist powers.

In order to honor Qutb’s thought and influence, in 1985 the Iranian regime’s postal service issued a stamp showing Qutb behind bars during his 1966 trial in Egypt. That trial ended in Qutb’s hanging.

It’s true that, in recent years, Qutb’s writings have inspired revolutionary Sunni jihadi groups that mercilessly target Shi’a. The difficulty in reconciling Qutb’s influence on both the Iranian revolution and anti-Shi’ite jihadis was examined at a February, 2015, conference held in Iran dedicated to “Re-reading and Re-viewing the Views of Sayyid Quṭb” (See Unal, p. 36). The willingness to re-engage with Qutb’s writings in such a charged geo-political context testifies to the depth of their impact in the IR. In addition, it’s important not to overstate the problem: other Sunni Islamist groups influenced by Qutb are more than happy to maintain positive relations with the Iranian regime, the most obvious example being Hamas.

Why isn’t the Qutb-Iran connection more well-known among Western observers of the MENA region? Perhaps the answer is connected to a related question: How is it that there isn’t a single English-language biography of Khamenei? Sometimes written off as “the chief apparatchik backed by the Iranian deep state” Khamenei has ruled Iran for thirty-three years. That’s a long time in a very unstable region. It’s reasonable to wonder if Khamenei is more competent than often perceived, and if his political acumen is connected to Qutb’s influence. Either way, if we wish to prepare for an extended conflict with the forces of Political Islam, it would be prudent to wonder how much of the revolutionary energy that animates portions of the Iranian regime is still being generated by its encounter with Qutb.

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Who was Sayid Qutb? Sephardi Ideas Monthly has produced this profile of one of the most important leaders of political Islam, who was hanged by Nasser in 1966: 

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the most important and influential Islamist thinker of the 20th century and a man whose work stands directly in the path of a more pluralist MENA, from Morocco to the Gulf.

An Egyptian-born intellectual heavyweight, Qutb migrated from Cairo’s literati (he was an early champion of Nagib Mahfouz) to the revolutionary vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood. The author of literary criticism, novels, poetry, travelogues, an influential call to action entitled Milestones, and a thirty-volume commentary on the Quran, Qutb’s interpretation of Islam, though rejected by many Muslim scholars, remains spiritual fuel for extremists around the world.

image
Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian ideologue on the Muslim Brotherhood

A large part of Qutb’s intense impact and influence comes from his conceptualization of the battle against “Jahiliya.” Many Muslim sources refer to Jahaliya as a period of time preceding the appearance of Islam. Qutb, however, accepted the interpretation that Jahiliya doesn’t refer to a historical period but to a state of being, a spiritual condition that is possible at any time and in any place. He then took that idea to new extremes. Jahaliya, for Qutb, doesn’t just refer to the capitalist West or to the communist East; Jahaliya refers to any society that doesn’t live by the Shari’a (the Law of Islam). Without the Shari’a, all that remains is, “the rule of humans by humans.” Is there a more fundamental violation of God’s sovereignty than this?

The consequences to Qutb’s interpretation are extreme. Since, in Qutb’s time, there wasn’t a single “Muslim” state that ruled according to the Shari’a, then by his standard, all of the so-called Muslim states were also Jahili and, as such, illegitimate.

It’s worthwhile meditating on Qutb’s understanding of Jahiliya in order to appreciate the way in which it has entranced, and through his books and myriad followers, continues to beguile the minds of some Muslims.

Imagine a young Muslim wondering at the weakness of Muslim states and communities, whether in the MENA region or around the globe. According to the Quran:

You are the best nation raised up for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and you believe in Allah. 

In reality, however, Muslim states and individuals mimic aspects of Western politics and culture while the West remains politically ascendant and culturally dominant. What’s going on?

Qutb explains that the West, armed with science and technology and claiming to be the height of cultural and political progress, has created the most comprehensive Jahaliya ever to cover the face of the earth. It’s so deep that many don’t see it. The West doesn’t just colonize lands, it colonizes minds.

But according to Qutb the problem goes even deeper. Do you see those states and kingdoms that call themselves Islamic? They’re not Islamic at all, because authentic Muslim states live by the Shari’a. Otherwise, there’s only exploitation. As for the masses of so-called “Muslims,” they’re blind to their condition.

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Habiba Messika: daring life and tragic death of a pop idol

She was murdered aged 30, but in her short life Habiba Messika (Msika) created a sensation in Tunisia with her songs and acting roles. Profile in The Librarians (with thanks: Michelle):

Habiba Messika in a male acting role

A rebellious soul, Msika crossed boundaries in all that she did: she insisted on playing male roles in her theatrical career (sensing they’d give more range to her talent), and is said to have been the first singer in the country to mix dance and song, a practice that electrified her performances. Despite furious attacks from the conservative press, she sang dozens of songs reveling in the pleasures of free love. The song “Ala Srir Ennoum,” which translates to “In My Bed,” is one of them.

The forthright Msika also aligned herself with the emerging Tunisian nationalist movement. She became the main artistic collaborator of the theater director Mohamed Bourguiba, whose brother Habib Bourguiba would become the first president of independent Tunisia in 1957. With Mohamed Bourguiba, Msika adapted classic European plays into Arabic, and developed original theater productions infused with revolutionary sentiment. In one infamous performance of Les Martyrs de la Liberté, Msika appeared onstage wrapped in a Tunisian flag, crying “Vive la liberté!” The French police stormed the second performance, arrested the cast, and censored the play.

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More about Habiba Messika

 

Bring back the monarchy, says Libyan Jew

In the wake of the Abraham Accords, Benghazi-born Samuel Zarrugh puts the case in The Algemeiner for the restoration of the monarchy in Libya. However, it is unfair to blame Colonel Gaddafi, who only came to power in 1969, for antisemitism in Libya. The idea that the monarchy and the 1951 Constitution might protect minorities may be so much pie-in-the- sky: few Jews enjoyed  full rights, such as Libyan citizenship, in the 1950s. and King Idris was too weak to prevent the disssolution of the community after 1967. (With thanks: Imre) 

King Idris of Libya

During World War II and later under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who seized power in a coup and ruled Libya from 1969 until his death in 2011, the Jewish community suffered heinously.

During the World War II era, Libyan Jews were punished by the Italians for their alleged “collaboration” with the British, and by 1942, they had deported 2,584 Jews to Jado, a camp 235 kilometers south of Tripoli. At least 560 of those deported died of various ailments, largely hunger and typhoid fever.

The interlude period, between the end of Italian occupation and the 1969 coup, brought respite for Libya’s Jews. Tripoli and Jado were liberated by the British in January 1943, and the last group of prisoners left the camp later that year. Following the liberation, racial laws targeting Jews were repealed.

The 1951 constitution, under which Libya was run on the basis of a constitutional monarchy with a representative system of government, offered expansive political and social freedoms to its people. Article 11 guaranteed equality before the law without distinction on the basis of religion; Article 12 guaranteed personal liberty and equal protection of the law; and Article 21 guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion, despite Islam being the official state religion. The monarchy acted as a symbol of unity, bolstered by the popular King Idris.

Being grateful plays a significant role in the Jewish faith, and Jews have not forgotten the respect that King Idris displayed towards all faiths, assuring them of their full freedom in his independent Libya.

It is thus little wonder that there is clear support for the restoration of the 1951 constitution, as evidenced by the legitimately grassroots movements springing up in favor of it in Libya. There is also ample support for the resurrection of the constitution among minorities in exile, including the Libyan Jewish community.

Unfortunately, the 1951 constitution was done away with when Gaddafi took power in 1969. Personal liberties and property rights were cast aside as his government confiscated all Jewish property and prohibited emigration for Jews. Despite pledges that Jews would be given government bonds, no compensation was ever forthcoming. In 2004, acase was brought by the Organisation for Libyan Jews seeking compensation for the property seized under Gaddafi. The estimated value of the stolen property totaled more than £100m.

As well as robbing the community of their livelihoods, Gaddafi promulgated vehement antisemitism, encouraging Libyans to view Jews as being responsible for wrongdoing in the world.

It is little wonder then that, after more than 40 years of Gaddafi’s pernicious conditioning of Libyans, when David Gerbi, a member of the Libyan Jewish community who had been forced to leave, returned to his homeland in 2011, he was forced out of a synagogue in Tripoli and greeted with protesters holding signs stating, “There is no place for the Jews in Libya.”

As Gerbi explained, “What Gaddafi tried to do is to eliminate our memory. To eliminate our amazing language. To remove all trace of the Jewish people.”

In that, he largely succeeded, as a once sizeable Jewish minority dwindled to zero in the space of less than a century.

While Gaddafi pretended that Libya was a homogenous Arab Muslim state, to the detriment of all, the 1951 constitution and the hereditary monarchy it provided for enjoyed broad support, and continues to do so to this day. Its restoration would provide guarantees for the minorities who suffered under Gaddafi, none more than so the Jews of Libya.

Libyan politicians have also voiced their support for the idea. Mohamed Abdelaziz, who served as foreign minister for a brief stint from 2013 to 2014, has previously called for the return of the rule of a symbolic monarch, vowing to “take it upon himself” to campaign for it. As he rightly argued, that would be the best solution for the restoration of security and stability in Libya.

Not only would the restoration of the 1951 constitution improve Libya’s internal stability, but it would aid its foreign relations, too, particularly with Israel.

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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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