Berber Jews of Morocco

Not much is known about the Berber-speaking Jews of Morocco, but with the total Jewish population having dwindled to fewer than 5,000, the Berber Jews are vanishing fast.

While distinguishing between the ‘toshavim’, the pre-Islamic communities of the Atlas mountains, and the ‘megorashim’ – Jews fleeing Spain in the 15th century who settled mainly in the towns – foreign travellers and ethnographers in the 19th and 20th century were divided over the Berber Jews’ mysterious origins. Some believed that they descend from the Jews of ancient Israel. Some believed Berber tribes converted to Judaism, like the famous Berber queen, the Kahena. Some even thought that the Jews who settled in Spain were originally North African Berbers.

This article (in French) is worth reading and ends with an extract of a rare Haggadah written in amazigh, the Berber language.

Will Libya’s Jews get back what Gadhafi confiscated?

Another article for an Arab readership by Michael Fischbach, an American history professor who specialises in Palestinian and Jewish refugee compensation issues, this time about progress on the Libyan track (with thanks to Faelino). The article is not entirely accurate, and certainly distorts the history of the Libyan Jews, whose situation began to deteriorate in the 1930s well before the creation of Israel, but is nonetheless of interest.

The matter of Arab states, compensating their former Jewish citizens for property abandoned when they left their countries of origin during and after 1948 was long ago made an issue of international diplomacy. After decades of relative obscurity, renewed focus on Jewish property claims against Arab states has emerged during the past two years.

In Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime initially led to movement on compensation for abandoned and sequestered Jewish property, although the current instability in the country has stalled this. Much more tangible progress on compensation, however, was recently made by former Libyan Jews, who have held discussions about the matter with high-level Libyan officials, including Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi himself. Gadhafi has spoken out publicly in favor of compensation, and reports claim that two months ago a high-ranking Libyan official actually visited Israel, where most former Libyan Jews now live. Could a deal be in the works?
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Iraq will not compensate the Jews: official

Iraq will not compensate the Jews whose property was confiscated, the Israeli business publication Globes reports.

by Itamar Levin

Looted Jewish private property is estimated at $4 billion, and communal property at several more billions of dollars.

Iraq Property Claims Commission head Sohail al-Hashmi today denied reports that his country would restore property looted from Jews who immigrated to Israel.

In an interview in “Asharq Al-Awsat”, al-Hashmi said that the reports were unfounded. He said that a reports concerning recent case involving such a claim were inaccurate, since the claimant was an Armenian Christian, not a Jew.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, rumors circulated that the new regime would compensate Iraqi emigrants for their property in order to establish closer relations with the West, especially the US. To date, however, the reports have not been officially confirmed, and have now been officially denied. More

Arabs without Jews – roots of a tragedy

This extraordinary article is by Magdi Allam, an Egyptian Muslim (he has since converted to Christianity) and deputy editor of the respected Milan newpaper, Corriere della Sera. Allam wrote it just after seeing Pierre Rehov’s acclaimed documentary about the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries, The Silent Exodus, in November 2004.

Israel is the keeper of a mutilated Arab identity, the repository for the guilty consciences of the Arab peoples, the living witness to a true history of the Arab countries, continuously denied, falsified and ignored.

Seeing Pierre Rehov’s documentary film “The Silent Exodus,” about the expulsion of a million Sephardi Jews, helped me gain a better understanding of the tragedy of a community that was integral and fundamental to Arab society. Above all it revealed to me the very essence of the catastrophe that befell it, a catastrophe which the mythical Arab nation has never once called into question. I could see the tragedy of the Jews and the catastrophe of the Arabs are two facets of the same coin. By expelling the Jews, who were settled on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean centuries before they were Arabised and Islamised, the Arabs have in fact begun the lethal process of mutilating their own identity and despoiling their own history. By losing their Jews the Arabs have lost their roots and have ended up by losing themselves.

As has often happened in history, the Jews were the first victims of hatred and intolerance. All the “others” had their turn soon enough, specifically the Christians and other religious minorities, heretical and secular Muslims and finally, those Muslims who do not fit exactly into the ideological framework of the extreme nationalists and Islamists. There has not been a single instance in this murky period of our history when the Arab states have been ready to condemn the steady exodus of Christians, ethnic-religious minorities, enlightened and ordinary Muslims, while Muslims plain and simple have become the primary victims of Islamic terror.

Underlying the Arab ‘malaise’ is an identity crisis that neither Nasserist nor Ba’athist pan-Arabism, nor the Islamism of the Saudi Wahabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Khomeini and Bin Laden has been able to solve. It’s a contagious identity crisis, spreading to and taking hold of the Arab and Muslim communities in the West.

I remember that around the mid-1970s the Arab exam in civic education taken in both state and public schools in Egypt defined Arab identity thus: “the Arabs are a nation united by race, blood, history, geography, religion and destiny.” This was a falsification of an historical truth based on ethno-religious pluralism, an ideological deception aimed at erasing all differences and promoting the theory of one race overlapping with a phantom Arab nation in thrall to unchallengeable leaders. It was directly inspired by Nazi and fascist theories of racial purity and supremacy which appealed to the leadership and ideologues of pan-Arabism and Islamism. It is no wonder that in this context Manichean Israel is perceived as a foreign body to be rejected, a cancer produced by American imperialism to divide and subjugate the Arab world.

The historical truth is that the Middle Eastern peoples, in spite of their arabisation and islamisation from the 7th century onward, continued to maintain a specific identity reflecting their indigenous and millenarian ethnic roots – cultural, linguistic, religious and national. The Berbers, for example, who constitute half the population of Morocco and a third of that of Algeria, have nothing or very little in common with the Bedouin tribes at the heart of Saudi or Jordanian society. When in 1979 Egypt was sidelined from the Arab League for signing a peace treaty with Israel President Sadat restored its Pharaonic Egyptian identity which he proudly contrasted with its Arabness. Here was an isolated but significant attempt to recapture an indigenous identity – advertising historical honesty and political liberation while saying ‘enough is enough’ to rampant lies and demagogy. Before the screening of the ‘Silent Exodus’ in the Congress Hall in Milan, a gentleman in his Seventies came up to me and said, in perfect Egyptian dialect: “I am a Jew from Alexandria. I have recently been in Tunisia and Algeria. I have to say that people there are not like us, they don’t have the sense of irony that distinguishes us Egyptians.” I smiled and replied that indeed, the Egyptians have a reputation as jokers. They are capable of laughing at anything, including themselves.

What struck me was the “us” – “us Egyptians”: even if we were both Italian citizens, he a Jew and I a Muslim. It reminded me that just after the 1967 defeat, I discovered by complete accident that the girl I was in love with – we both were 15 – was Jewish. For me she was a girl like any other. But for the police who submitted me to intensive interrogation she was a ‘spy for Israel’ and I was her accomplice.

In fact ‘the Silent Exodus’ testifies that anti-Semitism and the pogroms against the Jews of the Middle East preceded the birth of the state of Israel and the advent of ideological pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. It infers that hatred and violence against the Jews could originate in an ideological interpretation of the Koran and the life of the prophet Muhammed taken out of context.

It would be a mistake to generalise and not to take into account that for long periods coexistence was possible between the Muslims, Christians and Jews of the Middle East, at a time when in Europe the Catholic Inquisition was repressing the Jews and when the Nazi Holocaust was trying to exterminate them. In the same way, one cannot ignore Israel’s responsibility together with Arab leaders in the emergence of the drama of millions of Palestinian refugees and the unresolved question of a Palestinian state.

The fact remains that of the million Jews who at the end of 1945 were an integral part of the Arab population, only 5,000 remain. These Arab Jews, expelled or who fled at a moment’s notice, have become an integral part of the Israeli population. They continue to represent a human injustice and an historical tragedy. Above all, they are indicative of an Arab civil and identity catastrophe. That is why to recognise the wrongs committed towards the Arab Jews – as the maverick Libyan leader colonel Gaddafi has recently done – by objectively rediscovering their past and millenarian roots, by finding again their tolerant and plural history and by totally and sincerely reconciling themselves with themselves, the Arabs could free themselves from the ideological obscurantism which has relegated them to the most basic level of human development and has changed the region into the most problematic and confict-ridden on earth.


Read article in full (scroll down)

Jews seek Libyan compensation in test case

As this Reuter’s piece indicates, Libya’s willingness to compensate the Jews who fled the country has been one of the more positive developments of the past year. But the final paragraph seems to suggest that the compensation offer comes with impossible strings attached.

By Jonathan Saul
JERUSALEM, May 8 (Reuters) – The day Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war is burned deep in the memory of Libyan-born Jew Raphael Luzon.
His uncle, aunt and six cousins were killed on the edge of the capital Tripoli by Libyan soldiers out for vengeance. Luzon fled Libya soon after.
With Libya emerging from diplomatic isolation and holding out the possibility of compensation to Jews who fled abroad, Luzon hopes that he might be able to get back the remains of his family.

“I am not seeking revenge, only justice. I want to have the opportunity to take their bones and give them a proper Jewish burial,” says Luzon, who led a campaign for compensation long before Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi suggested it.
Jews also see Gaddafi’s talk of reparations as a possible test case for other Arab countries, whose centuries-old Jewish populations left or were forced out after the founding of Israel in 1948.

The history of Libya’s Jewish community, once 40,000 strong, stretches back 2,500 years. Jews lived comfortably for centuries, their numbers boosted by expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century.

But pogroms were triggered by the war of Israel’s creation with Arab neighbours, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs also fled or were driven from homes in what became the Jewish state.

Laws stripped Libyan Jews of rights and property and only 300 remained by the time Gaddafi seized power in 1969. He confiscated remaining Jewish assets and cancelled all debts to Jews.

Most of the community now lives in Israel and few expected to have contact again with the country of their birth.

JEWS PUT TOTAL LOSSES AT $600 MILLION

But that has changed since Gaddafi ended Libya’s diplomatic isolation in 2003, announcing that it would give up the search for weapons of mass destruction and agreeing to pay victims of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing.

At the same time, Gaddafi became the first Arab leader to say he could compensate Jews who were forced from their homes after 1948.

Libyan Jewish groups estimate the value of private assets lost at around $500 million with a further $100 million for public assets such as synagogues and cemeteries.
A small delegation of Jews living in Rome met Libyan officials in Tripoli last year as part of the emerging dialogue.

“I believe regarding Libya there will be positive developments in the coming year,” says Moshe Kahlon, the deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament whose family is from Libya and who recently met Libyan representatives in London.

“(Compensation) will start with Libyan Jews in Italy and should develop in the direction of Israel,” said Kahlon.

Libyan officials declined further comment on the compensation issue.
Jewish groups hope that if they get compensation from Libya then it may be possible to take the idea further in the Arab world, from where an estimated 850,000 Jews emigrated or were driven out, many settling in Israel.

There is no suggestion yet, though, that the Arab world might pick up on the ideas of the maverick Gaddafi.

Claims are also complicated by the fact that the departure of Jews from Arab states happened alongside the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

PALESTINIAN REFUGEES

Millions of Palestinians who fled themselves or are descended from those who demanded a “right of return” to land in what is now Israel or at least compensation for their losses. Most live in Arab states neighbouring Israel.

“Paying compensation to the Jews of the Arab world can only be seen by Palestinian refugees as a sell out and an unjust formula while their rights are being simultaneously denied,” says Abbas Shiblak, a British-based Palestinian writer on refugee issues and author of a book on the Jews of Iraq.

Some Jewish groups have called for Jews who fled Arab countries to be recognised as refugees in the same way that Palestinians have been. They also propose tying any compensation for Palestinians with that for Jews.

Palestinians argue that they are not responsible for the suffering of the Jewish communities.

The refugee issue remains one of the trickiest issues for any final Middle East peace talks, which still look a long way off despite an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire which has strengthened hopes for negotiations.

Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, a driving force behind the policy shift, emphasised recently that Libyan Jews who moved to Israel would need to prove that they had not taken Palestinian assets if they were to get compensation.

“They have to return the homes and properties they confiscated from Palestinians to the Palestinians before negotiations over getting back their assets and properties in Libya,” he said.

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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.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.