The Egyptian Antiquities Authority has carried off a trove of historic Jewish texts from the Bassatine Jewish cemetery in Cairo, raising uproar in the Israeli press. The move is in line with Egypt’s policy of treating Jewish heritage as ‘national’ heritage. During preservation and renovation work at the Cairo Jewish cemetery at Bassatine, a second geniza* (repository of documents bearing God’s name) was discovered in a burial plot belonging to the Mosseri family. What is interesting is that the current tiny local Jewish community, perhaps led by the Drop of Milk Association, has protested at the seizure of the geniza. This marks a change from the past: Magda Haroun, the community head, has acted as a stooge for the authorities, presiding over the shipping of Jewish libraries to the National Archives and refusing to back calls for Jewish access to community archives and records. She has even demanded that four Jewish-owned paintings in France be ‘returned’ to Egypt. (They have since been restituted to the owner’s descendants.) Report (Hebrew) in JDN News (via Elder of Ziyon):
It is thought that the Egyptian government was worried that the documents would be smuggled to Israel so they decided to grab them all now, against the wishes of the remaining Jews in Cairo, whose relatives might be mentioned in the collection.
It is not how old the Genizah is. No one has had the chance to study it yet. The Bassatine cemetery is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, built in the ninth century. The burial plot for the Genizah belonged to the Mosseri family, who immigrated to Egypt from Italy in the 18th century.
Ahmed Gendy, an Egyptian professor of Jewish and Zionist Studies who has studied the famous medieval Cairo Genizah, confirms that the Egyptian Antiquities Authority has been negligent in how they handled this priceless collection. When he would request an item from the Genizah to study, he said that they would bring them to him in cloth bags, where insects and humidity could damage them.
Nevertheless, he supports the antisemitic actions of the authority by invoking his own antisemitism:
What the members of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority did by transferring the contents of the discovered Genizah is right, from the reality of the first experience that witnessed the theft or sale of the contents of the ancient Genizah.
What the Jewish community did most likely was done in coordination with the Israeli authorities, in order to internationalize the issue, so that the international community and its institutions would pressure Egypt to implement what the members of the community want in Egypt, on the basis that what was discovered may be linked to Jewish families, and that they do not belong to the Egyptian government. But the fact that members of this sect live in Egypt, and hold Egyptian citizenship, makes the issue of their resorting to the American embassy in order to pressure Egypt on this issue reprehensible, and confirms what we mentioned earlier in another place about the Jews of their constant feeling of isolation and lack of belonging to the countries in which they live.
The community saw that the Egyptian authorities were stealing their property from their own cemetery and ignoring their protests, so they appealed to the Americans who were also working on fixing up the cemetery. This “expert” who understands how little the Egyptian Antiquities Authority cares about the preservation of priceless Jewish items says that this is proof of how Jews in Egypt aren’t really patriotic Egyptians.
As far as whether Israel has the right to these documents: the Egyptian Jewish community in Egypt is reportedly down to only three members, while there are over 50,000 Egyptian Jews in Israel. Tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews in Israel should have a large say on their own relatives’ possessions, especially when the Egyptian authorities’ interest in those items is more to keep them away from Jews than to benefit from them. As with priceless Jewish objects from Iraq and Yemen, it is disingenuous to say that the antisemites who drove out the ancient Jewish communities out of their countries should have the right to the possessions of those very people they expelled.
*The first and most famous Geniza, now dispersed to Oxford, Cambridge and North America, was discovered in the 19th century in the attic of the Ben Ezra synagogue and contains valuable texts dating back to medieval times.
According to this article in Haaretz by Ofer Aderet, academics and archeologists have found amulets and Hebrew manuscripts in the ruined synagogue in Tamanart, one of several Jewish sites slated for restoration by the Moroccan government. After the destruction of the First Temple, refugees fleeing Jerusalem are said to have established a Jewish kingdom in the adjacent village of Ifrane in the Atlas mountains, one of the oldest communities in North Africa. In 1792, 50 Jews jumped into a burning furnace after the local ruler made them choose between converting to Islam or death by fire. They’ve been called “the immolated” since, their ashes interred in the ancient local cemetery.
Remainders of a Jewish-Moroccan community that existed for centuries were recently found in a remote town in the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The small Jewish community of Tamanart lived there from the 16th century to the early 19th century. Recently, researchers from Israel, Morocco and France conducted salvage excavations in its ruined synagogue.
Along with the building’s walls, they found Scriptures and pages from the synagogue’s genizah, a repository for damaged written matter and ritual objects, as well as a few paper amulets. One was meant to protect a woman in labor and her newborn, another a personal charm meant to protect its owner from trouble and disease. “The texts in these amulets are based on formulas found in the Book of Raziel, an ancient Kabbalist book,” says Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a researcher of modern Morocco who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The book, which includes texts for charms, was in use by Jewish communities in Morocco.
Among other texts written on these amulets were a Kabbalist version of one of God’s names, as well as quotes from the book of Genesis and from the priestly blessing (such as “the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” Genesis 48:16) and “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace; So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them,” Numbers 6:26-7).
Ouaknine-Yekutieli says the synagogue was damaged by natural events such as the recent floods in the area, as well as by looters. She reached the remote site last month as part of a new historical and anthropological research study, together with her archaeologist husband Yuval Yekutieli and Moroccan and French researchers Salima Naji, Mabrouk Saghir, David Goeury and Aomar Boum.
The decision of the Russian government to return looted Jewish archives to Greece, as reported in Israel Hayom, sets a hopeful precedent for the return of other Jewish archives to their rightful owners. However, 10,000 volumes from the Chabad book collection remain behind in Moscow, despite Chabad winning a 2010 case ordering its shipment to New York. (With thanks: Nancy, Lily)
Our history returns home!” the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE) said in a statement after the news was announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press briefing with Greek President Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Sochi on Wednesday.
The majority of the looted archives were taken by Nazis in July 1942 from Thessaloniki, which once had a thriving Jewish community. Nazi forces plundered archives, books and religious artifacts from 30 synagogues, libraries and communal institutions in the city. The Russian army seized possession of the archives when it conquered Berlin in May 1945 and transferred the materials to Moscow, where they were held until now.
“For Greek Jewry, these archives bring light to its historic course – sacred heirlooms of the light of life, and the darkness of the looting and the Holocaust,” said KISE. “Their restitution would mean justice and would transmit knowledge about a part of the Greek people that contributed to the progress of the country and no longer exists – that of the 60,000 Greek Jews who were deported to and exterminated in the Nazi death camps.”
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.
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.
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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