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Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Jews who are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi

 There is still much confusion about the difference between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Norman Berdichevsky provides some useful definitions in Heritage Florida Jewish News. (With thanks: Michelle)

Any serious student of Jewish history and tradition knows that the only authentic Sephardim are the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. They went on to settle in Western Europe including England, Holland, Denmark, North Western Germany, colonial America, the Caribbean and Brazil as well as in lands dominated by Islam, throughout North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans and across the Levant. There are thus many Sephardi Jews who have always lived in Europe and many Jewish communities around the world composed of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, who lived together and intermarried, notably in Italy, Egypt, Syria and Bulgaria, where later Ashkenazi immigrants arrived and were welcome by Sephardi residents. This has also been true in the Caribbean, South America and modern Israel.

 Kurdish Jews being airlifted to Israel

Just as America's Afro-American population has gone through several self-designations indicating a search for their authentic identity ranging from Black to Colored to Negro and then Afro-American and for some, back to Black (originally a term of disparagement used by whites), Israel's Jews of Afro-Asian origin have shifted from Sephardi to Mizrachi (Oriental). For religious purposes, "Sephardi" describes the nusach ("litugical tradition") used by most non-Ashkenazi Jews in the Siddur (prayer book).

In reality, there are also many Jews who are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. These include the Jews of Ethiopia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, the Caucasus region (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia), all of whom are recognized as being of Afro-Asian origin yet have nothing to do with the original Sephardim. They are the descendants of the Jews who fled into exile following the Assyrian, Babylonian and Roman conquests of ancient Israel. No doubt, they were later joined by numerous converts who were attracted to the high moral and ethical principles that distinguished Judaism in ancient times from pagan and polytheistic religions.

There is indeed a serious social and geo-cultural cleavage in Israel's diverse Jewish population groups, precisely because all the four divisions overlap to a considerable degree. Most of the Jews from Africa and Asia arrived in Israel after 1948 and being relative newcomers had to adjust to difficult conditions. Most of them arrived destitute and unlike many of the Ashkenazim never received any reparations for their confiscated property.

They still tend to have larger families and as a rule are much more religiously observant than the Ashkenazim who established the secular norms and institutions of the Zionist movement and later of the State of Israel. It is only human nature that the new arrivals from Asia and Africa resented the more established veteran European settlers and those new immigrants from Europe who immediately found more personal connections and sympathy with the veteran Ashkenazi settlers through a common knowledge of Yiddish and shared political and social backgrounds.

A list of new army recruits will probably reveal names like de Leon, Toledano, Castro, Franco, Mizrahi, Dayan, Gabbai, Abulafia, Kimhi, Shar'abi, Sassoon, Azulay, Kadouri, Marziano, Ohana, Aflalo and Hasson, as often or more than Schwartz, Goldberg, Wolf, Guttmann, Rabinowitz, Berdichevsky, Kaplan or Finkelstein. So how then can they then be one people? They are, because history, traditions and their faith (whether they are orthodox observant or secular) have instilled in them the idea of sharing a common peoplehood.

Read article in full

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

How 1967 caused a mass Jewish exodus

The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War is also a time to remember that other war - the war that Arab regimes waged against their Jewish citizens. This Tablet piece by Lucette Lagnado gives an overview, but may be criticised for downplaying the antisemitism that bedevilled these countries before 1967. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

The choir at Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, Alexandria
What wasn’t—what isn’t—forgivable, even looking back 50 years later, was how residents of those countries chose to vent their rage: By turning it against the Jews in their midst, most of who were studiously apolitical and had nothing to do with the war, its outbreak or its outcome.

Even in those countries that were, as some of us like to say, “nice to the Jews”—such as Tunisia, where fairly sizable Jewish communities were left in 1967—there were terrifying demonstrations and expressions of hatred and venom. Jews from Morocco left in exodus. In countries like Libya, murderous assaults took place that prompted an emergency evacuation of hundreds of Jews.
Egypt, where I was born and spent my early childhood, engaged in especially tawdry behavior. My family had left in 1963, following tens of thousands of other Jews out of the country. We did so reluctantly: My father didn’t want to go and it took pressure from my siblings to convince him. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of life outside of Egypt.

That was the case with a lot of Egyptian Jews. While they loved Israel too, they saw themselves as Egyptian. I can still hear Dad’s cries on the boat out of Alexandria harbor: “Ragaouna Masr”—Take Us Back to Cairo.

But our little boat kept chugging along.It wouldn’t turn back. It has taken me years to realize—sort of, as I still love Egypt passionately: Lucky us.
In 1967, there were an estimated 2,500-3,000 Jews still left between Cairo and Alexandria, down from a high of 80,000 in 1948.

On that week in ’67, the Egyptian government began rounding up Jewish men, to send to jails and prison camps. By accounts of the time, as many as 400 or 500 Jews were imprisoned.

While they gallantly left girls and women alone, authorities picked up Jewish men young and old. Even the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria was arrested. Enraged about their failure to defeat the Jewish state, the Egyptians turned their wrath on Jews whose crime, as far as I can tell, was that they were living in Egypt.
Nor did the aftermath of the war lead to the prisoners’ swift release. It is true some were in jail a mere couple of weeks until some foreign embassies helped get them out. But others lingered for months, even years, as Egypt released Jewish prisoners in painful dribs and drabs.

Albert Gabbai, rabbi of the venerable Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, was 18 and still in school in Cairo that June. He and his three older brothers and two sisters lived with their widowed mother. Their father, once a shirt-maker to King Farouk, had died years earlier and the brothers managed his clothing business along with their mom. Four other brothers had made it to America and the plan, he recalled, was to join them.

Rabbi Gabbai still remembers how the authorities first dragged his two older brothers to prison that week in June. Then some weeks later they came for him and another brother. They carried machine guns, yet were exquisitely polite, he recalls, inviting him to come with them as if they were going out for coffee. The four Gabbai brothers remained prisoners for three years, till June 1970.
There were other Jewish victims across the Middle East. While in Tunis researching a book on Jews of the Arab lands, I met with elderly Jews who vividly remembered that week in ’67, when a country that had treated them exceedingly well became simply unrecognizable.

They recalled how mobs took to the streets, targeting Jewish shops for destruction. They attacked the magnificent Grande Synagogue, whose enormous towering Jewish star was a testament to how tolerant Tunisian culture once had been.

The marauders turned their wrath on, of all places, the Kosher butcher shops on the Avenue de Paris, attacking them with odd ferocity and dragging carcasses of meat from the stores to the sidewalks. It was, I was told, a particularly gruesome sight.

Many Tunisian Jews left then and there, abandoning all they owned—homes, furniture, clothing. The expression I heard was “la clef dans la verouille“—they had left their key in the lock.

And Libya—yes, even Libya once had an important Jewish presence—was especially brutal to its Jews that week, who tried to barricade themselves in their homes to avoid the angry mobs.  “Jewish stores, homes, synagogues were burned and destroyed.  People were violated and killed,” and two families were murdered (except for one survivor who wasn’t there), said Vivienne Roumani, a Libyan Jew who made the 2007 film, The Last Jews of Libya. Later that month many of the Libyan Jews were evacuated to Italy.  It was no longer possible for them to remain safe in Libya.

And that is how a Jewish presence that dated back 2,500 years, effectively ended, says Roumani, a native of Benghazi who left Libya in 1962.

Perhaps that is why, whenever a supporter of the BDS movement targeting Israel insists they are “only” anti-Israel not anti-Jewish, I cast a cold eye, recalling how bogus that distinction turned out to be for Jews of Arab countries. It is as false now as it was 50 years back.

Read article in full

Our promise is to deliver for Scotland, not to divide

Last Thursday’s election was a turning point in Scottish politics.

Across Scotland the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party vote nearly doubled and, in our best result since 1983, a total of 13 constituencies – from the Borders to Banffshire – returned Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament.

I am enormously proud of the campaign we fought and each and every one of the MPs we returned will be local champions for their constituencies.

I want to thank the thousands of Scottish Conservatives activists who were the engine of our campaign and everyone in Scotland who put their faith in us – we will not let you down.

But Thursday’s election has a much greater significance. It was the day on which people across Scotland delivered their verdict on the SNP’s drive for another independence referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon said independence was ‘at the heart’ of the SNP’s campaign. And in ballot boxes the length and breadth of the country, Scotland said ‘No’ to another referendum.

It could not be any clearer. A majority of people in Scotland don’t want another referendum, they have spoken and it is time Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP finally accepted it.

Instead, we need to focus on the challenges we face on education, on NHS funding, on the new tax and welfare powers coming to Scotland – as well as the huge challenge of Brexit.

So that is the work that my new team of Scottish Conservative and Unionist MPs will be getting down to, and what my group of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament will be focusing on over the months to come.

Our promise is to deliver for Scotland, not to divide – and to show how the Union can work for all of us.

It’s time to put the divisions of the past behind us and work for a better future for everyone in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson
Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Coexistence in the Middle East one of the greatest lies

Seeing a newspaper clipping from the era of the Six Day War showing the dumping of rubbish and human waste next to the Western wall in recaptured Jerusalem prompted Seth Frantzman to reflect that there never was co-existence with Jews in most of the Middle East (or Europe). If they accepted second class status, minorities were allowed to exist, not co-exist.

 Prior to 1967 part of the western wall was used as a toilet by local Arab residents of Jerusalem's Old City. One wonders, since we hear from groups that the Wall is also an Islamic holy site called "al-Buraq" why would one build a toilet at it?

We always hear these stories about "coexistence" in Ottoman Palestine before the arrival of Zionists in the 19th century.

But what was this coexistence? Toilets next to holy sites, purposely placed there because the residents knew it was holy to someone else. Let's see, also slaughterhouses and other stench next to the Jewish quarter. Part of the "coexistence" of putting latrines and animal blood next to the religion you "coexist" with? 

After 1948 what was done with Jewish grave stones on the Mount of Olives under Jordanian administration? They were used to pave the walkways to toilets for soldiers. A continuation of the concept of literally crapping on the holy things of others.

The reality of "coexistence" in the Middle East is that there was no real coexistence in most places. There was second and third class status for minorities, whichever those minorities happened to be. If they accepted that status then they were allowed to "exist" not truly coexistence, except on rare occasions.

That means when you "coexist" with people you constantly harass them through dominance; you build religious buildings purposely next to the holy sites of others, or you dump trash and animal parts and human waste next to the houses of worship and holy sites of others.

Even today for instance in the village of Artas in the West Bank the residents just "happen" to dump trash at the entrance to a Catholic Monastery. Surely it's a coincidence.

There never was coexistence in most of the Middle East or Europe. It is one of the greatest lies. There was sometimes mutual existence; side by side, even times when minorities did well; but never was there truly any sense of equality and real respect and deference to others.

Today of course we can see the region suffering under even greater intolerance precisely because of the past low level symbolic intolerance.

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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Anger over 'Star of David' symbol on Labour poster

Corbyn supporters in Bristol erect banner showing Magen David earrings on Theresa May 'to highlight her relationship with Israel'

    The banner erected by Labour supporters in Bristol this week
    The banner erected by Labour supporters in Bristol this week (Picture by courtesy of The Bristol Post / Jennie Banks ) 

    A giant left-wing political banner in one of Britain’s biggest cities has been condemned as antisemitic for portraying Theresa May wearing Star of David earrings.

    The banner, which was hung at the Bearpit roundabout in Bristol, depicted Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May facing each other, with positive slogans endorsing Jeremy Corbyn and negative statements about Theresa May’s policies.

    As well as the earrings, the word “Balfour” was also written on the poster next to Theresa May. This November will mark the centenary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, which called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, as well as saying that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

    In April the UK government rejected calls by the Palestinian Authority to apologise for the declaration, with the Board of Deputies welcoming “the government’s strong, principled stance”.

    A Jewish resident of the city told the JC he was “incredibly sad and angry that the place both me and my partner, who is also Jewish, live is rife with such disgusting views.

    “It's even more worrying that the Bristol city council have given these views credence by allowing them to be shown in such public space such as The Bearpit, which is driven past by thousands of motorists a day”.

    He condemned the banner as antisemitic, saying “the Magen David [Star of David] earrings are clearly implying that the Jews/Israel have hegemony over our government, which is a century old antisemitic trope.”

    Nima Masterson, one of the organisers who put up the banner, told the Bristol Post that it was not meant to be antisemitic, saying that the earrings were “a tiny element of the whole banner.

    “What we are doing with that symbol – it’s an earring – is a reference to Theresa May’s Government’s relationship with Israel.

    “It is a critique of her foreign policy, rather than against religion.

    “I’m definitely not an antisemite”, Mr Masterson continued.

    “I have Jewish friends, and my half brother and sister are Jewish.

    “This is about foreign policy.”

    Bristol City council have announced that the banner will be removed, according to the Post

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Tale of a Jewish community torn between Israel and India

Over 150 Jews lived comfortably near this synagogue in the Kottayil Kovilakam area of Chendamangalam. Photo from
Over 150 Jews lived comfortably near this synagogue in the Kottayil Kovilakam area of Chendamangalam. Photo from

Tale of a Jewish community torn between Israel and India

Novelist Sethu mixes fact, fiction, myth and legend to create a compelling narrative about a community unsure of whether to uproot itself

For centuries, Jews lived peacefully alongside people of all faiths in southern India’s Kerala. Then came the call of the Promised Land. Hundreds of Jews sold all their assets and began migrating to Israel in the mid-1950s.
Novelist Sethu’s Aliyah: The Last Jew in the Village, admirably translated into English from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma, tells the story of this migration through the complex and textured relationships between Jews and gentiles alike in Chendamangalam village.

“Aliyah is close to my heart since I have a first-hand experience of this migration as a youngster,” Sethu said in an interview. “When our intimate friends in the school departed, there were emotional scenes in the village as we were sure we were not going to see them again.”

But, over the years, many made sporadic visits back to their ancestral village as tourists, and Sethu said he cherished the chance to rekindle the association whenever he got an opportunity to meet them.

“Do you regret the decision to leave the land?,” he would ask them.

Their reply: “No, never! But we do want to visit the land of our birth occasionally with our kin, since this is our motherland and Israel is our fatherland.”

One migrant, Eliahu Bezallel, 84, even bought a plot where his ancestral home stood and built a new house there.

“It is for my next generation… This is the soil under which our forefathers sleep,” he said.

Aliyah is close to my heart since I have a first-hand experience of this migration as a youngster

Aliyah opens with a dream of a ship surrounded by sea crows that disturbs the young and sensitive protagonist Salamon.

The dream may be the creation of his agitated mind, still undecided about the journey to the Holy Land and worried over what awaits Jewish families from his village there. But his 70-year-old grandmother Eshumma sees it as a divine sign pointing to the unseen world they are set to enter.

The novel draws on the conflicting emotions of Salamon and especially his attachment to his mother Rebecca, his grandmother, aunt Esther, and Elsie.

Salaman is especially anguished over the thought of leaving Elsie, his childhood friend. Nor can he bear the thought of leaving people like the book binder Daveed Chettan, an elderly Jew on whom his grandmother had a crush in her teens; Varuthutty, the master who changed his name from Solomon to Salamon; comrade Pavithran, who spoke to him about class struggle; and his classmate Ramanandan, who wants to settle in Israel despite being a Hindu.

Other questions disturb Daveed Chettan too. Isn’t there a world outside of being Jewish? Is “Aliyah” – the migration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel – truly a “return”? In a telling detail, when Eshumma is preparing to leave for Israel, she takes some soil from the ancestral village to be placed on her eyes when she dies.

Some of the family are destined to never make the journey. Salamon’s mother, Rebecca, a progressive and educated woman from the sophisticated city of Kochi who rides a Hercules bicycle, easily makes friends with the villagers after her marriage to Eshumma’s middle son Evron. Salamon inherits this personable trait from his mother, despite being a taciturn dreamer.

The book’s Malayalam cover

Eshumma regards Rebecca as if she were her own daughter. When Rebecca sacrifices her life to save the chronically ill Salamon, Eshumma becomes his proxy mother. Having struggled to raise her own sons – Menahem, Evron and Elias – after the death of her husband, she spoils Salamon with her love.

It is only when his chronic indecision and inability to commit leads Elsie to attempt suicide, tainting the family, that his grandmother gets angry with him. Elsie loses hope in Salamon because of his indecisiveness and lack of courage to declare his love for her. When she leaves hospital after her suicide attempt, she asks Salamon’s closest friend Ouso to tell him to leave the village if he wants to make his name as an artist. This shows her true love for him.

Aliyah’s emotional currents are further whipped up when the vivacious, passionate and beautiful Esther, married to Salamon’s uncle Menahem, is shocked to find her husband is no longer the man she fell for in Mumbai. His transformation from a lover of art to someone obsessed with religion bewilders her. Ailing, lovelorn and childless, Esther seduces Salamon only in order to get even with her husband and relieve her frustration.

Torn by guilt and a storm of conflicting emotions, will Salamon join his family’s exodus to Israel? Therein lies the tale.

As Sethu puts itAliyah is a healthy mix of fact, fiction, myth and legend woven into a compelling narrative.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Refugee issue could swing support for a peace deal

Friday, June 02, 2017

Refugee issue could swing support for a peace deal

The question of compensation for Jews from Arab countries could be decisive in securing an Israeli majority in favour of a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Dr Stan Urman: refugee issue would 'tip the scales'
According to a poll conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, a startling 40 percent of those who opposed the parameters of a peace deal would switch to supporting it if the issue of Jews from Arab countries were on the table. 

The poll surveyed close to 2,500 Palestinians and Israelis on the parameters of a final-status peace agreement. It presented a “permanent agreement package” based on mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine; establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state within 1967 borders, annexing a number of settlement blocs to Israel in exchange for land swaps, and turning West Jerusalem into Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem into the capital of Palestine. Palestinian refugees will have the right to return to the Palestinian state; 100,000 of them will return to Israel as part of a family unification program, while the rest will be monetarily compensated. This was the "plan" presented during the interviews: 
Forty-eight percent of Israelis (41 percent of Jews and 88 percent of Arab citizens) and 42 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories said they support this outline.

The poll also included “incentives” to understand what influences the views of both sides on a potential agreement. One was: And if the Jews who left their homes and property in the Arab countries when they had to leave following the 1948 War and the establishment of the state of Israel will be compensated for the lost assets left behind? If 40 percent of Jewish Israelis who opposed the agreement were willing to change their minds if the agreement also includes compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, this incentive would 'tip the scales'.
Stan Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, calls the finding 'astonishing.' He points out that it that more Israelis chose this incentive than any other, more than 'Israel being recognized as a Jewish state' and even 'access to Jerusalem's Jewish holy sites.' 

 "Without this clause, " says Dr Urman, " there is no majority in favour; with it, a strong majority of Israelis would support the peace agreement."

As the poll was funded by the EU, Dr Urman is confident that JJAC could now approach European countries and show them their own statistics which reveal that rights for Jewish refugees from Arab countries are central to acceptance of any peace agreement by Israel and Israelis.