Sunday, November 14, 2010



To:  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO)
H.E. Mrs. Eleonora Valentinovna Mitrofanova, Chairperson of the Executive Board of UNESCO
Ms. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO
Mr. Davidson L. Hepburn (Bahamas), President of the General Conference
Bureau of the World Heritage Committee
Chairperson: H.E. Mrs. Mai Bint Muhammad Al Khalifa (Bahrain)
Rapporteur: Mr. Ould Sidi Ali (Mali)
Vice-Chairpersons: Mr. Tyronne Brathwaite(Barbados,H.E.Mr. NarangNout(Cambodia),H.E.Mr. Margus Rava(Estonia),H.E.Ms.Dolana Msimang(South Africa),H. E. Mr. Rodolphe Imhoof (Switzerland)

We the undersigned protest The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) ruling that Israel has no right to add the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where almost all of Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, to the National Heritage list. The Tomb of the Patriarchs, the oldest Jewish shrine and the second holiest site in Judaism, centers around the Cave of Machpelah, an ancient double cave revered for almost 4,000 years as the burial site of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives. The connection of the Jewish people to the Cave of Machpelah was established some 3,800 years ago, when Abraham, the first Hebrew, purchased it for the express purpose of using it as a burial site for himself, his wife Sarah, and their future generations. It is the cradle of Jewish history and the focal point of Jewish identity. The rectangular enclosure over the caves is the only fully surviving Herodian structure. Thus the Tomb of the Patriarchs is of inestimable historical value as well as great sacred significance for the Jewish people.

We also protest the decision by UNESCO to re-label as an Islamic mosque the tomb of Rachel, Israel’s other matriarch, and to demand that Israel remove the site from its National Heritage list. The Tomb of Rachel, Judaism's third-holiest site, has been the scene of prayer and pilgrimage for more than three thousand years, and has an especially meaningful connection for Jewish women. Rachel, the matriarch who died in childbirth and was buried at that spot on the road to Hebron, has been a comfort and hope to Jews since biblical days. “Thus says the Lord, 'Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded…and they shall return from the enemy's land and there is hope for the future'… 'Your children shall return to their own country.” Jeremiah 31:16-17. Until 2000, the Palestinians recognized the site as Rachel’s Tomb. It was called “Rachel’s Tomb” in Al-mawsu'ah al-filastiniyah, the Palestinian encyclopedia published after 1996 and in PALESTINE, THE HOLY LAND, a Palestinian publication, with an introduction by Yasser Arafat. However, during the second intifada, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, a Palestinian daily, announced a new-found historical connection to Rachel’s Tomb, declaring that is was "originally a Muslim mosque.”

In an effort to erase Jewish history and supersede Jewish religious sites with Islamic institutions, Muslims have intentionally built mosques upon numerous synagogues and Jewish holy sites. The clearest examples are the Al-Aqsa mosque which sits on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and the Dome of the Rock, which was built on Judaism’s holiest site of the two biblical Jewish Temples. This pattern repeats itself at the second and third holiest sites. Thus at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, there are domes over the tombs of Abraham and Sarah and a mosque over the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca. Photos from the early 1900's show no Muslim cemetery near the Tomb or Rachel. After 1948 Muslims built their own cemetery surrounding three sides of Rachel’s tomb and now claim that Rachel's Tomb is one of their burial plots and that it contains a Muslim rather than Jewish notable.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office decried the ludicrous nature of the UNESCO decision:
“The attempt to detach the Nation of Israel from its heritage is absurd. If the nearly 4,000-year-old burial sites of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish Nation – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah –are not part of its culture and tradition, then what is a national cultural site?”
“Sites such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb (which sits on the edge of Bethlehem) present an inconvenient truth for the pro-Palestine movement and its supporters, who want to claim that the Jews have no historic ties to this land.”

In cooperating with efforts to erase Jewish historical ties to Israel, UNESCO is aiding and abetting those who hope to and obfuscate Israel’s Jewish past and undermine Israel’s Jewish future.

The UNESCO mission states: “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”

We demand that there be no exception to UNESCO’s mission when it comes to Jewish heritage. Israel’s Jewish legacy must be recognized and preserved and not swept away to conform with the pro-Palestinian narrative. In attempting to sever the Jewish cultural, religious and natural heritage bond with the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, UNESCO denies the history it is mandated to preserve, engages in a political maneuver designed to weaken a member UN nation, and undermines its own principles. It aims to rob the Jewish people not only of two sacred sites, which are irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration, but also of their past and a legacy to pass on to future generations. We demand that UNESCO, whose purpose it is to protect heritage, also protect Jewish heritage, rather than deny it.

The Undersigned

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Sunday, September 19, 2010


Sat 18 Sep 2010
Yom Kippur service
Congregation Adat Reyim
Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi

 -The Neilah is the concluding service on Yom Kippur. It was not always part of the liturgy.  It was introduced in Talmudic times (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 45a).
-Some 2000 years ago a certain Rabbi Levi said: God said in Isaiah 1:15:

Even if you pray profusely I will not answer, [because] your hands are full of blood.
úÇøÀáÌåÌ úÀôÄìÌÈä àÅéðÆðÌÄé ùÑÉîÅòÇ éÀãÅéëÆí ãÌÈîÄéí îÈìÅàåÌ âÌÇí ëÌÄé
-He concluded that if your hands are not full of blood AND you pray profusely you WILL be answered!  It’s a promise.  He turned the negative-sounding biblical verse into something positive.  So the Sages added Neilah to increase the chance that our prayers will be answered on Yom Kippur.

-50 years ago this minute, I was standing in Shaar HaShamayim synagogue in downtown Cairo, Egypt, where I grew up.  The people were tired, sleepy, hungry.  The prayers were down to a low monotone.  They did not want to hear about the origin of the Neilah service.  They wanted the Neilah itself.  Then came the Neilah song.  The transformation was something to behold.  All of a sudden, everybody woke up and started singing at the top of their voices, with great enthusiasm, with abandon and a feeling of liberation!

-What they sang was "El nora 3alilah", by Moses Ibn Ezra.  It’s on page 775b of the Enhanced Edition of the machzor.  If you don’t have that, it’s in the High Holy Day Supplement.  If you don’t have either, your response is to sing, every two verses:
El nora 3alilah, el nora 3alilah
Hamtsi lanu mechillah, besha3at hanne3ilah
which means:
God of Awe, God of Awe,
Grant us pardon at this hour when the gates are closing.
The first letters of the verses form an acrostic, "Moshe Hazzak".


El nora 3alilah

El nora 3alilah, el nora 3alilah
Hamtsi lanu mechillah, besha3at   hanne3ilah

M'tei mispar kru-im, lecha  3ayin  nose-im
Umsaldim bechillah, besha3at  hanne3ilah

Shofchim lecha nafsham, m'cheh  fish-3am  v'kha-chasham
Hamtsi em mechillah,  besha3at  hanne3ilah

Heye lahem lesitra, v'chal-tsem   mim-era
Vechat-mem  lehod ulgillah, besha3at  hanne3ilah

Chon otam verachem, vechol  lochets  v’lochem
3asseh vahem  p'lillah, besha3at  hanne3ilah

Zechot  tsidkat  avihem, v'chadesh  et  yemehem
Kekedem ut-chillah, besha3at  hanne3ilah

Kra na shanat ratson, vehashev sh'erit hatson
L'ahaliva  v'ahalah, besha3at  hanne3ilah

Tizku  l'shanim rabbot, habbanim  veha-avot
Beditsa  uv-tsahala, besha3at  hanne3ilah

Michael sar Yisrael, Eliyahu v'Gavriel
Basru  na  ha-geula, besha3at  hanne3ilah

The Sephardic greeting for the season is not “L’shanah tovah” but a line from the song we just sang:

Tizku l’shanim rabbot
May you merit many years

The response is:
Tizkeh v’tichyeh
May you merit and live

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rabbi Ovadia to Mubarak: Get well fast, your highness

Shas' spiritual leader send letter to Egyptian president, wishes him 'full, speedy recovery'
Ronen Medzini

Photo: Ata AwisatRabbi Ovadia Yosef has written a letter to President Hosni Mubarak, in which he wished him health, following the Egyptian president's recent medical treatment in Germany and reports about his deteriorating health. "We pray to the creator of the universe to send you full and speedy recovery," he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hand the letter to Mubarak on behalf of Ovadia, during the leaders' scheduled meeting on Wednesday.

Good Connections?
Head of Egypt's Jewish community faces jail time /Smadar Peri
Carmen Weinstein convicted of defrauding local businessman, sentenced to three years in prison. Israel not intervening due to Jewish community's 'sensitive position'
Full story

"For your highness, President of Egypt Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, may his glory be exalted," wrote Shas' spiritual leader.

Photo: Reuters"May you continue to lead you countrymen in majesty, courage and strength, for a lifetime and in peace; may you succeed in all your doings, according to your heart's desire," the letter read.

Rabbi Ovadia signed the letter with a warm greeting, "Respectfully yours, in the greatness of your virtue."

The rabbi and Shas Chairman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, have kept in close touch with Mubarak for many years. Only recently, journalist Yotam Feldman, who was arrested in Egypt, was released from custody with the help of Yishai's mediation.

Arab media has been reporting about Mubarak's deteriorating health condition for many years, and recent reports have rekindled the debate over who will inherit the presidency, with his son, Gammal, leading the race.

However, President Mubarak never confirmed such reports and is due to complete his fifth year of his sixth tenure as president. He has yet to announce whether he will compete in the upcoming elections slated for 2011.

Speculations over Mubarak's health have increased in recent months following his March trip to Germany, where he underwent an operation to remove a gull bladder. Doubts about his medical situation surfaced again last week after Mubarak made a sudden visit to Paris and met with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Daily Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi reported that the Egyptian president conducted medical check ups while visiting the European country.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Israel Asks Cairo To Protect Remaining Jews In Egypt

July 11, 2010

Cairo – The Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Yitzhak Levanon, has asked the Egyptian government to protect Jews in Egypt, following the conviction of the head of the Jewish community in Cairo on charges of fraud, media reports said Sunday.
Carmen Weinstein was sentenced on Saturday to three years in jail after being convicted of defrauding an Egyptian businessman of three million Egyptian pounds (around 520,000 dollars).

She had sold him a building which did not belong to her and then refused to return his money, the court said.
Al-Jareeda newspaper reported that Levanon sent a note protesting the sentence to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, accusing the judiciary of “oppression and cruelty” and saying it reflected a bias against Weinstein because of her religion.
There are less than 100 Egyptian Jews in the country. They are the remaining members of what was once the most vibrant community in the region, after the mass expulsion of Egyptian Jews in the 1950s.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Lonely Levantine Shabbat

In Cairo, the once-crowded Shar Hashamaim is restored, but there are almost no Jews left to pray in it.

Special to the Jewish Week
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

david cowles, Ark at Ben Ezra, Cairo,1994.

I make it a point to go to shul on Saturday morning, and that wasn’t going to change when I found myself in Cairo last summer. Yes, it is in an Arab country, but it is my Arab country, where I was born and where of late I have found myself traveling again and again. There is no one there for me — the 80,000 Jews who once lived in Egypt are pretty much gone, as are all my relatives. Cairo, to paraphrase Janet Flanner, was yesterday.
While at a festive gathering at the home of the United States ambassador, I asked if there were services I could attend that coming Saturday. Everyone shrugged, but then the head of Egypt’s virtually nonexistent Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, spoke up to say there was certainly a place where I could pray, and I thought I detected a certain edge in her voice.
I could go, she informed me, to the magnificent central synagogue, Shar Hashamaim — The Gates of Heaven. My parents were married there back in World War II, and I have always had a romantic attachment to it. When I’d first returned to Egypt in 2005, I saw little beauty in the careworn massive stone building. Like most of the synagogues in Cairo, it looked like the house in the Addams Family: dark, frayed, forbidding.
But since that time, Weinstein had overseen a major renovation, encouraged and embraced by the American Jewish Committee, to restore the temple to its former splendor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were apparently spent by the Egyptian government to fix it up, and there’d been a formal ceremony marking its reopening. The Gates of Heaven has no rabbi and no regular minyan, but come certain holidays, the handful of Jews who remained in Cairo, many quite elderly, venture out and reunite in the sanctuary.
One Saturday morning last June, my husband and I made our way to downtown Cairo, the hub of what had once been an intensely glamorous city; the synagogue had been situated steps from delightful patisseries, fashionable department stores, cinemas and boutiques. But, of course, that was when Jews and a multitude of Europeans — French, Swiss, Italians, British and Belgians — made Cairo one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Since these “foreigners” were thrown out or forced out, Cairo had become hopelessly provincial. The elegant stores gave way to cheap emporiums. And the Gates of Heaven was essentially abandoned — there were no Jews left to pray. 
I spotted a small, armed militia outside the temple’s doors. They looked suspiciously at us, but I was ready for that: Egypt likes to post armed guards outside all its Jewish sites no matter how dusty. Gotta give them credit. How many other Muslim countries protect their Jewish sites with such diligence? Once we showed our passports, we were free to enter.
The synagogue was poorly illuminated, but it was clear much work had been done to restore it to its original splendor. The marble steps leading to the Holy Ark were gleaming. And the wooden pews that once accommodated hundreds of worshippers had some of their original luster. On the bima, I saw an open Torah scroll. 
There were all the elements of a great synagogue except one: people.
I went up on the bima and put my hand on the scroll. Then, I climbed the marble stairs and kissed the velvet curtain that covered the Holy Ark. I looked around me, unsure what to do next. 
I felt excruciatingly lonely. Though I have prayed the Sabbath morning prayers a thousand times, I didn’t feel I could recite them anymore, not without the soothing voice of a rabbi or a cantor or fellow worshippers. It all seemed heartbreakingly pointless.
The Gates of Heaven had once accommodated several hundred worshippers, and its women’s section upstairs alone had scores of seats. I had been told the strict separation between men and women only encouraged romance; young men would stealthily look up as pretty girls dressed in their loveliest clothes would preen as close to the balcony as possible, to make sure they were noticed by their intended. There were flirtations and matches and fateful encounters, every Shabbat.
I grabbed a prayer book and flipped to the page of the Amidah, the silent devotional, and prayed quietly. Then, after taking one last walk around the empty sanctuary, I picked up my passport from the guard in the booth, took my husband by the hand, and left. 
I could think of nothing more to do on this lonely Levantine Sabbath. 
      *     *    *     * 
In the last couple of months, we’ve heard that Egypt is repairing more synagogues; indeed, that they expended funds to restore the most venerable temple of all, Rav Moshe, in the Old Jewish Quarter, where Maimonides was said to have studied and prayed some 800 years earlier. Egyptian Jews, myself included, regularly went to Rav Moshe when they were sick, hoping to be healed. I traveled to Cairo again last month to visit Rav Moshe and was impressed by the meticulous restoration. The Egyptians have also begun work on a broken-down Karaite shul and vowed to renovate some other once-grand institutions.
It all has seemed pretty wonderful to me — an Arab country faithfully restoring its Jewish institutions? It was as if my most fervent wish was coming true. Or was it? Is fixing up the empty, abandoned Jewish properties in countries devoid of Jews really worthwhile?
Looking back at my less-than-transcendent experience at Shar Hashamaim, I wonder if what I did had any meaning. Perhaps I could have communed with God nearly as well by staying in my room at the Marriott and davening there. It would have been more cheerful.
In Philadelphia, Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel, who was born in Egypt and even sang in the choir of Gates of Heaven as a child, echoed the view that repairing it and other synagogues is essential — if only to remind the world, he says, that once upon a time Jews were there and in substantial numbers.
Since he left Egypt decades ago — after spending some years in prison camp, which is what happened to Jewish men who lingered — Rabbi Gabbai has had no desire whatsoever to go back, except to his synagogue, except to Gates of Heaven. He embraced my decision to pray there. “It means that you are reclaiming the place for Jews — for you as a Jew, and for all the Jews — [saying that] it belongs to them.”
Not everyone would agree. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center casts a tepid eye on efforts to refurbish synagogues in places where there are no Jews; from Poland to Egypt, he wonders what is the point other than to attract tourist dollars. 
“Is it better for a synagogue to be rehabilitated instead of being torn down or made into a mosque? Halachically, yes. But what is sadder than seeing an empty synagogue?”
Rabbi Elie Abadie, who presides over the Edmond J. Safra congregation in New York, staunchly argues in favor of restoring these lost synagogues. As a native of Lebanon, he has suffered the heartbreak of watching grand houses of worship destroyed or converted or sold or abandoned — as most were in and around Beirut. He passionately believes that the governments that drove out their Jews “have the financial and ethical responsibility to restore the synagogues.” 
As for my woebegone feeling on that Cairo Sabbath, he says, “If a person is praying in a synagogue — albeit empty — those prayers are at a higher level and more meaningful because the synagogue maintains its sanctity. Even if there is no minyan [quorum of 10 men] the prayers are at a higher level,” Rabbi Abadie contends. God, he says, was of course there in the original Great Temple, and then in the Second Temple. “Once the Temple was destroyed, its sanctity was transferred to all synagogues all over the world,” he said. When a synagogue is built, he said, “it is believed that God enters it and remains there,” till eternity. 
I found comfort in hearing that while I may have felt desperately alone that Sabbath morning, God was indeed there beside me in that great cavernous space in Cairo. 

Monday, April 12, 2010


Celebrating 30 Years of activity of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association

and 31 Years of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty – signed on 26.3.1979


Levana Zamir, President of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, with Minister Silvan Shalom (right), Vice-Prime-Minister, and H.E. Barakat Ellessi, Egyptian Embassy Israel.
Tel-Aviv, March 12th 2010.

The Gala Event was held at the Einav Center in Tel-Aviv by the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, in cooperation with the Egyptian Embassy in Israel, the Menahem Begin Heritage Center and the Municipality of Tel-Aviv.
Attending this successful and joyful event were some 350 participants, representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassadors and delegates of 28 foreign countries in Israel, the Academy, and many Jews from Egypt who enjoyed gathering at this much elegant festivity.

Attending this successful and joyful event were some 350 participants, representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassadors and delegates of 28 foreign countries in Israel, the Academy, and many Jews from Egypt who enjoyed gathering at this much elegant festivity.

Levana Zamir, with 3 former Ambassadors of Israel to Egypt: Prof. Shimon Shamir (right), Shalom Cohen and Zvi Mazel. 30 years of activities in a 16-minute movie:

The highlight of this event was a dynamic movie of 16 minutes, presenting the many and important events and achievements of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association during 30 years of activities in Israel and Egypt, ebbing and flowing to the historical
waves of "cold or warm peace".
After this successful event, we received many emails
of appreciation. Here is one received
from Andrew C.Parker, Consul General of the
United States of America Embassy:

Dear Mrs. Zamir,
Thank you for making it possible for us to attend your event today. It was an honor to
participate in an event marking such an important milestone in the history of both Israel and Egypt.

Andrew C. Parker
Consul General
U.S. Embassy Tel-Aviv.

The guests of honor presented their speeches during the event, very shortly.
Here below some "pearls" from those speeches:

Herzl Makov, Director General of the Menahem Begin Heritage Center
The Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt is the second most important historical event after the proclamation of the State of Israel and the Liberation of Jerusalem.
Sadat and Begin ‘s achievement should be remembered and learned from.

H.E. the Ambassador of Egypt
Since the signing of Peace between Israel and Egypt, our relations are developing steadily and constantly. This is the logical result of the Sadat and Begin initiative. President Mubarak is always calling for peace in the region, which suffered so much. As we celebrate Peace today, so let us work to create the proper environment for peace.

Nathan Wallach – Tel-Aviv Municipality
The normalization process is long and difficult, with many obstacles. But both sides know that Peace between our two countries is of strategic importance. Commercial ties are forming and there is no doubt that the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association is playing an important role in fostering closer relations for a dialogue between the two countries.

Silvan Shalom, Vice Prime Minister
Egypt being the major power and the leader of the entire Arab world, it was very important that the first Peace Treaty was signed with Egypt. By so doing Egypt said to the whole Arab world that Israel is here, and Israel is here for ever.
We should learn from 1977 that direct negotiations work and avoid time-wasting.

Professor Shimon Shamir – Tel-Aviv University and former Ambassador of Israel to Egypt:
I believe that Israel-Egypt peace is a remarkable success story, achieving what the architects of peace had in mind: no more war, no more bloodshed.
Today, there is a convergence of interests between Israel and Egypt: both of them want stability in the region, both of them are threatened by extremists and terrorism, both of them are worried by the ambitions of a neighboring regime which aims is to destabilize them.
These shared interests are the solid foundation of our relations, serving the purposes of both countries. People like Levana Zamir and her colleagues at the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association are playing a very important role in developing those shared interests, through friendship between the two societies, leading to peace in the region.

Levana Zamir – President of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association
After more than 30 years of Peace with Egypt, we should be looking ahead. As early as in 1939, our first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion advocated a Middle-Eastern Confederation including a Jewish State. In the third millennium, when Europe, rising from the ashes of WWI and WWII, is merging into one entity, Ben-Gurion’s dream is not a delusion. The multicultural and cosmopolitan Jews of Egypt could be a bridge to achieving this aim.============

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Assertion of Egyptian Jewish Identity;query=historical%20society%20of%20jews%20from%20egypt#1

People who began their political lives as Marxists probably never imagined they would be involved in a struggle to preserve the remnants of the Jewish cemetery at Basatin, a suburb of Cairo on the road to Ma‘adi, a project with religious overtones and no apparent “practical” value. But the ASPCJE contributed hundreds of thousands of francs to finance the efforts of Carmen Weinstein, one of the few remaining active Jews living in Cairo in the 1990s, to construct a wall around the cemetery and engage a guard to protect it from squatters.[28] I met Carmen Weinstein in Jacques Hassoun's home in Paris in 1994. Though both are secular Jews with little attachment to orthodox religious observance, they were united by a fierce determination to preserve the cemetery as material evidence that a Jewish community had lived and flourished in Egypt.

Egyptian Jews in the United States also began to organize themselves in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I discussed the organization of the Karaite Jews of America in San Francisco in Chapter 7. A Rabbanite Egyptian Jewish community settled in Brooklyn, New York, following the 1956 Suez/Sinai War. Some of its members, especially those of families who came to Egypt from Aleppo in the nineteenth century, assimilated to the larger and previously established Syrian Jewish immigrant community. In the late 1970s, Egyptian Jews in Brooklyn established the Ahaba ve-Ahva synagogue, which practiced the Egyptian liturgical tradition.

In October 1995, a group of Egyptian Jews gathered at the Ahaba ve-Ahva synagogue to initiate the formation of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt. Their objective was to record and preserve their cultural heritage, the same purpose that motivated the formation of the French ASPCJE. Among the leading activists in this initiative with some previous public exposure were Victor Sanua, a research psychologist who has gone beyond the boundaries of his field to publish historical articles about Egyptian Jews, and Mary Halawani, an independent film maker whose short documentary, I Miss the Sun, records her grandmother's fond memories of Egypt.[29] The society began publishing a newsletter, Second Exodus, and organized a series of lectures in private homes. This form of ethnic organizing has been quite common and acceptable in the United States, so it is remarkable that it has begun so recently. The leading individuals had been in contact with Jacques Hassoun and the ASPCJE and were obviously inspired by that example; but the New York group was organized several years after the demise of the French association, and its leading members did not share the same political commitments.

These associations have had modest and limited success as institutions; a certain kind of failure is inherent in the nature of such activity. The Jewish community of Egypt is nearly extinct, and there is little prospect for its revival in the foreseeable future. Those who remember their lives in Egypt are gradually passing away. Most of their children, even those who maintain some level of curiosity and engagement with their parents' heritage, have become assimilated to the dominant cultures of Israel, France, and the United States.

Therefore, examining the revival of Egyptian Jewish identity associated with these institutions cannot be an effort to map out a coherent cultural or political alternative. Rather, it is an excursion into memories and current sensibilities that have not found adequate space for expression in the brave new world of national states in which Egyptian Jews have found themselves after their dispersion. I have argued that the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement altered the insistently negative images associated with Egypt sufficiently to allow Egyptian Jews to begin the process of recalling and reconstructing their past and representing it to themselves, their children, and the public. In the remainder of this chapter, I elaborate this argument, focusing on the post-1977 literary production of Egyptian Jews living in Israel.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


“We left. And we lost everything. We lost the business, the manufacturing shop, a very beautiful villa with a garden full of orange blossoms and lemon blossoms that I can still remember. But I did take with me a Star of David. It was made by my grandfather. Luckily I was able to get it out. And luckily, the Egyptian authority didn’t search me, because if they had, they would have pulled it from my neck.”

So recounts Joseph Abdul Wahed, a resigned, saddened old man and former refugee from Egypt. His story is one of many told in The Forgotten Refugees, and among the hundreds of thousands of stories of loss and displacement, of uncertainty and pain that nearly one million Jews were subjected to after 1948. But in spite of the huge number of people involved, these stories are rarely told.

Discrimination in Arab Lands

I attended the award-winning David Project documentary aired by the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, expecting to learn about a subject I knew nothing about. But I walked out changed. Changed by the raw emotion of the film’s participants—the breaks in their voices, the wrinkles cutting grooves in their faces, the soft, quiet strength emanating from each and every one of them. Coming on the heels of Yom Hashoah, it was shocking to learn that Hitlerian discrimination was rampant long before the Holocaust began; that before concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau were ever built, Jews were being interred in huts, driven from their homes, stripped of their assets and forced to start a new life with not even their personal identity intact.

Every year, we commemorate the six million Jews, 1.5 million of who were children, murdered in Nazi Germany—as we should. But not until recently have the stories of the Jewish Refugees from Arab countries garnered much attention. They are all but forgotten, and, when word of this documentary circulated, many of them came forward of their own volition, grateful that an organization was finally going to act on their behalf.

That organization was The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, a non-profit group dedicated to educating and inspiring strong voices for Israel. The association teamed up with Ralph Avi Goldwasser and Israeli director Michael Grynzspan of IsraTV to produce this invaluable film, The Forgotten Refugees. Spurred by the anti-Israel sentiment permeating college campuses, they worked to shed light on an oft-neglected chapter of our nation’s history.

“In talking to students,” said Goldwasser, “I realized that most Americans, including Jewish Americans, don’t know that most of the people in Israel are…actually Mizrachi and Sephardic from the Middle East and North Africa. And that triggered the need to educate.” Ignorance was thus the main catalyst for this film, a desire to bring this neglected piece of history to the fore and enrich our cultural awareness. Few of us properly appreciate our origins and heritage, or realize that until 1945 approximately one million Jews populated the Middle East, building their lives in Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria and other countries. Each of these countries boasted a prominent Jewish community—Iraq, formerly Babylonia, was where the Talmud was written—and each has its own story of exodus and destruction.

“We wanted to focus on the good, the bad and the ugly; the historical and the personal,” says Goldwasser. “We’re trying to show that Jews lived in Arab countries under some very difficult circumstances for thousands of years. It wasn’t all a golden age. Minorities in Muslim countries suffered.”

Massacre in Libya

I ran and they were chasing me until they caught me. They beat me up until they got tired of it. They wanted to cut my arms and legs. And my head too…with axes. Then they got tired. They thought I was dead.

This is the testimony of Yizhak Dvash, a survivor of the 1945 Libyan riots in which 130 Jews were massacred. In the film, a close-up image shows his hand, slashed and stitched back together. Yizhak looks upon his hand, frowning, distraught by the reminder permanently etched upon his skin—that meaningless hatred not only exists but mangles lives.

Lydia Hayoun, another survivor, squints her eyes while speaking, as if to shield herself from a vision that is too vivid even today: “The Arab rioters killed and burned. They stormed houses, killing, destroying and plundering. And we were so scared

Her voice trails off as if she still hasn’t found her way, as if she’s still lost trying to contemplate such horror. Indeed, it was more than horror that took place in Libya; it was akin to genocide. In a country that once had 38,000 Jewish residents and a thriving Tripoli Synagogue, no Jews remain.

The 20th Century Egyptian Bondage

Following the Six Day War, Jews in Egypt were arrested and put in concentration camps. They were forced to live in huts, surrounded by dust and exposed to the harsh elements. They also lost their jobs. The Egyptian Companies Law of 1947 required that 40 percent of every company’s directors and 75 percent of its employees be of Egyptian citizenship, resulting in the dismissal and eviction of all Jewish residents who weren’t citizens. It was common for Jews in the region to hold foreign citizenship, so the majority of Egypt’s Jews were subject to this law, and scores found themselves unemployed.

Caroline Shushan’s parents were French citizens living in Egypt in 1956 when they were suddenly, without warning, expelled from their homes. “They had 48 hours to leave,” she recalls. “They were a little confused, obviously. My mom was young; she had two little kids.”

The forced eviction took place at the time of the Suez Crises, and Caroline suspects that her family was targeted mainly because they were citizens of France—an enemy country. The war certainly exacerbated the circumstances, doubly crucifying Egyptian Jews —not only because of their religion but because of their loyalties.

“They had nothing.” Caroline laments. “One suitcase—no jewelry, no money. Nothing, really, just some clothes.”

They flew to Switzerland—a rare mode of escape as most people went by boat—and stayed with her mother’s uncle. Interviewed as one of the first refugees to come out of Egypt, her father told the authorities in Switzerland, “We just did what they said.” Unaware of just how bad the circumstances were, Caroline’s parents never truly believed they were the targets of anti-Semitism, but were worried about the random and injudicious imprisonment of Jews believed to be Zionists. People with Israeli connections were put in internment camps (which were not at all a German creation) in an effort to provoke fear and elicit confessions. Several of the Shushans’ friends, including her mother’s cousin, were sent away.

The Shushan family has expended enormous effort to seek reparations, without success. They have found themselves unwelcome in Egypt, and their trips to the country are fruitless. Sadly, there are hardly any Jews left in an area that was once bursting with them. Levana Zamir, another refugee, lamented, “We could say that the Jewish community in Egypt is not anymore. It’s finished. Vanished.”

A Long History of Persecution

Film narrator Eliana Gilad estimates that the oppression of Jews in Arab lands began as early as 622, with the creation of Islam and the Arab conquest of the Middle East. Jews under Arab rule were assigned the status of “dhimmi,” which literally means “protected people,” but in actuality translated into anything but protection. The Jews were guaranteed to have their lives spared in the event of war, but on the condition that they would never attempt to outdo their Muslim neighbors, and would always remember their place as lower class people. Jews could not ride horses and put themselves higher than Muslim pedestrians. They could not build new synagogues, and the ones that were established had to be lower than the mosques. Houses, too, had to be low to the ground and Jews even had to wear yellow patches on their clothes. The adornment of the Jewish Star—like so many other anti Semitic measures—was not a Nazi invention and actually existed as early as the 7thcentury.

Fast forward through centuries of dhimmi oppression and a fair number of blood libels, to modern times when Jews living in Muslim dominated Middle Eastern countries approached the one million mark. In the early 1930s, Arab nationalists rose to power and gave vitriolic speeches which focused primarily on blaming the Jews for the country’s ills. In Iraq, a pro-Nazi government was established. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini, met with Hitler and discussed plans to create a “final solution” to the “problem” of Jews in the Middle East. “Arabs rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights,” he pronounced on a Nazi radio station. “Kill the Jews wherever you find them!”And kill they did, rioting through the Jewish ghetto, pulling babies apart by their limbs, raping women in front of their families, and robbing Jewish houses while the owners ran from rooftop to rooftop trying to escape.

“I listen to Iraqi music,” says Linda Abu Azziz. “I read in Arabic, I cook the same food… so I’m very much Iraqi—and this is the problem. Because on the one hand I have a lot of affection for the Iraqi people, but on the other hand I am very much hurt by what happened to us in Iraq.” Linda’s conundrum was shared by many Iraqi Jews, who lived in a place they considered home but where life had become unbearable.

Mordechai Ben Porat, proud founder of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, walked to Jerusalem by foot in 1945 and then helped 120,000 others follow him. “I came to the decision that that country wasn’t our country, and we had to leave,” he says.

In the Shadow of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Fortuitously, there was a Jewish country in the making and, in 1948, Jewish refugees began coming to the fledgling State of Israel where they believed they would be safe. But for those who remained behind, the creation of a Jewish state further infuriated the Muslim world, leading to more massacre and distress.

“When Israel was created, it unshackled the Jew,”explains Joseph Abdel Wahad.“And for the Arabs and Muslims it was unacceptable for the Jew to be independent—because for fourteen centuries, the Jews were under them.”

The film briefly shows snippets of a May 16, 1948 headline from the New York Times entitled, “Jews In Grave Danger In All Moslem Lands.” The article details the persecution that spanned every sector of the Middle East once Jews gained their independence. Jewish bank accounts were frozen and used to finance resistance to the Zionist cause, Jews believed to be active Zionists were imprisoned, and the Iraqi government did not allow any Jew to leave the country without first paying an enormous sum as collateral. Jews in Syria began suffering even before the State’s creation, with the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. Mobs began rioting in Aden and Aleppo, and Jews were stripped of their jobs. The government also denied Jews freedom of movement, making it nearly impossible for them to leave their ravaged country.

A Personal Survival Story

Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Safra Synagogue is the child of survivors of the 1947 Syrian riots. The mobs—aided by police the Jews had once trusted—began burning synagogues and sifrei Torot in what became known as the harayik. One day, rioters entered the building in which Rabbi Abadie’s parents lived. Within minutes, Mrs. Abadie heard shrieks of terror. “They were beating Jews, destroying their property, looting stores, ruining businesses,” she recalled.

Escape was risky. Syrian police patrolled the border and imprisoned Jews who were caught trying to cross. Some were daring enough to bribe a well-connected official or walk outside the border where no one would see them. But many of these attempts were unsuccessful, and resulted in death, torture or incarceration. Rabbi Abadie’s parents hid in his grandparents’ house, and a few days later they made separate attempts at escape. His mother obtained a doctor’s permit and took her sons to the Lebanon Mountains, but his father was unsuccessful after several attempts to escape Syria. In one instance, he was caught by a Syrian guard whom he happened to know. The guardsaid, “The authorities are after you because you’ve tried to escape several times, and I have orders to arrest you. I’m coming back to arrest you tomorrow.”Mr. Abadie understood the hint, and the very next day, with the help of some friends, he boarded the train to Lebanon. A train official with whom he was acquainted hid him in the cargo hold, warning that if he would sneeze or move a muscle they’d both be caught and killed.

His father hid there silent and motionless for hours, his fear intensifying once the train reached the border. The police conducted a thorough search of the cargo. When they came to his wagon, he was certain he’d be discovered. Miraculously, the guard was distracted and moved on to the next wagon.

As soon as the train crossed the border, Rabbi Abadie’s father jumped off the moving train and into a ravine. Somehow, he landed safely, suffering only minor bruises. He began walking through the Lebanese terrain in search of his family, traveling by night so as not to be seen. Eventually, he found his wife and children. They were entirely unaware of his escape, and were stunned when he walked through the door.

Stories of separation and reunion were not uncommon during those tumultuous times. Families were never allowed to leave the country together, as stray family members were seen as insurance that the deserter would return. For one man, his family’s decision to leave Syria in the seventies in favor of a more progressive country—namely the United States—meant a year and a half separation from his mother. He and his father ventured ahead, while his mother, brother and sister remained behind in Syria, awaiting nothing short of a miracle. He was just seven years old while this upheaval was taking place and was painfully uncertain of what was going on—if his mother would ever come, if they would have to return, or if his family would just remain separated forever. Finally, after enormous bribes were paid, connections tapped, and begging levied, his mother was allowed out of Syria.

In 1992, under pressure from many fronts, Bill Clinton issued a mandate requiring the release of the rest of the Syrian Jews as part of a deal with President Assad. Many migrated to the United States, Israel, and other friendly countries.

Bringing Their Plight to the Fore

Though The Forgotten Refugees has received a good deal of attention in recent years, the producers hope that this is just the beginning. It has been translated into six languages and was presented last February at the prestigious Herzliya Conference. It’s been shown to the U.S. Congress; Israeli government ministers; the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva; and the British Parliament. On March 31, 2008, the first-ever Resolution recognizing the rights of “The Forgotten Refugees” was adopted by the United States House of Representatives. The Resolution asks the President to ensure that, when the issue of Middle Eastern refugees is discussed in international forums, any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees must be matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish refugees.

Still, not enough is being done to remember and address the claims of the Jewish refugees. After the screening, the Honorable Irwin Cotler addressed the crowd to contextualize the documentary, point out its lessons and advocate for change. Professor Cotler, an international human rights lawyer and scholar, is a member of the Canadian Parliament and a former Justice Minister and Attorney General. He is a founding member of Justice for Jews of Arab Countries and has worked tirelessly on behalf of this cause.

He recalls his father teaching him the verse, “Sedek, sedek, tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Cotler has lived his life by this precept, focusing special attention to this missva. In the 1990’s, he challenged the oppressive Syrian regime and flaunted his talit in the streets. He was never allowed back in the country, but is confident his point was made.

“We have to appreciate that while justice has been delayed, it can no longer be denied,” Cotler said in his address to the audience. “This is a truth that is not known; it is a truth that needs to be heard.” And not just heard—but acted upon. Cotler listed four valuable lessons to be taken from this atrocity, including the danger of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide. He denounced the forgiveness of other countries who have the power to make a difference but have ignored the cruel reality taking place. We can no longer exculpate the villains of history, he insisted, protecting people like Ahmadinejad and inviting them to be guests at international forums. We have to understand the Jewish refugee story for what it is—a forgotten people, a forced exodus and the ethnic cleansing of entire communities. These people are the innocent victims of injustice and addressing their claims is a key requisite in the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.

Cotler poignantly described the chain reaction that needs to take place: “If there is no remembrance, there is no truth. If there is no truth, there is no justice. If there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation. And if there is no reconciliation, there will be no lasting peace towards which we all work and pray.”

“There are refugees other than the Palestinians,” says Mr. Goldwasser. “There were people who were dislocated as a result of war and conflict—and they’re totally invisible. Why isn’t the mainstream media talking about [them]?”

“We don’t want to be forgotten anymore,” insists Mr. Wahed. “We want to tell our story!”

Both the producers and the victims hope that by spreading awareness of the refugees’ plight, we can begin to seek justice for one of the largest ethnic expulsions in modern history. As one woman exclaimed, “The Arab governments have taken away our homes. They have taken away our culture. They have destroyed our communities. But they can never take away our spirit to fight for justice.”

To organize an educational screening of The Forgotten Refugees film, e-mail The David Project at Contact jp@davidproject.orgto learn more about the Project’s Forgotten Refugees curriculum for middle school and high school students.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Makeshift bomb thrown at Cairo synagogue, no dead

The Associated Press
Sunday, February 21, 2010; 5:20 AM

CAIRO -- A man hurled a suitcase containing a makeshift bomb at Cairo's main downtown synagogue in the early hours Sunday morning, but there were no injuries or damage, police said.

According to the police report, a man entered a hotel located on the fourth floor of a building across from the synagogue at around 3 a.m. and as he was checking in, abruptly threw his suitcase out the window.

The case contained four containers of gasoline each attached to a glass bottle of sulfuric acid meant to shatter on impact and ignite the makeshift bomb, said police, who speculated the man may have panicked.

The bag, which also contained clothes, cotton strips, matches and a lighter, fell onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel and briefly caught fire before being extinguished. There were no injuries and no damage to the historic synagogue.

The suspect fled the scene and is now being sought by police.

Egypt's once thriving Jewish community largely left the country 50 years ago during hostilities between Egypt and Israel, but a number of heavily guarded synagogues, open only to Jews, remain.

The downtown synagogue, Egypt's largest, is the only one still conducting services for the Jewish high holidays, which are sometimes attended by Israeli diplomats.

The temple, known as Shaar Hashamayim, or the Gate of Heaven, was built in 1899 in a style evoking ancient Egyptian temples and was once the largest building on the wide downtown boulevard.

Egypt's Jewish community, which dates back millennia and in the 1940s numbered around 80,000, is down to several dozen, almost all of them elderly.

Egypt and Israel fought a war every decade from the 1940s to the 1970s until the 1979 peace treaty was signed.

Despite that treaty, Egyptian sentiment remains unfriendly to Israel, and anti-Semitic stereotypes still occasionally appear in the Egyptian media.

Since an Islamist insurgency based in southern Egypt was quashed in the 1990s, there have been few organized terrorist attacks in Egypt's Nile valley and the capital Cairo. There have, however, in a number of amateurish attempts to target foreigners over the years.

In February 2009 a crude explosive device planted in a bazaar popular with tourists killed a French teenager.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Life and Death of Majority Rule

Sat 13 Feb 2010
D’var Torah on Mishpatim
Congregation Adat Reyim

By: Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is Hebrew for ‘laws’ or ‘ordinances’. The title is very appropriate because it contains no less than 53 commandments, 23 positive and 30 negative, which are collectively known as the Covenant Code. It is a primary source in Jewish Law.

I would like to focus on one of these laws. In Exodus 23:2, it says:

Lo tihyeh acharei rabbim lera’ot

You shall not follow the majority for evil

The meaning is clear: Don’t follow the mob when you know what they are doing is wrong. Don’t be swayed if a majority is against you and you know you are right. The rabbis of the Talmud deduced that if you must not follow the majority for evil, then surely you must follow the majority for good [Sanhedrin 2a]. They extracted from this verse the notion that decisions must be made by majority vote in the appropriate forum.

This is not full democracy, in that not everyone gets a vote: Only designated judges appointed to decide specific matters posed before them get to vote.

First, how many judges?

-Well, it cannot be one. It says in Pirkei Avot, “Do not judge alone, for no one may judge alone, except the One [meaning God]”. [Pirkei Avot 4:8]

-It cannot be two or any even number, because our verse commands to “rule in accordance with the majority,” [Ex. 23:2] and an even number may result in a tie, i.e. no majority.

-The minimum it can be is three, and that is the number of judges in a standard Jewish court, a bet din, which handles ordinary cases.

-For capital offenses and other life-and-death matters, there must be, not 3, but 23 judges, constituting a ‘Small Sanhedrin’. Why 23? The answer is in the Talmud:

How do we derive that the Small Sanhedrin has only 23 members? It is said [in the Torah], “and the congregation shall judge... And the congregation shall deliver.” [Num. 35:24-25] One congregation may judge [i.e. condemns] and the other may deliver [i.e. acquit], hence we have twenty [because a congregation is not less than 10]. But how do we know that a congregation is not less than 10? It is written [in the Torah], “[God said, referring to the 12 spies:] How long shall I bear with this evil congregation?” [Num. 14:27] Excluding Joshua and Caleb, we have 10. And how do we derive the additional 3?.. [We need a majority of one to acquit and a majority of two to convict, so we must have at least 22. Since we can’t have an even number, we add one and reach 23.] [Sanhedrin 2a]

Now, here comes the shocker. Having 23 judges allows for at least ten to argue for conviction and ten to argue for acquittal. But it does not guarantee it. What if the crime is so heinous and the evidence so overwhelming that no judge will argue for acquittal? Then, believe it or not, the defendant goes scot free. The logic here is that there is a spark of goodness is every person, because every person was created “b’tsellem Elohim”, in God’s image [Gen. 1:27], and if a tribunal cannot find it, bring it to the table and tie it to the case, it is not fit to judge. Note that, back then, there were no defense lawyers and no juries. The judges heard the case and the witnesses, then deliberated and rendered a majority verdict. This provision ensured that some judges would take on the role of defense lawyers, to avoid criminals going free. This point of Jewish law may be the source of the Western practice of giving a defense attorney to every defendant.

-Finally, a Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges was established, which served as the Supreme Court of Israel. Why 71? Because God told Moses in the Torah to assemble 70 elders to help him judge and govern Israel [Numbers 11:16.]. Adding Moses, this makes 71.

Our subject verse, “Follow the majority for good” was also used in a famous and critical story in the Talmud, which many call “the keynote of the Talmud”. Let me read it to you:

[The rabbis were discussing whether a certain oven was ritually clean.]

-R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument [to prove that it was clean], but [his colleagues] did not accept them.

-[R. Eliezer] told them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' At that point the carob-tree was uprooted 100 cubits out of its place (others say 400 cubits).

-[The rabbis] retorted: No proof can be brought from a carob-tree.'

-Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let [this] stream of water prove it [by flowing backwards]!' At that point the stream of water flowed backwards.

-[The rabbis] rejoined: 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water.'

-Again he urged: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it.' At that point the walls inclined to fall.

-But R. Yehoshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what business do you have interfering?' Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Yehoshua, nor did they resume the upright position, in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing [today] thus inclined.

-Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!'

- At that point a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do you argue with R. Eliezer? The halachah agrees with him in all matters!'

-But R. Yehoshua arose and exclaimed, [quoting the Torah]: 'Lo bashamayim hi -- It is not in heaven.' [Deut. 30:12]

-What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: [He meant] that the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; [therefore] we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You, [God] have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘Follow the opinion of the majority.’ [Ex. 23:2 our verse].

R. Nathan met Elianu HaNavi [Elijah the Prophet] and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?

-[Elijah] replied, ‘He laughed [with joy], saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'

[Talmud , Bava Metzia 59b]

This extraordinary passage is no less than a declaration of independence by the rabbis. In it, the rabbis tell God that the Torah is out of His hands, and that human beings will make Torah decisions by majority vote, without interference from God. God evidently approved, and liked to see His children take charge so decisively. Rabbenu Chananel, an 11th century Tunisian sage, even said that the voice from heaven was a test of whether the rabbis would hold their ground, and that they passed the test.

In the end, Rabbi Eliezer refused to accept the majority decision and, as a result, was expelled from the Sanhedrin. But note that later Sages said that God and Rabbi Eliezer had gotten it right. The majority rendered the wrong decision. But no matter. The 12th century sage Nachmanides (the Ramban) said that people, even Sages, will make mistakes occasionally, but it is better to let them make mistakes a few times and render decisions applicable to all, rather than have different Jewish communities follow different rules.
 So minority opinions are not always “wrong”, in the sense that the logic that led from the Torah to them is not faulty. The Talmud says of them, ‘Ellu v’ellu divrei Elohim Hayyim These and these are the words of the Living God’ [Eruvin 13b]. Both interpretations are “right”, even though they may be contradictory. The Talmud also says:

If the Torah had been given in a fixed form, the situation would have been intolerable. What is the meaning of the often-recurring phrase "The Lord spoke to Moses"? Moses said before God, “Lord Of the Universe, make me know what the final decision is in each manner of the law.“ God replied: "The majority must befollowed. When the majority declares a thing permitted, it is permitted, and when the majority declares a thing forbidden, it is forbidden… The Torah is capable of interpretation, with 49 points [arguing one way] and 49 points [arguing the other way]."

[Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a]

Well, majority rule is a thing of the past. The last Great Sanhedrin folded in the year 358 CE, yielding to Roman persecution. After that, no more central decisions in Judaism. From that point on, new halachic decisions were made by individual Sages, who made them stick only by virtue of the respect they inspired. And their decisions were sometimes controversial even centuries after their death.

It’s a wonder we Jews lasted so long in recognizable form in spite of that.

-The Samaritans refused to accept the books of the Bible that came after the Torah and split off.

-The Karaites refused to accept the Talmud and split off in the 9th century.

-Both groups flourished for a while, numbering in the millions. The Karaites were reported to make up 40% of Jews at one time. But today their combined numbers are down to a few thousand.

-Hasidism came more than two centuries ago and promptly broke into dozens of independent sects.

-The last 150 years or so have seen a flowering of non-traditional Jewish movements in the West, each writing its own rules. The thinking was, and still is: You disagree with this or that traditional practice? Form your own movement! Associate only with those who agree with you, and vituperate against the others!
 Freedom of religious thinking is a wonderful thing, but unity of tradition is also a wonderful thing. Who is to say who is right? Nobody. But the debate does not end here. There are still a few inconvenient facts to be considered. One of them is that the retention rates are much lower for offshoots. There is a deep abyss between the retention rates of secular, humanist, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or Conservative Jews on the one hand, and the much higher retention rates of traditional Jews on the other. I don’t think anybody disputes the fact that the shortest book in the world is the Book of Fourth-Generation Reform Jews.

And the fragmentation is not confined to the left. Among religious Jews, in the last few decades alone, movements have sprung up that vociferously oppose the legitimacy of the State of Israel, that refuse to take up arms to defend the State, that even refuse to work for a living, as long as the State, or somebody, continues to support them as full-time students (which flies in the face of established halacha), that refuse to accept modern conveniences such as Shabbat elevators, and that generally work hard to impose more and more religious restrictions, over and above those of established halacha, by reinterpreting traditional teaching to suit their purposes. It is not just the do-less we have to contend with, but the do-more as well.

I miss the synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, where I grew up. It was, of course, nominally traditional, but in the Sephardic world everybody went to the same synagogue, whether they were on the far right or the far left or anywhere in between. Their personal observance was just that, a personal matter. They did not feel the need to create new movements that reflected their philosophy, complete with their own platforms and their own rabbis and their own seminaries and their own schools and their own butcher shops and their own synagogues.

If the past is any indication, all these movements will eventually wither away and die, causing huge drops in Jewish numbers. All, that is, except one. That one will carry Judaism into the far future. I don’t know which one that is. But I do know this:

Hinne! Lo yanum, velo yishan shomer Yisrael.

Behold! The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. [Ps. 121:4]

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ode to those of Abu Zaabal and Tura

By: Suzy Vidal a/k/a Sultana Latifa

Voices too long smothered come to our ears

They tell us of horrendous tales and tears

Keeping their secrets deep in their hearts

To the surface come crying out their hurts

An easy unprotected prey, Jewish were they not?

To bear all the sins of Israel in their flesh and blood

Some have in heavy silence carried their secrets to their tombs

Of physical repeated unbearable and unforgotten wounds

Four hundred helpless unjudged victims unfairly indicted

We cannot close our eyes to the tortures inflicted

The sin of being Jewish must forever be banished

So that neither man nor woman can for this be punished

The years are rapidly flying and our hair is greying

Before it is too late, it is now time to join our hearts in saying

you are among the Just among nations we shall not forget

To those of you up in the Milky Way we pay tribute and respect.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

And There Were None

By Sultana Latifa (Suzy Vidal)

A Jewish refugee from an Arab land

I look into the mirror and ask myself: Who are you Sultana? Belgian, Italian, Egyptian, English, Israeli? Definitely none of these but a Jewish refugee from an Arab land!

At last we have been recognised as refugees.
We have even had Israeli coins paying tribute to Egyptian Jewry!
When the word refugee is pronounced you imagine suffering, struggles, insults, wars, prison.
Yes we went through all this.

Before 1948 we lived happily, I would say placidly. The everyday unhurried oriental life, no problems for the morrow practically planting our roots and happy to do that… but we were Yehud, Jews and that put us apart.

Come the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, all this changed radically.

We were well off and our homes beautiful but not because manna fell from heaven!
We worked hard and seriously to reach a certain standing. My grandfather woke up at 5 a.m. washed in cold water, drank his black coffee and trotted off to his shop where as a wholesaler, he sold exclusive fabrics directly imported from Great Britain.

My father worked at the Cotton Stock Exchange and was a stockbroker, whereas my mother was a very qualified Haute Couture seamstress catering for VIP ladies.
And thus we never lacked anything, cultural activities, members of a sporting club, social life and contrary to Arab children we all went to school, some to university.
A word about schools: The great majority sent their children to French-speaking schools because it was traditional to speak French at home. Except for the Lycée Français, the French schools were run by nuns or Jesuits, which may seem funny when you think the Jewish families sent their children to Christian schools.

As I was slightly on the wild side and very disobedient, I was sent off to a military academy managed by Irish generals (nuns) who would ‘tame’ me. I was the only child in the family to go to an English school. Looking back on that experience, I believe that the discipline we learned helped me to overcome the greatest difficulties of our exile.

The country was under British rule as Egypt had became a protectorate after the collapse of the Turkish Empire and administrations were mainly staffed by British officers who did not allow their employees to smoke the sheesha (water pipe) on the job!

As I was saying, the foundation of the State of Israel changed all that.
We could hardly go out without being spat at and called Yehudeya, bent kalb, Jew daughter of a dog

We were excluded from our sporting club where they said neither Jews nor dogs were admitted. Our Synagogue was shut down and out of bounds. Our Shaar Hashamaim, Gate to Heaven was a sight for sore eyes on the Friday Shabbat prayers: The ladies in their best dresses and the men in their elegant suits with their Talit around their shoulders. No weddings were celebrated or Bar Mitzvahs. Passing by the synagogue was like passing by a cemetery. No one there except the “boliss” standing guard.

The people in the Jewish community were questioned, preferably in the middle of the night. After World War 2 a lot of former Nazis found refuge in Egypt. It was said that the authorities took their advice very frequently. We were usually awakened in the middle of the night to force us to confess our Zionistic connections. When the authorities were convinced of such a connection there was only one place for the ‘so-called’ spy: prison in the middle of the desert: such infamous camps were Tura and Abu Zaabal. I had the privilege to write an Ode to the 400 (prisoners of these obnoxious places).

Under martial law anyone could be imprisoned following a denunciation from any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Being Jewish was a very serious accusation. Those were the days we dare not wear our Star of David, and even after that we did not wear any visible signs of our faith.

And strange to say, the less we could wear our star, the more Christians exhibited their cross seeming to say: look, I am not Jewish!

Needless to say there was a huge panic because of the explicit description of what the Egyptians would do to us. Apart from the verbal insults, Jews were threatened in the streets by throat slitting gestures miming the nature of their death!
Newspapers were full of insults and inciting the masses to go out and beat us up.
Egypt had the secret of extraordinary riots when thousands of people literally sprang out from the ground invading the streets, shouting and vociferating against Jews. Anyone remotely looking Jewish was beaten up in the streets.

Some people ask me: but how did they know you were Jewish? They knew! Maybe because of the colour of our skin, our way of dressing or because we did not wear the Muslim veil, THEY KNEW!

My youngest aunt who was pregnant was beaten up in the street during one of the spectacular riots Egyptians indulged in. Naturally, it was impossible for her to go on living in a country that was ready to cut you to pieces.
My mother’s family was composed of 9 brothers and sisters and my father’s of 8 brothers and sisters and it would be a lie to say we stood fearlessly waiting to see what would happen.

There was a curfew and everyone spoke in undertones, walked without looking at anyone, panic was there!

Why did we panic?

When the Jewish shops were confiscated and an ignorant ‘sequester’ (that is the name given to the man who lorded it) put in your place,
When Jews were not allowed to work at the stock exchange,
When a Jew could no longer retrieve his or her money from the bank without being checked out on an established black list,
When people, even women, started being arrested and put in prison in the desert,
When it became impossible to go out fearing an imaginary air raid by the Israelis and consequently be the target of wild Arabs in the street,
When you had to be careful of every word you pronounced,
When it looked very much like Nazism without the STAR on our lapel,
When there was only one way to survive:

Because of all that was said above there was a visceral fear. World War 2 had shown what could be done to defenceless Jews. Some like my grandmother, my mother and her sisters had panic attacks (though that medical term was not known then).
Panic that terrible word:
The families got ready even if they had to leave everything behind, but it was no longer viable to be a Jew in Egypt.
There were strict rules for leaving:
If you left then you were never to come back again
You could not transfer your own money. It was left to the Egyptian government.
If you had an Egyptian nationality you lost it and became apatride, without nationality

Those who lived in the vicinity of the Royal Palace were forced to move, the King was afraid of Jews.

But notwithstanding the sacrifices, two thirds of the Jews in Egypt left.
The great majority could no longer cope with the harassment and they were willing to give up everything they had worked and hoped for as long as they could escape the unspeakably harsh terror treatment reserved to Jews. On my mother’s side all the brothers and sister except one brother left. On my father’s side one brother and two sisters remained. The rest went to Israel.

Even that was dangerous for those who remained. Policemen came in the middle of the night to question the remaining family.

There were no direct routes to Israel. The state of war went on even when the war ended.

The Jewish refugees therefore left for either France or Italy by boat and were placed in camps: in France it was Marseille, in Italy it was Livorno (Leghorn) awaiting the possibility of transportation to Israel. All of them city people waiting for a new life!
Later, after our second exodus (1957) when we were able to meet our families by going to see them in Israel, still avoiding any Arab territory but through Greece, they told us in detail of the difficulties of their life and living in tents. City people, bank managers or employees who now had to earn their living by working on the new roads or lifting cement bags off trucks.

But once more they did not sit down in the streets holding out their hands begging, or crying to the U.N.

They struggled and worked hard.

As one of my uncles said: “we rolled up our sleeves and worked!”
The following two or three years in Egypt were more or less calm except that we were still very badly considered; being Jewish was like wearing a scarlet letter. All the family had gone but for us leaving the aged grandparents and flying off was not possible. Family solidarity was not a vain word.
It took time but my grandfather recuperated his shop, the ‘sequestre’ left and work could be resumed.
A word about the ‘séquestrer’ as they were called:
In general he was a man who did not have much schooling, had no idea of how products were made, or how to handle business. But nothing could be done without his approval (that maddened my grandfather who had been trading for well on 50 years). So he would come home and pull his hair out telling us about the stupidity of that sequester. All we could do was tell him to be patient. We also encouraged my grandmother to believe in peace promising that she would see her dear children again as soon as a peace treaty was signed. The peace treat only came 40 years later with Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, her heart had given way and she never saw them again. She was only 55.

Come January 1952:

The morning started off peacefully. Gradually the masses invaded the town, and the terrifying roars came closer. The town was on fire. They had set fire to Cairo! We lived in Malika Farida Street a few metres from The British Officers’ Club. That club was invaded and fire put to it. My best friend who lived just opposite the club saw the burning officers thrown from the windows and left downstairs on the ground blackened and smoking. It was horrendous!

In front of our house was a shop selling alcohol, it was invaded and all the bottles thrown into a bon fire in the middle of the street. The bottles kept popping for hours on end sounding like gunshots.

We shuddered home, shaking and praying hanging on to our Mezuzah nailed on every door, hoping the crowd would pass on. But they burst into our building looking for Yehud, Jews.

Our hall porter, called a Bawab in Egypt, swore to them there were no Jews in that building. But we rushed up the metal service stairs looking for an escape: Fire everywhere, on the left, on the right and in front of us. There were five of us: my mother, father, my younger sister and my nonno, grandfather, with a kitchen knife in his hands!

Well, and that passed away too and life settled down again, everyone going about his business. As the French say: tout passe!

I registered at university (The American university at Cairo) at 17, in 1953. Those were the happiest years in my life. After the strict nuns I enjoyed the diversity and freedom University offered me! I could give way to my artistic inclination by being part of an actor’s guild and directing a play or taking care of the sets. And my love of sports found opportunities as never before. I was part of the basketball team and captain of the tennis one. I was a member of the Square Dancing team.
The Touring club organised a visit to Upper Egypt and the Valley of the Kings where we sweated it out visiting the sights. I was doing very well in my studies except for Arabic never having had one hour of that language in my very English schooling. And for the first time in my life I was in love. Who could ask for more?
At A.U.C. there were guests invited to ‘speak’ to us such as Helen Keller, blind deaf and dumb. Other visitors were the Harlem Globetrotters who gave a whirling exhibition.

Then we were invited to the U.S. Embassy to demonstrate square dancing where we had our first taste of hamburgers with ketchup. In short as I said in my book: these were the Razzle Dazzle years.

1956! The Suez Crisis! War!

It fell on us!

The French, English and Israelis attacked Egypt because Nasser nationalised the Canal. Pandemonium broke loose. No one ever thinks of those civilians in war. All the Jewish French and English subjects were given 24, 48 hours to leave the country. They could only have one suitcase and ten Egyptian pounds. The apartments went to officers, the money and businesses to the government to punish us for what was happening.

And what about us Jews, responsible for everything as usual?

  • Once again prison,
    Loss of the Egyptian nationality,
    Confiscation of shops,
    Etc! Etc! Etc!

All the borders were closed, only those expelled could leave; even then there were not enough planes to cater for this massive expulsion, they had to wait for their turn meanwhile receiving the visits of officers who had their eye on the apartments and listening to their comments on furnishing and decoration! Farewells were heart rending. Who knew when and where we would see them again!

My father being of a very distant Italian origin and having kept his nationality, we were consequently Italians. My mother went to the consulate to ask for their help. She was told:
We are not at war with Egypt and if you want to leave it will be through the desert and at your own responsibility! (Imagine the Sahara Desert? They did not offer to supply camels!).

University was closed, the American teachers flown to safety by their government.
As usual the American cultural centre was looted (every time the Egyptians had a grudge, they marched to the American Cultural centre and destroyed it).
The Americans always rebuilt it!

My grandfather’s shop and money once more confiscated, he had been put on a plane to Milan with his one suitcase and a piece of paper giving my cousin’s address in Milan.
It was a tragic mistake. He only spoke Arabic and no one understood what he was saying.

He cried like a schoolboy trying to explain that his children were in Israel. An interpreter was finally brought along and my cousin was contacted. (By the way she later told us we were morons to have put nonno on a plane all by himself ).It was true but we were afraid he would go to prison.
My mother who had a sharp tongue kept insulting Nasser, praying his house would crush over his head! (Yekhreb betak ya Nasser)

One day the Police came and took her away. She had been denounced by one of her apprentices whose uncle belonged to the Muslim brothers.

What must be known is that during a crisis, everyone unites against Jews. After her short imprisonment nothing could make my mother stay. She packed off all our belongings and we went and lived in a hotel. The furniture was sold at auction and our former servant bought most of it!

We no longer had anything: no home, no job: my father as a Jew could not work at the stock exchange. The clothes we had packed were stolen during the night at the hotel and when we called the police they treated us as though we were guilty. I was only a few months away from graduation and had to present my thesis so I hung on by my teeth to my studies.

My mother and younger sister left. I went on living at the hotel with my father.
All the Jews left Egypt, country of their birth, either by force or of their own ‘free will.’

And then there were none!

After visiting my aunts and uncles in Israel, we settled in Milan convinced that as Italians we would get help the same way the French and the English had helped out the expatriates. Nothing came our way, (once we received a can of cheese from America). We went down and down and down living in a boarding house in two rooms. It was the worst years of our lives.

Broken lives but who cared? An Italian told me we deserved it because we Jews had crucified Christ. My parents did not survive their exile. My mother died at age 55 and my father 57.

P.S. There is a follow up to that black period. A much happier one! I have been blissfully married to a Belgian for 50 years; have three wonderful, intelligent grown children and three equally beautiful grandkids.

As the French say: les chats ne font pas des chiens!

Suzy Vidal (Sultana Latifa)
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