Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Not so new Middle East for Jews

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It would appear that there is no room for Jews in the Arab Spring.

Last year, before the Arab Spring, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas caused outrage when she recommended that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else."

As an American of Lebanese descent, the 89-year-old Thomas should have known that the Arab Middle East was home to approximately 850,000 Jews known as Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews for thousands of years.

Furthermore, Thomas must have been aware that most of the Mizrahi Jews were forcibly expelled or fled after suffering persecution prior to and after Israel's creation. The majority ended up being resettled in Israel.

This migration ensured the fledgling Jewish state's existence and through a slow but successful absorption process ended the newcomers' refugee status, unlike the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who were left to fester in camps by Arab states following the 1948 war.

At one stage Israel's Jewish demography consisted of more than 50 per cent Mizrahi Jews and their descendants.

For more on the tragic demise of the Jewish communities of the Middle East, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris' moving account was featured in the December 2010 edition of AIJAC's Australia/Israel Review and can be read here.

Perhaps Thomas omitted to include Arab countries as a potential destination for Jewish Israelis to return to because she knew of the unvarnished antisemitism, not merely anti-Zionism, that permeates the length and breadth of Arab states.

Unfortunately, this anti-Jewish hate has shown absolutely no sign of abating in many of the countries where the iron hand of authoritarian rule has supposedly ended.

First, lets look at one individual, Italian Libyan-born Jewish psychoanalyst David Gerbi who was 12 when he and his family were expelled from Libya following the Six-Day War.

The full sorry saga of the Libyan Jewish community, which dates from at least the fourth century BCE, ended when 30,000 fled to Israel between 1949-51 and the remaining 8,000 expelled in 1967. It can be read here.

Gerbi joined up with the Transitional National Council (TNC) rebel group earlier this year, volunteering at the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital and then joining the rebels.

Now that Gaddafi and his loyalist forces had been largely subdued, Gerbi was keen to reopen and restore Triploi's main synagogue, which has been abandoned for four decades.

Gerbi said he had received the backing of a local Muslim cleric and TNC officials but unfortunately for Gerbi, others in the new Libya had other ideas.

According to this AFP story:

A man claiming to represent the authorities told him his efforts were provoking anger in the country and that death threats had been made.

"He said 'there are many coming now, they are coming with guns, if they come you will be killed'," Gerbi said, adding that he had been told that a major demonstration against his efforts was being organised in Tripoli for Friday.

He left after four men armed with assault rifles showed up at the synagogue and its door was locked.

NPR quoted TNC spokesman Jalal el-Galal on the issue: "I think it's a very sensitive issue at a very critical time."

Now the Jerusalem Post is reporting how last Friday, on the eve of Yom Kippur - the holiest day in the Jewish calendar - hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside Gerbi's hotel carrying placards with slogans that included "There is no place for the Jews in Libya," and "We don't have a place for Zionism."

On Sunday, after a personal meeting with Libyan and Italian diplomatic representatives, he agreed to return to Rome on Tuesday by military plane in order to ease the tension.

Gerbi said the Italian ambassador in Tripoli claimed that the controversy over his actions was strengthening the extremist wing of Islam in the current internal war in Libya between extremist and more moderate, liberal Muslim forces.

Gerbi had been told he was "complicating matters," that "the time is not ripe for such actions" and that his security was endangered. In addition, his attempt to clean out the garbage littering the synagogue was defined as "breaking into an archaeological site without permission," for which he received a police summons.

Gerbi said that as a Libyan Jew, whose citizenship papers were never renewed by the Gaddafi regime, he has "as much right to enter and pray in Jewish religious sites as the Libyan Muslim exiles who have returned have rights to pray in mosques. And there can never be a wrong time for guaranteeing civil rights and religious freedom."

Whether the order to warn off Gerbi came from the upper echelons of the TNC is ambiguous, as he waits to hear if he will be allowed to join the new government and be recognised as the country's representative for Libyan Jewry.

One stipulation that Gerbi must meet to warrant being elected to any Libyan government is that he is not an Israeli citizen.

The story in nearby Egypt is not much better.

In August, the Egyptian Agriculture ministry issued a ban on the sale of palm fronds to not just Israel but also Jews in general.

Palm fronds or lulav, are an important ceremonial item used in the Jewish autumnal festival of Sukkot that falls every September/October, depending on the lunar calendar.

Israel and Jews around the world buy hundreds and thousands of palm fronds for Sukkot and the annual Egyptian export to Israeli generates the country valuable export earnings at a time when the Egyptian economy is in dangerously poor shape.

The ostensible reason offered for the export ban by the Egyptian government was a claim that the country's palm trees are overharvested and diseased. Blogger ElderofZiyon reported in August when the plan to ban the export was first raised, there was no mention of diseased trees.

However as happened with most Arab boycotts of Israel, alternative sources were secured, including imports from Jordan and Israeli technological knowhow employed to store palm fronds and extend their normal life span when cut.

Finally, the miniscule Jewish community in Iraq which numbered as many as 130,000 in the 1950s but now stands at only seven souls, has been warned that it should leave after the release of confidential documents by Wikileaks in which they were named potentially puts their lives at risk.

According to this Miami Herald story:

The cable provides biographical sketches of each of nine Jews that the cable writer said then made up the entire complement of the Baghdad Jewish community. They ranged in age at the time from 40 to 82.

That the mere identification of the individuals named in the cables as Jewish is sufficient to endanger their lives even in the absence of any hint of suspicion in a country that is supposedly "free" underlines the grave danger that being Jewish in the Middle East carries - free or otherwise.

 

 

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