Tag: Non-Arab/non-Muslim minorities

Sarah Levin: Indigenous peoples should learn from the Jews

Responding to a Jewish Currents satire, Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, explains why Jews are an indigenous, Middle Eastern people – historically, linguistically, spiritually, ecologically and politically. Jews should build relationships with other Middle Eastern communities as they strive for land rights, cultural survival and self-determination.

Sarah Levin was surprised to find herself in the Jewish Currents satire,  which featured Jewish activists fighting the ‘Jews as settler colonialists’ slur

The Jewish Currents’ piece was deeply troubling for a multitude of reasons, most notably because it ignored Jewish and Middle Eastern history from the days of the Bible through World War Two. Instead, it asserted that Mizrahi Jews, and organizations like JIMENA, have “mythologized” a Jewish link to the land of Israel, despite having lived continuously in the region for over 2,500 years. The article was filled with contradictions, mischaracterizations, and cherry-picked definitions of indigeneity motivated solely by a desire to exclude Jews and Jewish history. My history. Our history.

Issues around indigeneity as a whole are certainly complex. Still, there are specific historical, cultural, geographic, and spiritual truths that need to be taken into consideration when exploring Jewish indigeneity to the land of Israel and issues of Middle Eastern indigeneity as a whole.

For thousands of years, the Middle East has been one of the most ethnically and racially diverse corners of the world and is home to a multitude of indigenous communities including Jews, Bedouin, Copts, Kurds, Shabaks, Tabaris, Samaritans, Assyrians, Yezidis, Chaldeans (the list goes on…).  The indigeneity of any one of these communities does not negate the indigeneity of another. Unfortunately, imperialism and colonialism has had a devastating effect on the religious and ethnic diversity of the region. Luckily many Middle Eastern communities in diaspora, like the Jewish people, have clung tight to their heritages, practices, and ways of living that indelibly root them to land and place. For Jews, it is this rootedness—not vague and ephemeral “ties”, but concrete, ongoing, unbroken practice—that connects us directly to the land of Israel and the Middle East. To deny this is to render it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation on Jewish and Middle Eastern indigeneity.

The Jewish Currents piece, however, arbitrarily defines the term “indigenous” as only applying to those colonized after the 15th century. This is at odds with well-established descriptions and definitions used by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and a host of non-profit organizations working on indigenous rights issues. The United Nations does not delineate indigenous groups based on time in a region or when their land was colonized, but instead uses this description:

“Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples.”

As we all know, the common language of the Jewish people is Hebrew, passed down to Jewish children from generation to generation as part of their shared patrimony as a link to Jewish peoplehood. It is no quirk or historical triviality that young Jews, as part of their rite of initiation into Jewish adulthood, learn Hebrew for their B’nai Mitzvahs. Hebrew, a Semitic language from the land of Israel, is closely related to Arabic and Aramaic, dates back to the second millennium BCE, and has remained the Jewish liturgical language for over 2,500 years in diaspora, regardless of the foreign lands we’ve lived in. Our language is rooted not only in prayer, but in the actual land of Israel where our Jewish faith was built upon our ancestors ecological knowledge of the region.

In so many conversations around Jewish indigeneity, we fail to mention that at its root, Judaism is an earth-based practice that is grounded in strict laws created in Israel to govern agriculture, land-management, environmental stewardship, and food security. The three Jewish pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot are not just relics of our collective memories; for thousands of years, they have embodied and sustained the core of Jewish practice and ritual and have kept us deeply connected to the land of Israel and to each other. We would do well to acknowledge and learn how our Jewish ancestors observed these specific holidays as agricultural festivals that celebrated the harvests and natural elements of the land of ancient Israel.

As “wandering Jews” we’ve rightfully defined ourselves as a people in diaspora, dispersed from our original homeland and yearning for our ingathering back to our ancestral land. There is no better testament to this then the ancient Passover ritual of echoing the words, “next-year in Jerusalem.” This is not a construct of modern Zionism, but an embedded element of Jewish faith across race, ethnicity, and location.  It is our 2,500-year-old cry for freedom and self-determination.

Sadly, like many other uprooted indigenous communities, Jews have been forced to live as “others” in lands around the world. In the face of threats ranging from forcible assimilation to violent genocide, we have adapted our earth-based practices to the environments we live in. We should be proud of these innovations and of the resilience we’ve displayed over generations of efforts to see our people destroyed. But does this mean we should not try to reclaim what’s been lost and forgo our tie to Israel because our exile began before the 15th century? Do they really think that divorcing ourselves from Jewish peoplehood will help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?

What is most sad is that a Jewish publication seems intent on undermining Jewish self-determination (Zionism) while lifting up the rights of other indigenous groups in their quest for political self-determination. Because let’s be clear: the Jewish Currents piece was not, and scarcely claims to be, about affirming the rights of Palestinians. The piece was exclusively aimed at discrediting the claim that Jews are entitled to our right to self-determination. Whereas I proudly wrote that “Students will not be taught the lie that Jews are somehow foreign interlopers in our ancestral homeland,” the Jewish Currents yearns for a day when students are taught exactly this—that Jews in Israel are invaders, are outsiders, are foreigners, and ultimately, are expendable.

As Jewish Currents points out, indigeneity is about “naming power relationships in present-day conflicts.” If it is serious in this definition then it must look at the Arab-Israel conflict as a whole. Neither the status nor the history of Jews in the Middle East is reducible solely to a story of powerful Israelis and dispossessed Palestinians. Erasure or denigration (as “mythology” or as political opportunism) of the realities of Mizrahi history may make for catchy cartoon punchlines, but it betrays a fundamental disrespect for the full diversity of the global Jewish community. Our history, our rootedness to the land, and our indelible ties to Israel are neither mythology nor opportunism, and we will not stand silent when libeled as foreigners and invaders in the lands that nourished us.

For Jews, like most indigenous groups, the spiritual is political and also ecological, and we should not be afraid to lean into deep connections to the land of Israel. We can do so and uphold the dignity and rights of Palestinians and all other indigenous Middle Eastern peoples. As so many of us continue to support and identify with the decolonization of Israeli Jews, we should build relationships with other indigenous Middle Eastern communities and support them as they strive for land-rights, cultural survival, and self-determination. The lessons learned from our successes and failures as a dispersed indigenous group that has been successful in our quest for self-determination, can help the world find equitable solutions for oppressed indigenous peoples on every continent while simultaneously strengthening our collective ability to care for and protect our fragile planet.

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On the theatrics of inversion (Times of Israel – Dani Ishai Behan)

Nostalgia for vanishing Jews masks their ethnic cleansing

The exit of the Last Jew from Afghanistan, Zevulon Simentov , masks the larger, dark issue of the rejection of the ‘other’. Thousands of years of Jewish history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Dara Horn, author of People love dead Jews has written a heartfelt essay in The New York Times addressing the extinction of diversity, particularly in the Muslim world:

Dara Horn: feeling rage

These stories are used as comic relief, like a Mel Brooks skit injected into the relentless thrum of bad news. But when I read about the Last Jew of Afghanistan, a country where Jewish communities thrived for well over a thousand years, it occurred to me that there have been many “Last Jews” stories like this, in many, many places — and that the way we tell these stories is itself part of the problem.

Dozens of countries around the world have had their Last Jews. The Libyan city of Tripoli was, astonishingly, one-quarter Jewish in 1941; today the entire country is Jew-free. After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who banished the country’s lingering Jews during his reign, a lone Libyan Jew came back to Tripoli and took down a concrete wall sealing the city’s one remaining synagogue. But he was soon forced to flee, having been warned that an antisemitic mob was coming for his head.

Chrystie Sherman, a photographer for Diarna, an online museum of Jewish sites in the Islamic world, once told me how she tracked down the last Jewish business owner in Syria, a millenniums-old Jewish community that once numbered in the tens of thousands. In 2009, he took her to a magnificent 500-year-old synagogue. The structure didn’t survive Syria’s civil war. At another synagogue, she had to lie to government agents about why she was there; admitting that she was documenting Jewish history was too dangerous.

In my travels, I’ve also seen what happens in such places decades after the Last Jews have vanished. Often, thousands of years of history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Sometimes, something even creepier happens: People tell stories about Jews that make them feel better about themselves, patting themselves on the back for their current love for Jews long gone. The self-righteous memory-keeping is so much easier without insufferable living Jews getting in the way.

Places around the world now largely devoid of Jews have come to think fondly of the dead Jews who once shared their streets, and an entire industry has emerged to encourage tourism to these now historical sites. The locals in such places rarely minded when living Jews were either massacred or driven out.

But now they pine for the dead Jews, lovingly restoring their synagogues and cemeteries — sometimes while also pining for live Jewish tourists and their magic Jewish money. Egypt’s huge Jewish community predated Islam by at least six centuries; now that only a handful of Jews remain, the government has poured funding into restoring synagogues for tourists.

I have visited, and written about, many such “heritage sites” over the years, in countries ranging from Spain to China. Some are maintained by sincere and learned people, with deep research and profound courage. I wish that were the norm. More often, they are like Epcot pavilions, selling bagels and bobbleheads, sometimes hardly even mentioning why this synagogue is now a museum or a concert hall. Many Jewish travelers to such sites feel a discomfort they can barely name.

I’ve felt it too, every time. I’ve walked through places where Jews lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, people who share so many of the foundations of my own life — the language and books I cherish, the ideas that nourish me, the rhythms of my weeks and years — and I have felt the silence close in.

I don’t mean the dead Jews’ silence, but my own. I know how I am supposed to feel: solemn, calmly contemplative, and perhaps also grateful to whoever so kindly restored this synagogue or renamed this street. I stifle my disquiet, telling myself it is merely sorrow, burying it so deep that I no longer recognize what it really is: rage.

That rage is real, and we ignore it at our peril. It’s apparently in poor taste to point out why people like Mr. Simentov wind up as “Last Jews” to begin with: People decided they no longer wanted to live with those who weren’t exactly like themselves. Nostalgic stories about Last Jews mask a much larger and darker reality about societies that were once ethnic and religious mosaics, but are now home to almost no one but Arab Muslims, Lithuanian Catholics or Han Chinese. It costs little to wax nostalgic about departed Jews when one lives in a place where diversity, rather than being a living human challenge, is a fairy tale from the past. There is only one way to be.

What does it mean for a society to rid itself of other points of view? To reject those with different perspectives, different histories, different ways of being in the world? The example of Jewish history, of the many Last Jews in places around the globe, holds up a dark mirror to those of us living in much freer societies. The cynical use of bygone Jews to “inspire” us can verge on the absurd, but that absurdity isn’t so far-off from our own lip service to diversity, where those who differ from us are wonderful, so long as they see things our way.

On paper, American diversity is impressive. But in reality, we often live siloed lives. How do we really treat those who aren’t just like us? The disgust is palpable, as anyone knows who has tried being Jewish on TikTok. Are we up to the challenge of maintaining a society that actually respects others?

I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. The Last Jew of Afghanistan is gone, and everyone is glad to be rid of him.

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Yemen Jews’ plight evoked at Geneva conference

A recent conference on minority and women’s  rights and religious freedom invited Ellie Cohanim, former US deputy envoy to combat antisemitism, to speak on the plight of the Jews of Yemen. A community of 50,000 is now reduced to six people, including Levi Salem Marhabi, wrongfully imprisoned by the regime. Cohanim traced the anti-Jewish ideology of the dominant, Iranian-backed Houthis back to their founder, Hussein al-Houthi, who first chanted the official Houthi slogan’ Death to America, death to Israel and curse the Jews’ in a school hall in 2002. The Jerusalem Post reports: 

 

(From left) Human-rights activist Dr. Arwa al-Khattabi, head of the Yemeni Broken Chair Organization for Mine Victims, former U.S. Deputy Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Ellie Cohanim and Andy Vermaut, president of human rights NGO Post Versa speaking at the “Terrorism and Rights Violations of the Minorities in Yemen” conference in Geneva on 21 September 2021.

Speaking at the conference, former U.S. Deputy Envoy to Combat Antisemitism under the Trump administration, Ellie Cohanim, noted the deeply anti-Semitic, Nazi-like nature of the Houthis.

“We have to be very careful when making any comparisons with the Nazis,” she explained. “But incredibly enough, there is much video evidence which has surfaced online over the years with the Houthis mimicking the Nazis, and expressing anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric during their ceremonies, military recruitments and other large gatherings, including videos in which the Houthi militia performed the Nazi salute.’ ”

Underscoring the close ties between the Houthis and Iran, Cohanim noted that while Iran chants “Death to America, Death to Israel,” the Houthis’ official slogan goes one step further. “They chant ‘Death to America,’ ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Curse the Jews.’ ”

She said the Houthis’ founder—Hussein al-Houthi, for whom the group is named—took credit for coming up with the hateful slogan. “In a sermon at a school hall in January 2002, Hussein al-Houthi announced that he was the first to start a chant against America, Israel and Jews.”

Cohanim said “the Houthis have engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing of Yemen’s Jews. Even prior to the civil war in 2015, we saw the Houthis begin their campaign against the indigenous Jewish community with their 2007 expulsion of approximately 70 Jewish individuals who lived in the Houthi stronghold town of Sa’adah.

“Nearly all of the last Jews, 13 from three different families were driven out in March,” she continued. “There is now only a handful left of the once 50,000-strong community. Most of them were flown to the Jewish state during an Israeli operation in 1949 to 1950.”

One of the few still in the country, Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, has been imprisoned since 2016, jailed for allegedly helping a Yemeni Jewish family flee to Israel with a Torah scroll. The Yemenis were particularly aggrieved about the loss of the scroll, which despite their mistreatment of Jews, they consider a national treasure.

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The Houthis and the Jews by Ellie Cohanim (JNS News)

 

In religious tolerance, Morocco still falls short

During the year that Ian Pokres spent in Morocco, he discovered that matters were not as ‘nice’ for Jews as they are made out to be. Take the case of ‘Esther’, a fellow student, ostracised for her desire to convert to Judaism. Morocco remains a deeply Sunni Muslim country and religious tolerance is limited. Read Ian’s blog in the Times of Israel: 


  • The King of Morocco visiting a synagogue

So, not knowing the bounds of the law, I told her I would show her where the active synagogue in Fes was. This synagogue is seldom known by even native Fesis, as people born in Fes are called. If you mention “the synagogue,” they think you mean the abandoned ones in the old Jewish quarter near the palace, the mellah. The King is turning those into museums for the benefit of tourism. Torah scrolls sit unused and misquoted on endless tours by legal guides and shysters alike. 

What people often fondly dub the revivification of Jewish culture in Morocco is more accurately termed the mummification of something very much dead. At least in Fes, local Jews don’t want everyone knowing about their continued communal life. 

My first time at the community center was a Friday evening. The seeming lady-in-charge told me I was welcome any time, but I shouldn’t invite Moroccans. An elderly member of the community I had the opportunity to briefly interview through a translator told me it is not safe for him to wear a yarmulke outside. 

Even as a child, when Jews still populated the mellah, wearing a kippah was dangerous. Harassment was a given, and assault was likely, even if it wouldn’t cause great physical harm. I will say more about mellahs in a later post. 

To come back to Esther, I decided it was worth transgressing the matron’s graciousness to help this struggling young lady out whom I knew had put herself in harm’s way already for the Jewish people.
And I was right. I showed her the place, a tucked-away spot with a police guard that attracts many visiting Israelis every Shabbat, baruch Hashem. 

Two of the women there, including the one who had helped me feel at ease, directed her to the acting Rabbi of Fes, a descendant of one of the famous rabbinic dynasties of Fes – I won’t say which. Within days, she had arranged daily Hebrew lessons with him, and unabashedly brought her materials – Hebrew and siddur lessons on paper printouts – to the “garden” at our language institute, where students congregate to study and chat. 

Of course, she attracted attention. This was supposed to be an outpost of openness (I’m not naming names, but the institute accepts half its funds, and includes in its name a certain Western nation on which it models its teaching. Feel free to Google; I won’t lose any sleep over it.), but some things apparently push the limits too far. 

One of my closest Moroccan friends, an otherwise sweet and open Fesiya, told me Esther’s behavior was weird and unacceptable, and she shouldn’t be doing it. Mind you this friend had herself stopped wearing her hijab and told me she no longer called herself a Muslim. But again, limits. Some things are just not touched in Moroccan society…this was a universal theme I heard from my young friends and acquaintances there, no matter their place on the religio-political spectrum. Go and ask for yourself if you don’t believe me.

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Pope visits Iraq; but where are the Jews?

(With thanks: Edna, Sami and Gladys)

Update: This report in the Jerusalem Postalleges that the Iraqi government did not pass on the Vatican’s invitation for a Jewish delegation to attend the official Papal reception and thus missed an opportunity to highlight the Jewish contribution to Iraq, according to Edwin Shuker, who visits the country frequently.


Pope Francis has made an historic visit to Iraq to give support to the beleaguered Christians and other minorities. The Vatican announced that Jews were invited to a grand interfaith gathering at Ur, but did not attend. No-one bothered to find out why: there are now four identifying Jews in the entire country, the community having been decimated by violence and persecution.  It has fallen to an Iraqi Muslim blogger, Omar Mohammed, to ask the question ‘Where are the Jews?’ Report in the Algemeiner.


Pope Francis : praying for Christians

Omar Mohammed — an historian who was an essential chronicler of the occupation through his anonymous website “Mosul Eye” — told The Algemeiner that the visit would be a sign of encouragement to the handful of Christian families still living there.

 “The pope — the highest authority in the Catholic Church — will pray inside Mosul; not from Rome praying for them, he will be among them,” said Mohammed, in an interview Thursday.

But he also hoped that the papal visit would pressure the Iraqi government to do more to recognize and protect Iraq’s non-Muslim heritage — including its once-thriving Jewish community, which has been all but stamped out.

 “When I speak about the constitution of Iraq, there is almost no recognition of the non-Muslim societies,” he said, noting that the country’s laws are founded in Islamic practice. “This is completely against the meaning of diversity and inclusion. How could you possibly want the Yazidis and the Christians to accept to be living under a constitution that doesn’t recognize them?” 

 Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul has historically been home to populations of Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Circassians and other communities, in addition to the Sunni majority. After the Islamic State overtook the city in 2014, Mohammed was one of the few able to tell the world about the group’s atrocities, publishing work that was critical for journalists and international organizations. 

 The Jewish community in Iraq dates back over 2,500 years, and numbered over 150,000 in 1947. Anti-Jewish riots and persecution drove many to flee their homes after the establishment of Israel, with over 120,000 emigrating to the Jewish state in the early 1950s.
Mohammed, who now teaches as Sciences Po University in Paris, says he is working on raising awareness about the Jewish community in Mosul, including projects like the translation of an 1837 population registry that included the city’s Jews.

 He has called for the Iraqi government to do more to recognize their stories, including by amending the constitution and admitting that persecution had taken place. 

 “Can the Iraqi government discuss the confiscated properties of the Jews who were deported from Iraq?” he said. “Can we think about just telling them that we acknowledge that this happened to you? This could be a good step if the Iraqi government would say there was also a Holocaust against the Jews in Iraq, not only in Germany.” 

On Saturday, Pope Francis will pray at the ancient city of Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham and held as a shared symbol of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While recognizing the pontiff’s good intentions, Mohammed said that a visit was not enough.
“Where are the Jews? They are not here,” he told The Algemeiner. “You are speaking about diversity, but this is not complete, the picture is not complete.”

Without recognizing the Jewish history of Iraq, without recognizing the Jewish part of Iraq, without recognizing the Jewish contributions to Iraq from thousands of years ago until now … there will be no real diversity or inclusion at all. And this prayer will have no meaning at all,” Mohammed said. 

 Noting a recent bill in Iraq’s parliament that could criminalize activities related to Jewish culture for fear of stepping toward normalization with Israel, the scholar was not sanguine about the government soon heeding his calls for inclusion. 

 But he found hope during a recent online event he organized — one that brought Mosuli Jews in conversation with residents living in the city today.
“The people now are seeking more information about the Jewish population in Iraq and about their past in Iraq, especially in Mosul,” he said. “I believe the young generation is what makes me optimistic.” 

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The Canadian Press reports: 


Such interfaith forums are a staple of Francis’ international trips. But its sectarian breadth was startling in Iraq: From Shiite and Sunni Muslims to Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians and tiny, ancient and esoteric faiths like the Kakai, a sect among ethnic Kurds, Mandaeans and Sabaean Mandaeans.
The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend, without providing further details. Iraq’s ancient Jewish community was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful remain.

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Overview of the Pope’s visit:

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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

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