Tag: Jews of Kuwait

Kuwaiti singer wants to convert to Judaism

Apostasy from Islam seems all the rage, as a popular singer in Kuwait declares her intention to convert to Judaism She is following another performer who declared his wish to convert to Christianity. Kuwait’s ruling family is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood which considers apostasy punishable by death. Jewish Voice reports: 

Ibtisam Hamid

Shockwaves were profoundly felt throughout the Arab world on Wednesday when acclaimed Kuwaiti singer and actress Ibtisam Hamid made a public pronouncement of her intention to renounce her Islamic faith and to embrace Judaism through conversion.

 Also known by her stage name Basma al-Kuwaiti, the singer and actress posted a video on Twitter in which she said her decision stemmed from the fact that Islam violates women’s rights and does not treat them with dignity, as was reported by Israel HaYom.

 She stated:“I, Ibtisam Hamid, nicknamed singer Basma al-Kuwaitiya, announce that I am leaving Islam and proudly announce embracing Judaism.” The video was so widely circulated to the point that she topped Arab Google trending searches lists as well as social media.
According to the albawaba.com web site, fans and followers of al-Kuwaitiya demanded that the singer be arrested and held accountable for her decision to convert to Judaism. 

 The web site reported that one follower said: ‘So this is a trendy approach for fame nowadays, every now and then someone announces apostasy.’ Another one wrote: ‘We are at the end of time, and this is called apostasy, and she must be stopped’. 

Israel HaYom reported that the singer also spoke out against the ruling family of Kuwait, saying “I want to declare my opposition to the Al Sabah family, who reject normalization with Israel, stands against religious freedom in the country and against freedom of speech.”

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Jews have always lived in the Gulf, but in small numbers

With more and more Arabs interested in the history of local Jews in the wake of the historic peace deals between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, Dr Nimrod Rafaeli  at MEMRI has compiled this useful summary,  based on a book by the Kuwaiti scholar Yusuf Ali Al-Mutairi titled A-yahud fi al-khaleej. (With thanks: Lily)

The Origins Of The Jews In The Gulf:
Most of the Jews who settled in the Gulf countries, primarily in Kuwait and Bahrain, were of Iraqi origin, and many of them were seeking either to escape military conscription under the Ottoman Empire or to explore economic opportunities. Of these Jews, only a few have remained, likely only in Bahrain where the Jewish population numbers around 70. (Current estimates put the number at no more than 25 – ed)

A member of that community, Huda Nonoo, was her country’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2013 – making her the first ambassador of the Jewish faith to represent an Arab country. 

According to Al-Mutairi, Jews held important positions in Ahsaa (currently in eastern Saudi Arabia), notably the post of treasurer of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area through WWI. The post was held by three successive Jews – Yacoub Efendi, 1878-1879; Daoud bin Shintob (“Shintob” being an Arabicization of the Hebrew “Shemtov”), 1879-1894; and Haroun Efendi, 1895-96.[5] During their tenure, many of the entries in the financial books were in Hebrew (most likely in Arabic transliterated in Rashi script, which was commonly used by old-generation Iraqi Jews). 

Al-Mutairi suggested that keeping the financial records in Hebrew may have been aimed at preventing an audit of the accounts, possibly to protect their Ottoman superiors. But perhaps the most significant post held by a Jew was that of Director of Customs for the whole province – a highly desirable position sought after by many both inside and outside Ahsaa because of the potential it offered for illicit income. 

 The Jewish Cemetery In Ahsaa:
Not long ago, a Saudi friend of the author of this article mentioned the existence of a Jewish cemetery in Ahsaa. According to this information, the land on which the cemetery was located is largely deserted, and no one has claimed it, although locals continue to refer to it as maqbarat al-yehud – “the Jewish cemetery.” Given that only a few Jews lived and died in the area, the cemetery itself could not have been large. 

 The Jews In Kuwait:
The Jews in Kuwait numbered between 100 and 200; they had their own synagogue, called a kanisah. A British diplomat, John Gordon Lorimer, hinted at tensions with the local authorities “chiefly for the distillation of spirituous liquors which some of the Mohammadan [Muslim] population consume secretly in dread of the Sheikh.”

A Jewish Official In Muscat, Oman:

Jews had been living in Muscat since at least 1625. In 1673, according to one traveler, a synagogue was being built, implying permanence. British officer James Wellsted also noted the existence of a Jewish community when he visited in the 1830s. 

The British had a letter addressed to a Jewish agent in the Gulf translated into Hebrew – presumably so that Arabs would not be able to read it (Photo: British Library)

A fascinating discovery was made not long ago in the British Library: a letter written in 1859 by a British naval officer in the Gulf, Griffith Jenkins, to a subordinate in Muscat named Hezkel ben Yosef, to whom Jenkins refers in the letter as “Agent of British Monarchy.” In the letter, Jenkins refers obliquely to the Imam who held sway in Oman’s interior and concludes by asking Hezkel to explain the matter in private – and then, interestingly, had the letter translated into Hebrew.

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Critics of TV series ‘Umm Haroun’ view ‘Arab Jews’ as Zionism’s victims

The Ramadan TV series Umm Haroun tries to portray Middle Eastern Jews as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. But deep-seated religious and cultural prejudice against the inferior dhimmi Jews has caused much vituperation, argues Shaul Bartal of the BESA Center (with thanks: Laurence, Frank, Melvyn)

 Um Haroun’s attempt to show the human side of the great suffering endured by Middle Eastern Jewry has aroused harsh criticism in the Arab world, mainly because of its alleged attempt to promote the trend of tatbia (normalization with Israel). The Zionist narrative of Middle Eastern Jewry does not jibe with the Arab-Palestinian narrative, which portrays Zionism as a European colonialist movement that is foreign to the Middle East.

 An article on arab48, which is affiliated, among other things, with the more ultranationalist elements in Arab Israeli society, accused the series of “legitimizing the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states,” which it considers anathema. The article asserts that, contrary to the Zionist view that the “Arab Jews” were a persecuted group, they formed “part of the Arab nation and a religious minority within it, an essential part of the mosaic of communities that lived in the Arab East and in Muslim Spain,” and their move to Palestine was a reflection of “Jewish arrogance.”

 The “Arab Jews” who (supposedly) lived with honor in the House of Islam thought they were coming to a land of milk and honey but instead, so the article claims, encountered humiliation and discrimination at the hands of the European Jews—because Zionism, after all, was no more than a European colonialist movement. Hence, the article asserts, the Um Haroun series serves Zionism because it presents a false narrative that sins against the historical truth.
Criticisms in this vein are plentiful across Arab social networks and media channels.

 In the Middle East there are only “Palestinian refugees.” There is no room for other victims.

The State of Israel, over half of whose Jewish citizens are descendants of former dhimmis, is an existing fact.

 The indigenous Jews of the Middle East, like their brethren from other Diaspora communities, returned to their ancestral homeland and together reestablished the Jewish state there. Um Haroun insinuates that the Jews of the Middle East could serve as a bridge for coexistence and understanding between Israel and its neighbors. Unfortunately, the series has mainly sparked vituperation in the Arab world.

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More about Arab reaction to ‘Umm Haroun’

Monitoring responses to ‘philosemitic’ Ramadan TV series

The fallout contnues from two Saudi-financed  TV series being screened over Ramadan this year: Umm Haroun and Exit 7. Both series have attracted controversy for allegedly portraying Jews  too sympathetically (although one Point of No Return reader tells us that some characters in Umm Haroun, for example the Rabbi David, are callous and miserly). Both series represent a positive step in the right direction. They acknowledge that Arab states had Jewish communities and unfairly persecuted them. The Jews supposedly did not deserve such treatment as they  are viewed as a religious community without political rights. (With thanks Lily; Olivia; Yoni)

The characters in the comedy series Exit 7

The second  controversial Saudi series, MEMRI reports,  is the comedy Makhraj 7 (“Exit 7”), written by liberal journalist Khalaf Al-Harbi and starring famous actor Nasser Al-Qasabi, which deals with Saudi society. In one episode of the series, two of the characters discuss the issue of relations with Israel. One of them says that Israel is not an enemy and advocates holding business ties with Israelis, while stating that it is the Palestinians, who have received extensive Saudi aid over the years, that have actually harmed the Saudi kingdom.

MEMRI has been monitoring the reactions of Arab journalists:

The general director of the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV and Al-Hadath TV, Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on April 30, 2020, under the headline “The Arab Jews and the Toxic Propaganda,”that viewers’ negative reactions to the Umm Haroun series have once again exposed the anti-Jewish propaganda and religious hatred that Arab leaders and the movements of political Islam spread in the Arab countries, damaging the social fabric in those countries.”

 Saudi journalist Hussein Shubakshi praised Umm Haroun‘s courage in tackling a sensitive topic that had not previously been discussed – the Jews in Arab countries and the racism and persecution they faced. He wrote:

“The series is courageous in that it dares to raise an issue that corresponds to two very complex topics. The first of these is general and is connected to an ongoing problem, and it is coexistence with the other, with those who are different, with accepting them, and with dealing with the racism and aggression [towards them]. The second topic is the history of the Jewish presence in the Arab world in general, and in the Arab Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula in particular…

“These communities… whose members were citizens of these countries, were blamed for the establishment of the State of Israel on the land of Palestine and became an easy target for aggression and violence. The discourse of hatred increased until the Arab countries were emptied of their Jewish citizens…

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CAMERA Arabic praises a journalist called As Sa’eed  for his positive attitude towards Umm Haroun, but lambasts him for inventing a fantasy of Jews ‘leading an ordinary life’ in Arab countries where there are none: 

 As Sa’eed’s articlefrom April 29th, 2020 has a favorable tone towards the Jews of the Middle East, defending a Ramadan television series, “Um Haroun”, which features a Jewish protagonist from one of the Gulf States in the 1940s (her character is inspired by the true story of a Bahraini Jewish midwife named “Um Jan”).

 The series triggered vast online protests in the Arab world.  The article, however, claimed that boycotting it due to alleged “normalization” is unjustifiable since it has no connection to Israel.

 “The allegations of propagating ‘the Israeli enemy’ came about at a time when [it was already clear that] the series does not feature or include Israelis, neither do they write nor direct it. Additionally, the story’s events were not about Israel at all, but rather about Arab Jews in Arab countries, who lived and participated in the artistic, cultural and social life in their countries.”

Alas, after the truly brave description of the past, came the jaw-dropping leap into the present:

Many of them still live in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, even in Iran and Turkey, having an ordinary life, freely practicing their rituals and engaging in various walks of life. “

With the exception of Morocco and non-Arab Iran and Turkey, where several thousand Jews still live today, in none of these countries which As-Sa’eed mentioned do “many Jews still live […] an ordinary life”.  

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Ramadan TV series with Jewish heroine sparks outrage

Naoum Shebib: the Jewish architect forgotten by Egypt

The screening of the Ramadan TV series Umm Haroun, based on the history of Jews in the Gulf States, has sparked accusations of ‘normalisation’ with Israel. But for Nervana, who writes and blogs for the pro-US Al-Hurra. the controversy reminded her of the Egyptian-Jewish architect Naoum Shebib. Shebib, like the vast majority of Egyptian Jews, was forced to leave Egypt. He did not go to Israel, but Canada. The fact that he was a Jew is hardly ever mentioned. (With thanks: Yoni)

Naoum Shebib

I  remembered Shebib when I read about the controversy sparked by the new Ramadan Gulf series which portrays the historical Jewish presence in the Gulf States in the early twentieth century. And even before the series started broadcasting, accusations of “normalization with Israel” were directed at it. For example, an official from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Basim Naeem, condemned the series even before it aired and told Reuters that portraying Jewish people in a sympathetic light is “cultural aggression and brainwashing”.

The Hamas official’s choice of words is clear – “The Jewish people.” In our region, particularly among the Islamists and the “anti-Israel resistance camp,” the words “Jews” and “Israelis” are synonymous. At best, detractors are willing to acknowledge Judaism as a religion, but most Arabs reject the Jewish identity and link it with the “Zionist entity.” Moreover, the vast majority of Arabs believe Jews of Arab decent have voluntarily left their countries to settle in Israel. With such a widespread myth, Jewish identity is awkward to handle and triggers suspicion, accusations of treason, and normalization with the “Zionist entity.”

The Cairo Tower and other landmarks in Egypt, including the Al-Ahram newspaper building, designed by Naoum Shebib

Naoum Shebib, however, is a striking example that debunks such lazy, shallow claims. Shabib was assigned to build the Cairo Tower during the era of the Egyptian president and anti-Israel leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and by one of Nasser’s intelligence officers2, according to some Egyptian reports. In 1971, at the age of 56, Shebib left Egypt for Canada, not Israel. However, none of the very few Arabic articles that praised his work mentioned he was Jewish. And none asked the tough questions: Why did a successful architect like Shebib immigrate to a distant country like Canada at a late stage of his life? Why are the vast majority of Egyptians not aware of him?

The story of Naom Shebib is not unique; most Jews from Egypt and the Arab World were forced to leave their native countries, because of direct or indirect persecution via loss of citizenship rights and protection, loss of jobs in the private and public sectors, no prospect of future employment, dispossession of assets, death, and expatriation/expulsion. Some have had their passports stamped “exit, with no return.”

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Egypt’s Ramadan TV demonisation of Jews disappoints

Ramadan TV series with Jewish heroine sparks outrage


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