samedi 13 décembre 2014


As Hanukkah approaches, it pains me to think of Jewish people who continue to live in the Middle East outside Israel.

                                          PHOTO OF A JEW OF YEMEN EARLY 1900'S

Baghdad and Iraqi Jews may mean little to the Ashkenazy Jews or the Europeans, but those of us from the East, knew of Baghdadi Jewish Community and the golden era of Judaism of the East. Like Spain ushered the golden era for the Sephardim, for Oriental Jews or Mizrahim, the centre of knowledge was Baghdad.
Proportionately there were more Jews in Baghdad at the beginning of 20th century than there were in Warsaw or Berlin.
The 12th century Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela had this to say:

 In Bagdad there are about 40,000 Jews[127], and they dwell in
security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph, and amongst
them are great sages, the heads of Academies engaged in the study of
the law. In this city there are ten Academies. At the head of the
great Academy is the chief rabbi R. Samuel, the son of Eli. He is the
head of the Academy Gaon Jacob. He is a Levite, and traces his
pedigree back to Moses our teacher. The head of the second Academy is
R. Hanania his brother, warden of the Levites; R. Daniel is the head
of the third Academy; R. Elazar the scholar is the head of the fourth
Academy; and R. Elazar, the son of Zemach, is the head of the order,
and his pedigree reaches to Samuel the prophet, the Korahite. He and
his brethren know how to chant the melodies as did the singers at the
time when the Temple was standing. He is head of the fifth Academy. R.
Hisdai, the glory of the scholars, is head of the sixth Academy. R.
Haggai is head of the seventh Academy. R. Ezra is the head of the
eighth Academy. R. Abraham, who is called Abu Tahir, is the head of
the ninth Academy. R. Zakkai, the son of Bostanai the Nasi, is the
head of the Sium[128]

Currently it is thought that there are 8 Jewish souls in Baghdad most of them elderly. I have seen photographs of the eldest of these, 90 year old Sasson Saleh. Israel integrated about 500 Iraqis who claimed to have Jewish grandparents but were unable to integrate 500 from Kurdistan who claimed Jewish but couldn’t integrate well into Israeli Jewish society because of their Muslim practices and migrated to Holland.
  Sasson Saleh, 90 years old is one of the last Jews of Baghdad
The Iraqi Jewish communities in Bombay (where my brother was born) and Calcutta and Rangoon all have but disappeared, migration to UK Australia and USA and Canada, and not because of Anti Antisemitism in India. After the formation of Malaysia, which is a Muslilm country, the Jews of that country who were mainly Iraqis, left Penang and other cities, mainly for Australia? Singapore and Hong Kong continue to have centuries old Iraqi Jewish communities, now bolstered by the expatriates from the west.
Apart from a very small number of Jews in Egypt and some more in Morocco, the ancient communities of Jews who were in the Arabian peninsula and the Trucial States have all but disappeared.
I think it was my father, olav ha shalom, who told me. The idea of monotheism was easier for Mohammed to preach in Medina since there were large number of Jewish tribes living in that area. Benjamin of Tudela mentions of Jews in Arabia. Currently there are no Jews of Saudi Arabia. Hardly any left in Yemen.
In Benjamin of Tudela’s description, Iran had a flourishing jewish community in the 12th century with many learned institutions and synagogues where they were allowed to practice their religion and live in peace with the Muslims. It is good to remember that in most of these countries Jews lived there long before the advent of Islam. He mentions of the Island of Kish in the Persian Gulf..
" From thence I returned to the country of Khuzistan, which 
lies on the Tigris; this runs down and falls into the Indian Sea 
 Persian Gulf ] in the vicinity of an island called Kish. The ex 
tent of this island is six miles, and its inhabitants do not carry on 
any agriculture, principally because they have no rivers, nor 
more than one spring in the whole island, and are consequently 
obliged to drink rain water. It is, however, a considerable 
market, being the point to which the Indian merchants and those 
of the islands bring their commodities; while the traders of 
Mesopotamia, Yemen, and Persia import all sort of silk and 
purple cloths, flax, cotton, hemp, mdsh, wheat, barley, millet, rye, 
and all sorts of comestibles and pulses, which articles form objects 
of barter. Those from India import great quantities of spices, 
and the inhabitants of the island live by what they gain in their 
capacity of brokers to both parties. The island contains about 

five hundred Jews." 1 
from the British Library, has info
on Jews of Muscat

Muscat and Oman , is one of my favourite countries in that region.
When travelling around Oman, it is impossible for me to believe that Jews did not live there.
But evidence is hard to come by. I also thought of the great Chinese navigator, Admiral Zheng He who came to the shores of Oman, along the Dhofar coast as well as passing through the Straits of Hormuz. There is no doubt in my mind that Hormuz at that time had Jews
The British Library recently released the books and papers of the military and civil men posted in the services of His majesty in these trucial regions. This was the first time I had seen a reference to Jews of Muscat. Omanis are physiognomically much different than their neighbours the Emiratis or Qatari. The documents describe most of the residents of Muscats to be Baluchis, with sizeable population of Negroid stock, with large number of Hindus. This mixture can be seen until this day in Muscat.
The interesting Jewish communities in Kuwait and Bahrain deserve a mention. Those of Kuwait is no more but until recently the Bahraini ambassador to USA was a Bahraini Jewish woman! Benjamin of Tudela mentions of Jews (ak-Kuwaiti) in Kuwait as well as in Bahrain.
In fact there was a talk of a Jewish state in an oasis in Bahrain!!!

                                                                Books from the British Library with information on Jews of Kuwait,
                                                                and Bahrain
From BBC Magazine
In 1859 Griffith Jenkins, a senior British naval officer in the Gulf, wrote to a subordinate named Hiskal.
Hiskal - or Yehezkel - ben Yosef was a minor official representing British interests in Muscat. And, like his predecessor in the post in the 1840s (a man named Reuben), he was Jewish.
Jews had been living in Muscat since at least 1625. In 1673, according to one traveller, a synagogue was being built, implying permanence. British officer James Wellsted also noted the existence of a Jewish community on a visit in the 1830s.

Jenkins's letter talks obliquely about the Imam (a Muslim ruler who held sway in Oman's interior) and the arrival of a man from Persia. He ends by asking Hiskal to explain the matter in private - and then, remarkably, had his letter translated into Hebrew.
In a few days time, we would light the candles in celebration of Hanukkah. On that day and days afterwards, I will remember the ancient Jewish communities of Arabia and Iran.
Over one million Jews from Arabia, Maghreb, Iran were made refugees after 1947 (when the anti-Semitic riots began in the earnest in the Arab countries, US Navy and its officers had to protect the Jews of Bahrain!) Hardly any Jews are left in Turkey, where there was a flourishing community under benevolent Sultans.( it is good to read the history of Thessaloniki which actively gave refuge to the exiled Spanish Jews, with consent from the Sultan in Istanbul)
   Jewish Shabbat Lights and two Hanukkia from Cochin at the UmonHon Indian Reservation, along with a HoCank Indian doll
It is said that the countries that expel its Jews take centuries to regain their former glory; Spain and Poland are given as examples. Reading Bernard Lewis’ History of Islamic Countries, one gets the impression that the loss of Jews would haunt Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya for centuries to come.

   R is a five year old UmonHon Indian Girl, sister to L, who is also five years old and Jewish. R very proudly made a Star of David and decorated her Christmas Tree and said: This star is for my sister L! L refers to the star as, Our Star