Tag: Jewish archives

Many Kurdish Jews died during their 1950 exodus

The Iraqi Jewish Archives have revealed interesting details about the exodus of  Kurdish Jews from Iraq, according to amateur historian Sami Sourani, who helped translate documents from Arabic.
A family of Kurdish Jews airlifted to Israel
The Kurdish Jews  had to travel down to Baghdad in order to join the airlift to Cyprus and on to Israel.
During their exodus from Iraq during 1950 -1, the Baghdad Jewish community took charge of the welfare of the 18,000 Kurdish Jews who passed through the capital. It had to request a special budget to bury the many elderly Kurdish Jews who  died in Baghdad.
According to Sami Sourani, who volunteeered to translate some files, the  Baghdad Jewish community stepped up to the challenge of caring for the refugees during their short stay at the Massouda Shemtov synagogue.
The community took on the responsibility of feeding the refugees. The cook was Shalom Saleh who was  hanged in January 1952 together with Yousef Basri on charges of Zionism.
Saleh worked very hard to feed the Kurdish arrivals. A ladies’ committee boiled 100 eggs a day.
The Community appointed a rabbi to take care of  the Kurdish refugees.  Some of the very old who could not stand the warm weather of Baghdad and passed away. To their credit,  the Jewish community of Baghdad made sure that the dead were buried with dignity, regardless of their financial situation.  This was done by the Hebra Kadisha – the Burial Society. The rabbi in charge wrote a letter to the Rabbanut of Baghdad asking for a special budget to buy cloth for shrouds.
The rabbi wrote that the dead people were so numerous, he could not afford to buy shrouds. He told how he was working every day until midnight just to talk to the refugees and deal with their welfare. Sometimes  he had to buy them material using his own money. He requested a raise in his salary  –  about eight dinar per month, at that time. The Rabbanut responded favourably and he got what he wanted.


More from Sami Sourani:

Biden administration calls for release of Yemenite Jew

According to Arutz Sheva, the  Biden administration has called for the release of Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, who is still in jail in Yemen for allegedly helping to ‘smuggle’ out a Torah scroll. The scroll accompanied the last party of Jews to be airlifted out of Yemen in 2016. The former ‘antisemitism Tsar’ Elan Carr has drawn atention to Marhabi’s case and the American Sephardi Federation has been running  a campaign for Marhabi’s  release. There are six Jews still in Yemen, or fewer.

Benjamin Netanyahu poses with the Torah scroll which Marhabi is accused of helping to smuggle out to Israel

US State Department spokesman Ned Price has announced that the Biden Administration is calling for the release of Levi Marhabi, a young Yemeni Jew accused of helping Jews who immigrated to Israel take an ancient Torah scroll from Yemen with them.

For about four years, Levi Marhabi has been imprisoned in Yemen. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels say the Torah Scroll as a ‘stolen national treasure.’

Among the detainees was Rabbi Yahya ben Yosef, who was arrested by the Houthi rebels on suspicion of aiding in the smuggling of a Torah scroll.

Three workers at the Sanaa airport were also arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting smuggling. But in the end everyone was released except Levi Marhabi, who remains imprisoned until this day.

A State Department spokesman said the US had repeatedly raised Marhabi’s plight in the UN Security Council. The representative also confirmed the statement issued by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November 2020, calling on Houthis to “respect religious freedom, stop oppressing the Yemenite Jewish population and immediately release Levi Marhabi.”

American Sephardi Federation (ASF) executive director  Jason Guberman said the US should be more aggressive on the issue. “The State Department has called for the release of Marhabi, but it is not enough” Guberman said.

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Egyptian press takes down interview with Jewish leader

An interview with Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Association has been taken down from the website of the Egyptian medium Akhbar el Yomafter just two days. Mr Fedida criticised the few Jews still in Egypt for not supporting international efforts to preserve international heritage. He accused the Egyptian government of excluding Jews from the official re-opening of the restored Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue and for not permitting access to Jewish records. It seems that the Egyptian authorities are not quite ready to listen. Here is the original:

No Jews were invited to the  official re-opening of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in 2020.

How do you see Egyptian policy towards its neighbours and Israel?

Our wish is obviously that peace should reign in the whole region and among all peoples. We are sad to see that the peace signed over 41 years ago is still a cold peace, far from the warmth normally present in the genes of both peoples. Still, al hamdoulilah it is peace.

How do you see the measures taken by President Sisi to approve the coexistence between people of religion in Egypt?

I would not be so bold as to comment on the measures taken by President Sisi; but it seems normal to me that people of different religions should coexist peacefully, whatever the country. The opposite is shocking. Therefore any step in this direction can only be applauded.

 Did you see any change in Egypt during your visit? How do you see Egypt now?

Egypt is constantly changing due to its large demographics. Although much remains to be done, much infrastructure work has been done or is being done, some truly pharaonic, to face the future. I was impressed by the increased level of education, knowledge, and the entrepreneurial thirst of the youth. But Egypt is also eternal in its beauty and in its unique people. Hospitality, kindness, empathy, respect for others and this capacity for humor and self-mocking at all times, are always found in these very endearing people. This will always make me proudly say: ana Masri! even though it hasn’t been my country for a long time. Egypt is a great power playing a moderating role at the regional level. Unfortunately, year after year, there are still so many wildly anti-Semitic books at the Cairo International Book Fair. It is not with this kind of low-level propaganda that you create harmony or understanding. We are only stirring up unnecessary hatred.

 How did you reach out to Jews in Egypt during the time of President Sisi?

We suggested supporting their interest in safeguarding heritage as long as there was total transparency for the establishment of an organization that would include French, English and American Jewish institutions as well as Egyptian Jews in these countries. They wanted  nothing to do with this  organization, nor transparency. Unfortunately they are only a handful and find themselves quite alone. On the contrary, instead of  working together, they took measures outside legal norms, without taking  advice from rabbis, and deprived us of the community registers and archives so essential to our co-religionists in their daily lives. We still continue to work with the community of Alexandria for the maintenance of the three cemeteries as we have done in the past for the dedication of the Eliahou Hanabi synagogue.

 After your visit to Egypt and the opening of the Eliahou Hanabi Temple after the renovation,  do you see progress?

Since 2009 we have drawn the attention of the Ministries of Culture and Antiquities (at the time headed respectively by Mr. Farouk Hosni  and M. Zahi. Hawass) on the need to restore the Alexandria synagogue, one of the oldest of the city’s monuments,  frequently restored and rebuilt in the past. The last reconstruction dates back to 1853. A study was launched in 2010 with the help of specialist engineers from Cairo University. This study was to lead to the restoration and the first scaffolding was put in place in 2011. Unfortunately the Morsi government froze everything.

We reiterated the urgency of a restoration to Mr. El Anany, then the new Minister of Antiquities. With the collapse of the roof this became obvious. The same scaffolding was still in place seven years later, but this time extraordinary and meticulous work was undertaken. We are of course grateful to the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people for preserving this building for what it symbolizes.

The official inauguration in January 2020 saddened us because no Egyptian Jew or association from abroad and no rabbi had been invited. There was no one wearing a Yarmulka (Ta’eya). We wondered if it would have been natural to open a mosque without prayer, and wearing shoes?

Fortunately, with the help of the embassy in Paris and Washington, we had obtained permission to bring in a group  to say dedicational prayers in the synagogue and memorial prayers in cemeteries. This took place in mid-February. The security was perfect and I’m embarrassed to admit that we caused them a lot of trouble because everyone who came was welad el balad, they were at home and wanted to be independent. 

 What are your demands of the Egyptian state? 

 We have been asking the Egyptian state for 17 years to allow us a copy – and only a copy – of our community archives and our identity records, essential to the practice of our religion and without  any financial significance. We want the copies to be  kept with the  Chief Rabbinate of France, as these documents were previously with the Chief Rabbinates of Alexandria and Cairo. I hope they will listen to us. In any case, they should never have left the community offices in  Alexandria and Cairo. Why are the Jewish records alone  inaccessible? Are the Greek, Armenian, Catholic and  Protestant records treated in the same way? No!

Is the Jewish community of Egyptian origin in France in touch with the diplomatic mission in Paris? 

 We have always maintained cordial and respectful relations with the diplomatic mission in Paris. The mission listens to us and understands our request but nothing can be decided unless Cairo chooses to do so. It helped us a lot with our February trip. 

 Did you ever live in Alexandria? How come?

 I was born in Alexandria as were my parents, grandmother and great-grandparents. I lived there up to the age of 15 in Sporting and I went to St Marc College, then to Ennasr Boys School. It was a blessed era in a wonderful and warm city. I was at home, in my country, in my house, surrounded by my family and  friends, until the stupidity of men dictated otherwise. I find it hard to recognise my city now – But I’m sure that it too finds it hard to recognise me!

What is your message to  Egyptian Jews around the world after your visit?

I would like them  to know that there was more than 2,300 years of Jewish history in this country, so  rich and ancient. This should give us hope for us to be able to live again in symbiosis. Iwould like them to be proud of this community heritage left by our parents. May they help protect it, while acting as a bridge between our two cultures. 

Rabbi Hamra, who facilitated Jewish departures from Syria, dies

The worldwide Syrian Jewish community is mourning the passing of Rabbi Avraham Hamra, the last chief rabbi of Damascus, who has died in Israel at the age of 78. Few announcements of his death have mentioned, however,  the seminal role Rabbi Hamra played to coordinate the funding of Jewish departures from Syria during the 1980s and 90s, when the community was held hostage by the Assad regime. He was instrumental in arranging the smuggling out of Syria of the Damascus Keter, a priceless and beautifully preserved medieval manuscript, in a black shopping bag.


Rabbi Abraham Hamra

Rabbi Hamra served as the last chief rabbi of Damascus, from 1976 to 1994, when he immigrated to Israel.

In addition to serving as leader of the Syrian community in Israel, based in Holon, Rav Hamra frequently visited the Syrian community in the New York area.

His daughter Mrs. Aliza Azan, and three of her children, were tragically killed in a fire on Chanukah 2017.

A son of Rabbi Hamra is a prominent hazan in the  Har Halebanon community in Brooklyn.

When he was in Syria in the 1990s, Rabbi Hamra worked quietly with the Canadian fundraiser  Judy Feld Carrfor the release of Syrian Jews in prison and for ill Jews to be allowed to leave. This involved his negotiating  with the secret police the price of Jewish departures.  Keeping meticulous accounts, he oversaw  money sent from the Feld Fund and funnelled grant aid from the American Jewish Committee to Jewish schools, teachers and those in need.

According to the Ransomed of God by Harold Troper, Judy Feld Carr asked Rabbi Hamra to help her get a priceless Jewish manuscript of the Torah, the Damascus Keter, out of the basement of a Syrian synagogue. She arranged for a western visitor to Syria to call on Rabbi Hamra. He handed over a small leather-bound book in a cardboard sleeve to the visitor. The visitor put the package in an innocuous-looking black plastic shopping bag and smuggled it out of the country.

A deal was reached for Syria’s remaining 3,000 Jews to be permitted to leave. By the end of 1993, Rabbi Hamra himself applied for an exit visa, ostensibly to visit family in New York.

Before his departure for Israel, Rabbi Hamra asked Judy’s permission to take the Keter of Damascus to Israel, where it is now in the National Library in Jerusalem.


Afghanistan claims back priceless artefact from US

The Afghan president is demanding that an ancient and priceless siddur (prayer book), now in the US, be returned to Afghanistan following the bombing and pilfering of the Museum where it was kept. The case is not straightforward, however. See my comment below (with thanks: JIMENA)

Following the outbreak of Afghanistan’s civil war in 1992, the museum was repeatedly shelled. It suffered heavy damage in a May 12, 1993 rocket strike. The combination of Taliban mortars and looters resulted in the loss of 70% of the 100,000 prehistoric, Hellenistic, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Islamic and Jewish objects once in its collection. Those pilfered artifacts flooded antiquities markets in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Now the pro-Western regime of President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – formerly an anthropology professor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland – wants its cultural legacy returned. Among those treasures it is seeking to repatriate is a 1,200-year-old siddur (prayer book) – the world’s oldest Hebrew manuscript after the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“It is our responsibility to get back our ancient treasures,” said Abdul Manan Shiwaysharq – the country’s Deputy Minister for Information and Publications in the Information and Culture Ministry – in the first-ever on-the-record interview between an Afghani official and an Israeli journalist.

Shiwaysharq argues photos of the ancient siddur in Kabul’s National Museum dating from 1998 contradict the ownership documents provided by the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The MotB says it bought the siddur in 2013 from antiquities dealers in the UK who provided provenance documents showing the manuscript had been in Britain since the 1950s. The MotB paid $2.5 million for the prayer book. Though Shiwaysharq appraises the unique volume at $30m. for insurance purposes, it truly is priceless.

The prayer book may have belonged to the Radhanites, a little-known group of medieval merchants, some Jewish, who traded along the Silk Road linking Christian Europe, the Islamic world, China and India during the early Middle Ages. The Radhanites’ entrepôts and Afghanistan’s early Jewish community were likely destroyed in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Mongol Empire grew from the steppes of Mongolia to extend from Europe to China.

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My comment: This is not a straightforward case. The zeitgeist favours the return of artefacts from the West  to their places of origin and the US has signed dozens of Memoranda of Understanding with Arab and Muslim countries. However, is the artefact really a ‘national treasure’? Could the Afghan Jewish community, now in exile, have a  good claim to this prayer book? The Museum of the Bible in Washington DC may have acquired this  prayer book illegally, as a result of the looting of the Afghan museum. If it were to be returned to Afghanistan, the chances are that the museum housing it would be once again at risk of destruction. Afghanistan is unstable, and the Taliban fundamentalists, who have no respect for Jewish artefacts, are resurgent. At least the exhibit will be secure and preserved in the right conditions where it is now in the US.


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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