What is it with North-African Jews and Nobel Prizes?

Posted by dianamuir on October 10, 2012
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The North African Jewish community was never very large, maybe 600,000 people if you add the Jews of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and Libya together at the early twentieth century peak. 

That’s a pretty small community to have produced 3 Nobel Prize winners.  All emigres, or the children of emigres.

Baruj Benacerraf

Baruj Benacerraf, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1980, has a complicated biography, he was born in Venezuela to a Moroccan Jewish father and an Algerian Jewish mother, the family lived in France from the time he was 5 through his high school years, before fleeing the Nazis by returning to Venezuela.  He was sent to Columbia University in New York for medical school and became an American citizen.  I suppose that Sephardi Jews, Algeria, Morocco, Venezuela, France and the United States can all claim him.  And the whole world should be proud.

French physicist Serge Haroche in Paris. Haroche and American David Wineland share the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics. (photo credit: AP/CNRS/Christophe Lebedinsky)

Serge Haroche, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, 2012, born in Casablanca, Morocco to a Moroccan Jewish father and a Russian Jewish mother in but moved to France as a child.

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1997, was born to a Sephardi Jewish family  in Constantine, Algeria in 1933 and went to France to complete his education and still lives and works in France.




Saroyan’s Lament for a Dying People

Posted by dianamuir on October 04, 2012
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“We were a great people once,” he went on. “But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. They’re still admiring it. Now I am in America learning how to cut hair. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all.”

The character who gives this speech is an Assyrian Christian barber in William Sayoyan’s  story, Seventy Thousand Assyrians.

Assyrians in Mosul a century ago.

“I am thinking of Theodore Badal, himself seventy thousand Assyrians and seventy million Assyrians, himself Assyria, and man, standing in a barber shop, in San Francisco, in 1933, and being, still, himself, the whole race.”

Saroyan was  born to Armenian immigrant parents in California in 1908.

I remember the Near East Relief drives in my home town. My uncle used to be our orator and he used to make a whole auditorium full of Armenians weep. He was an attorney and he was a great orator. Well, at first the trouble was war. Our people were being destroyed by the enemy. Those who hadn’t been killed were homeless and they were starving, our own flesh and blood, my uncle said, and we all wept. And we gathered money and sent it to our people in the old country.”

Coptic, Assyrian, Jewish…

“There is no Armenian living who does not still dream of an independent Armenia.”

Saroyan wrote in 1934, there was no Armenia, no Israel, no Korea, no Assyria.

“Well, that is something. Assyrians cannot even dream any more. Why, do you know how many of us are left on earth?”

“Two or three million,” I suggested.

“Seventy thousand,” said Badal. “That is all. Seventy thousand Assyrians in the world, and the Arabs are still killing us. They killed seventy of us in a little uprising last month. There was a small paragraph in the paper. Seventy more of us destroyed. We’ll be wiped out before long. My brother is married to an American girl and he has a son. There is no more hope. We are trying to forget Assyria. My father still reads a paper that comes from New York, but he is an old man. He will be dead soon.”

How did it happen, this loss…?

“We went in for the wrong things. We went in for the simple things, peace and quiet and families. We didn’t go in for machinery and conquest and militarism. We didn’t go in for diplomacy and deceit and the invention of machine-guns and poison gases. Well, there is no use in being disappointed. We had our day, I suppose.”


Red Dog Howls

Posted by dianamuir on October 04, 2012
Armenian genocide, Uncategorized / 1 Comment

“Red Dog Howls”is a taste of the kind of gripping drama that the Armenian genocide ought to produce.

By focusing on the impact of how the horror of it continues into the lives of the grandchildren of survivors the survivors, we get some sense of the enormity of the event.     Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times finds genocide tedious for words, he hardly paid attention.  if he had, he would know that the  grandson was not  “astonished”.  If Isherwood’s annoyance at having to sit through a play about genocide persuades his readers not to see this play, it is their loss, because this is theater worth watching.

There was no enormity except gas chambers that was beyond the capacity of the Turks; they even thought of horrors that the Germans didn’t.   And the  first 80 minutes of this 90 minute play are gripping.  With Isherwood, I sat through the last ten minutes dry-eyed.   But I had teared up repeatedly even though, unlike much of the audience, nothing in the descriptions of the genocide drew from me a shocked gasp.  This is a story we have not heard before, no matter how much we know about genocide.  Alfredo Narciso, Florencia Lozano deserved every bit of the enthusiastic reception they got from the audience of New York theater regulars, while Katherine Chalfant’s performance was riveting.

And yet, there is an oddness.

The play opens with a statement of truth:

“There are sins from which we can never be absolved. Sins so terrible, so unimaginable… ”

The Young Turk government that ordered and organized the genocide, and the Turks and Kurds who carried it out committed crimes so terrible, so unimaginable, that there can be no absolution.

But this truth is not spoken of the perpetrators.  It is spoken to describe the guilt of one of the victims.

Playwright Alxander Dinelaris’ moral compass is unaccountably unbalanced.   This woman committed no sin.   A just God knows who were the sinners in this tale, and who the victims.

Focusing on the impact of the crime on the survivors is powerful, but it leaves the meaning of the extermination of a people unexamined.   The perpetrators cannot be absolved or the dead revived, but we can continue to hope for work from the hand of this playwright or others adequate to memorialize them.

Oriental splendor in Manhattan

Posted by dianamuir on September 21, 2012
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Doris Duke was a rich American  with a passion for Islamic art.  She built a dazzling palace near Honolulu, using bits and pieces she picked up while traveling – like a room from Damascus that I think is lovelier than the one recently reinstalled at the Met.

An exhibit at the MAD in Columbus Circle lets you get something of the feel of the house.   And the sometimes splendid Islamic objet she collected.

It doesn’t do justice to the gardens, which are remarkable, modernist interpretations of the great gardens at the Alhambra and other Muslim palaces.

Orientalism: An American millionaire (tobacco fortune) with a passionate love for Islamic art and design.



How Gökçeada Became Turkish

Posted by dianamuir on August 31, 2012
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Gökçeada, a small island  at the mouth of the Dardanelles where Turkish firefighters are struggling to put out a forest fire today, was not always Turkish.   Under the  Ottoman Empire it was an ethnically Greek island called Imbros, supporting itself by farming and fishing.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, recognized the awkward status of Imbros and neighboring  Tenedos.   Because they were populated by Greeks, they ought  to have been made part of Greece,  but because of their strategic position at the mouth of the Dardanelles, Turkey retained them after guaranteeing that the  almost entirely Greek population could govern itself autonomously in local affairs.

In 1960  military government that took power in Turkey.  It abrogated Turkey’s obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne.  The schools on both Imbros and Tenedos, taught in Greek under treaty guarantees, were   closed in 1964.  In 1965 the first mosque with the highly charged name Fatih Camisi (the Conqueror’s Mosque) was built on land confiscated from the Greek Orthodox vakif (waqf).   Fishing was banned on the pretext of creating an underwater marine reserve.   Almost all arable land was expropriated to build  a large military base and to build an “open prison”, the inmates of which would support themselves by living on and working the expropriated Greek land.   The inmates preyed on the Greek community of farmers and fishermen, who, with no schools, the criminal threat, nowhere to fish and no land, left.[1]
Ethnic cleansing by other means.

Turkish settlers were moved onto the  islands and they were eventually  given new, Turkish names.  It was all done in flagrant violation of Turkey’s obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne, but, really, who cares?  Who even remembers?

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Obama, because Hawaii is unique

Posted by dianamuir on August 07, 2012
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Hawaii is the only state that could have produced a President of African ancestry in this generation.

Because Hawaii is the only state where an American kid Barak Obama’s age with a black father could have grown up looking and being treated like a member of the ethnic mainstream.   In Honolulu,  the fact that Obama looked sort of  Puerto Rican meant that he was mainstream at a time when Puerto Rican-looking kids on the mainland were regarded as inferior to white kids.

Race is different in Hawaii because of  the old sugar plantations.    The sugar industry was started in the 1840’s by the Hawaii-born children of New England missionaries  who saw a way to make a lot of money if only they could find workers to do the hot, heavy work of growing sugar cane.    Native Hawaiians didn’t want these jobs and while the would-be sugar magnates could have bought black slaves, these children of missionaries were morally opposed to slavery.    They were, however, racist enough not to want  black people in Hawaii.

So they recruited  contract laborers from every part of the world where cheap labor was available and not black.   Most Hawaiian sugar plantation workers came as contract laborers from Asia, the big numbers were from China, Japan, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Korea, with smaller groups from Puerto Rico, Portugal, Spain, Norway, Germany and Russia.

Some workers returned home at the end of their contracts, more stayed, brought their families over, and built new lives, becoming the parents and grandparents of Hawaiians.  Café au lait was the color of normal in Hawaii decades before it was on the mainland.

The Hawaii of Obama’s childhood was a place where  economic and political dominion by a white elite was rapidly receding.     Men Hawaiians called local boys, the Hawaii-born descendants of the plantation workers, had built businesses, made fortunes, fought in the Second World War,  and gone to college.    In post-War Hawaii, they were rising to the top in every field.

The old rules under which white girls married white boys and Chinese girls married Chinese boys rapidly broke down, and it was difficult to know at a glance whose ancestors had come from where.   It was not that people had forgotten where their grandparents had immigrated from or were ashamed of it, it was just that it didn’t much matter.  Being a local boy did.

But on this island of café au lait kids with ancestors from just about everywhere the number of people with ancestors from Africa was tiny.  This made Hawaii the only state in the nation where a baby born in 1961 with a black father could have grown up without having that fact be the single most significant aspect of his identity.

This is not to say that Obama had an easy time growing up.  Being a child of divorced and absent parents is tough, and Obama youthful troubles were compounded by the fact that he was so conspicuously different from the other kids at school.   The difference was that he was a scholarship boy.

Obama attended Punahou, the island’s most elite private school.     But he was the child of  family with no money and he who lived with his grandparents in a modest rented apartment.    One of the other kids’ parents probably owned the apartment building, because Punahou was the school where the families who owned the plantations, the banks and everything else in Hawaii sent their children. In a small city like Honolulu, that enormous social gap may have loomed larger than race, large enough to make him unlikely to develop Bill Clinton’s bonhomie.

Race was there, of course.  But while the young Obama had to grapple with the fact that the father he hardly knew was black, he did not have race thrust upon him every time he walked into a store or got on a bus.  He didn’t look different than a kid with one Puerto Rican and one native Hawaiian parent might look.   He looked as he might have had his name been Louis Ortiz.

Twenty-first century America is filled with café au lait young people who don’t want to be defined by little boxes that must be checked “black” or “white”.    But when Obama was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Hawaii was unique.   And that unique ethnic history did not spare Obama all racist scorn, but it did spare the young Obama the casual, inescapable racism that white Americans inflict on black Americans with a glance.    That is why he was able to inspire voters with confidence that he would have the interests of all Americans at heart as President.

Hawaii is not paradise.  There is racism and ethnic tension, but Hawaii did arrive ahead of the rest of America at a point where the amount of melanin in your skin doesn’t matter very much or very often.

Because he grew up in Hawaii, Obama came of age relatively unscathed by the American mental habit of automatically categorizing every human as either black or white, and treating them differently.   And that is something that no one his age who grew up on the mainland can claim.


Below, America’s café au lait generation:



Population Engineering in Singapore

Posted by dianamuir on August 07, 2012
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Two interesting posts:

Eugenics in Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s ideas


Making Babies for the Nation




Crude Turkish Blood Libel

Posted by dianamuir on August 01, 2012
Uncategorized / 1 Comment

İğneli Fıçı, is an anti-Semitic Turkish book published in 1958 featuring a  Jew who kidnaps Muslim children and extracts their blood for use in baking matza with an İğneli Fıçı, a “pin barrel” or “needled barrel”,  a barrel studded on the inside with sharp spikes.



This vicious blood libel was invented by one Cevat Rıfat Atilhan, long one of Turkey’s leading anti-Semites.   It is apparently still in print.

Özen Karaca published a clear-eyed doctoral dissertation on Atilhan, The Theme of Jewish Conspiracy in Turkish Nationalism: The Case of Cevat Rıfat Atilhan in 2008.  It is available online.

Karaka is a useful source on Turkish antisemitism, a topic not easily accessible to those of us who do not know Turkish.  I take the liberty of reprinting most of the brief section on Passover and Blood Libel:


“Atilhan asserts that for the Jewish festival, Passover, unleavened bread
is cooked from the blood of Muslim and Christian children through a pin barrel;
this is a Jewish tradition for the satisfaction of greed and grudge towards the non-
Jews (Atilhan, 1958: 7). In the foreword of Igneli Fıçı, Atilhan discusses the
authenticity of the killing stories:

“‘Some say that these stories are inventions, false accusations or merely myths; yet, can there
be any smoke without fire?‘ (Atilhan, 1958: 5).

“This shows that Atilhan thinks the sharp reaction of the Jews is related to the fact
that they performed such cruel killings. The killing stories display in his view “the
horrible conspiracy by the Jews aimed at destroying Islam and Christianity”
(Atilhan, 1958: 117). His emphasis that such atrocity cannot be carried out by
human beings has a provocative character which not only has a mobilizing but
also a justifying effect to attack the Jews. In this way, very similar to fascist
discourse, violence against the Jews becomes legitimate.”


The phrase İğneli Fıçı appears to have become something of a trope among Turkish anti-Semites, a shorthand for vicious anti-Semitic slanders.


İsrail Öldürmeye Devam Ediyor, Israel continues to kill


And here:

Cem Garipoğlu'nu İsrail'in Mossad'ı saklamış (Yahudinin kanlı böreği, iğneli fıçı ve Münevver Karabulut cinayeti)

A Turkish website posts an image dripping bloody anti-Antisemitism, in an accusation about the tragic the murder of Münevver Khan, a pretty, Istanbul 17-year-old  brutally murdered in 2009.  The accusation here is that she was killed in a “pin- barrel” and that the murderer escaped on a flight to Tel Aviv arranged by the Mossad.


Here’s the jacket of another  Atilhan title:

TARİH BOYUNCA YAHUDİ MEZALİMİ, Atrocities of the Jews appears to include İğneli Fıçı.

To the credit of the Turkish reading public, this Atilhan title is  apparently out of print.


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First, Build an Art School

Posted by dianamuir on August 01, 2012
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Before Zionists built Israel’s first kibbutz, first university, or first luxury hotel, they built an art academy.  The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design opened in 1906, not because the Jewish homeland needed an art school more than it needed a university but because the Zionist leadership thought an art school would be an effective motor of economic growth.

The man who built the art school was named Zalman Dov Baruch Schatz before he left his yeshiva to study art and changed his name to Boris. His sculpture won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle, but he couldn’t feed his family. So, in 1895, he accepted an offer to help train the first generation of artists for the new nation of—Bulgaria.





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Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah: The Rediscovery of a Judeo-Berber Culture

Posted by dianamuir on July 23, 2012
Morocco, Uncategorized / 2 Comments

A French-born, Muslim Berber filmmaker helps us understand why Morroco was the world’s most complex Jewish community, and perhaps the most paradigmatic.

How old is the community?  We don’t really know, although a Moroccan  archaeological museum preserves an oil lamb impressed with a menorah discovered in the Roman city of Volubilis.    The Jews may have stayed after the Romans left, living among   the Berber people who lived in Morocco before and after the Romans, speaking  languages whose Berber descendent tongues are still spoken in the mountains of southern Morocco.

Kamal Hachkar, the young French high school teacher who brought his first film to the New York Sephardic Film Festival this spring, grew up speaking Arabic, French and Berber, especially on visits to his grandparents in Tinghir, a Berber oasis city east of the Atlas Mountains.   As a young adult, he was surprised to learn that his grandparent’s Berber Muslim town once had a substantial Jewish community.

Tattooed Jewish Berber girl c. 1930 courtesy of   Juifs Berberes


His film, Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah: The Rediscovery of a Judeo-Berber Culture shows Hachkar walking through Tinghir with his grandfather, they pause and Hachkar asks if this is where the synagogue was.  Of course, the grandfather responds, but there is only a pile of rubble where the adobe building once stood, vacant lots in the old Jewish quarters of this and other towns, and erstwhile Jewish stores in the plaza, now owned by Muslims.

Hachker learned what the children of Muslim immigrants in French apparently learn if they ask about the vanished Jews, that the Jews did not want to leave their Moroccan villages, that they were forced to leave by something called the Jewish Agency, that they left with tears.

He follows the story to Israel.  Learns Hebrew.  Tracks down the elderly Jews who left Tanghris,  and the tears flow.   They were torn from the homes of their childhood, from their friends, their language, they sing the old Berber songs and reminisce.   The refugees from Tinghris have not had easy lives in Israel.  But do they regret leaving?

No, and not merely because, as one Israeli-born daughter reminds her mother, in Morocco, she had to do the laundry by hand in the river.   The Jews left because they had to leave.   There was no longer a place for them in Moroccan society.

A few thousand Jews remain in Morocco, mostly in the business hub of Casablanca, but by the 1950’s Morocco was unwilling to tolerate a community of significant size.

Only a small percentage of Morocco’s Jews were Berber-speakers.   In a telling scene, the filmmaker meanders through the ruins of the abandoned Jewish quarter of a small, Berber town, as an elderly man tells him about the close friendships between the Jews and Muslims, tells him how,  during the endless tribal wars that continued into the twentieth century, Jewish members of the tribe would take up arms and fight alongside Muslims to defend their territory.   But when asked if it were possible for a Jewish and Muslim boy and girl to fall in love and marry, the old man  recoils in shock.  Such a marriage was simply unthinkable.

You can see traces of Berber influence today in the geometric, humanoid carvings of the gravestones in the old Jewish cemetery of Mogador, modern Essaouria.  Berber Jews have long intrigued French ethnologists, who photographed the Jewish Berber women with their distinctive tribal jewelry, embroidered robes and tattooed faces.

Undated photo of Jewish Berber girls

Larger Jewish communities lived in Fes, and Marrakech and other cities,  speaking Jewish versions of the distinctive Arabic dialects of the regions in which they lived.   After 1492 they were joined by a large community of Jews expelled from Spain. The two communities maintained their distinctive identities; Sephardim spoke Ladino and attended Sephardi synagogues.

It is easy to get nostalgic about Jewish life in Morocco.   The picturesque towns, the wonderful food and, more substantively, the fact that Jews have citizenship, Jewish tourists are welcome and the government has a moderate attitude towards Israel.

But this year is the centennial of the Fez Pogrom of 1912, a useful reminder that the history of the Jews of Morocco was very like the history of Jews in other Christian and Muslim countries.   Most of the time, Jewish life in Morocco was peaceful, with the understanding that the status of Jews was inferior and that they lived at the sufferance of Muslims.  Sometimes there was violence.

In Morocco as in other Muslim lands,  while it was unthinkable for a Muslim girl to marry a Jewish boy, the taking of Jewish girls as secondary wives by powerful Muslim men was a recurring problem.  There was no recourse; nothing the family could do.   Once a girl was taken and converted to Islam, she could not be returned to her family or her community.  A memorial in the old Jewish cemetery at Fez marks the grave of a girl who died in such an incident.   The cemetery is enormous, but this grave stands but because of the number of candles that continue to be lit in her memory by Jews who remember, perhaps not this individual girl, but the pain of that particular, recurring grief.

The cemetery is adjacent to the mellah, the Jewish quarter, which, like the ghettos of Christian cities, defined a separate and inferior Jewish space.  It is not that Jews could not rise to great wealth and even power in Moroccan society, they could and did.  But, ultimately, they had no rights, only such privileges as the Muslim society and sultans chose to grant them.   For centuries, they put up with what their neighbors dished out: the petty humiliations, heavy taxation, and occasional violence.  Or they moved to a city where the prince offered better terms.

The birth of the Jewish state offered Jews an opportunity to leave the lands where they lived on sufferance, and the Jews of Tinghir seized the chance to move to a land of their own.



See also “The Last Berber Jews”  on Jewish Ideas Daily and in the Jerusalem Post.


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