Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Has President Obama Been a Friend to Israel?

Since returning home from our adventure in Spain and Morocco I have neglected to post items of interest on my blog. Below you will see the first of more to come.

Often President Obama has been accused of not demonstrating appropriate friendship toward Israel. This was especially true during the debate over whether to approve the internationally negotiated deal with Iran in which the U.S. was lead negotiator. We all remember that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted the invitation offered by Congressional Republicans to address a joint session in which he made his case. The clear purpose of the invitation and the acceptance was to publicly embarrass the American president. Repeatedly in the recent Republican candidates' debates for president, Obama was taken to task for not sufficiently supporting Israel, our lone democratic ally in the Middle East.

I find that accusation very troubling and not in accord with the facts. Many security experts in Israel publicly disagreed with the Israeli prime minister, claiming that the negotiated deal with Iran while not perfect would prevent Iran from putting together a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years and perhaps longer. This was most unusual since Israeli experts at this level rarely take public issue with their prime minister. Though possessing no expertise I personally found the arguments of these experts more compelling than that of Netanyahu.

Then this week in an op-ed criticizing the "no nothings" (the author's designation) who support presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, Roger Cohen included the following which I think more accurately summarizes Obama's relationship to Israel and the lack of appropriate gratitude from the Israeli administration over the last eight years:

"Speaking of Israel, Trump says, “President Obama has not been a friend to Israel.” Right, he has not been a friend to the tune of over $20.5 billion in foreign military financing since 2009. He has not been a friend by providing over $1.3 billion for the Iron Dome defense system alone since 2011. He has not been a friend by, in 2014, opposing 18 resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly that were biased against Israel; by helping to organize in 2015 the first U.N. General Assembly session on anti-Semitism in the history of the body; and by working tirelessly on a two-state peace, not least on the security arrangements for Israel that are among its preconditions. He has not been a friend by turning the other cheek in the face of what Nancy Pelosi once called “the insult to the intelligence of the United States” from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu."

President Obama has demonstrated enormous patience with an intransigent Israeli administration. He will be remembered as a great friend and ally to the State of Israel.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hamishi in Fez!

We arrived in the historic town of Fez on Thursday after two days in Meknes. Meknes was founded by a Berber tribe in the 10th century. While there we took a day trip to the fabulous archeological sight at Volubilis, a Roman city where among the ruins archeologists found evidence of early Jewish settlement. (It appears that the first Jews who came to Morocco may have been slaves carted off by the Romans in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70!)

Both Meknes and Fez went through a series of various tribal rulers, alternating between those welcoming Jews for their crafts and commercial acumen and those bent on persecution. Jews fled during Almohad rule and returned in the 13th century with the Merinid take over. Meknes became the capital under Moulay Ismail with Jewish support in the 17th century. Jews were appointed to high office in the royal palace with others in charge of diplomacy. They paid high taxes receiving protection. (This seems to be a recurring Moroccan theme.)

The Jews were allotted a strip of land close to the palace, close to the Sultan's storehouse of salt, that became known as the Melakh (Arabic and Hebrew for salt, one of several explanations for the name of the area designated for Jewish settlement in all towns where Jews lived.) Though otherwise a cruel and sadistic ruler, Jews thrived under Ismail. By the time his grandson became ruler, resentment at special privileges granted to Jews caused resentment and upon his death, the Melakh was attacked and looted. With ongoing instability, the capital was moved to Fez. The great grandson angered at being refused a loan from the Jews had the former courtiers hung by their feet until death brought them relief. Into the modern period Jews built a new Melakh, creating synagogues and community associations.

During the French occupation Jews became intermediaries and interpreters between themselves and the greater Muslim population, making them military officers, creating additional tensions. In 1937 Muslim rioters stormed the Melakh, destroying buildings while the French turned a blind eye. Again two years later an attack left three Jews dead. Thus the added tensions with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War caused some Jews to emigrate to Israel. The bulk however left in the mid 60s. Carol and I visited the Jewish cemetery where the enormous number of graves gave us insight into the size of the community that was. It is but one of two Jewish cemeteries, the older of which goes back 600 years.

Fez is the most ancient of the imperial cities founded by Idris II in 789c.e. (Idris I was a direct descendant of Mohammed coming to Morocco to escape Abbasid tyrrany. However the Baghdad rulers pursued and had him assassinated, sending his surviving son fleeing. Fez became known as "the Jewish city" when 8000 Jewish families arrived from Spain fleeing a Muslim tyrant in Cordoba in 817 c.e. Fez became the spiritual and intellectual center for both Muslims and Jews. It's reputation was what attracted Maimonides family when they fled the Almohads in Cordoba in the 12th century. However he left for Egypt after just 6 years because of Almohad pressure to convert to Islam in Fez.

By the 13th century the more favorable Merinids aware of the Jews' skills in running the economy and engaging in foreign trade became the authorities and granted them preferential treatment and various concessions. Resentment eventually led to anti-Jewish riots here too. When Jews fled Spain in 1492 Fez was a favored destination. The communities of original Jewish residents and Spanish newcomers led largely separate existences. But the area was plunged into periods of political turmoil. Jewish support brought strong leadership in 1660 and the situation of the Jews largely stablized. The French moved the Moroccan capital from Fez to to Rabat where it remains to this day.

Through the 50s and 60s the Jewish community of Fez departed for Israel, France and Canada. Today only about 100 mostly elderly Jews remain. King Mohammed VI who is universally beloved ordered the rehabbing of Jewish synagogues which have deteriorated. Of the original 38 synagogues in the Melakh, only two have undergone work. We visited one, but the other was closed.

The only functioning synagogue is in the newer part of the city. There is also a Community Center. We went to services this morning, Shabbat haHodesh. About 25 men and one local woman attended. It's actually quite beautiful and a testimony to the community that once was. A man who looked familiar asked where I was from. I also looked familiar to him. When I told him Portland, he couldn't believe it. He taught in our Hebrew School when he lived in Portland about 8 years ago. I was called up to hold one of the three Torah scrolls we read from today and I was honored to receive the fifth Aliyah to the Torah. I really felt part of a long and distinguished history as I stood at the Torah. Unfortunately this history appears inevitably to be coming to a sad end in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Moroccan Jewish Remnants

Tangiers was our first stop in Morocco. It is less than an hour by ferry from the southern coast of Spain. We checked into our hotel in the Medinah (old city inside the walls) and began exploring. A short distance from the hotel we walked into a shop with jewelry and what appeared to be old things, perhaps antiques even.

We thought of ourselves as fairly savvy about the ways of bargaining...don't indicate right away what you are interested in, be casual, be prepared to walk away, no offer is too low, etc. But there staring us in the face were what appeared to be very old amulets with defiantly Hebrew writing on them, Wow! Had we hit upon hidden Judaism that had to be rescued for posterity? As we explored further in the same store we found more: a hamsah, in fact many of them in various sizes with stars of David, a yad, a silver container that might have been used for a manuscript like a scroll of Esther, etc. We tried to keep our cool. We asked about other things first, but even before we got to the Judaica, the shop owner picked us out as Jews. Was it something we said that blew our cover? Do we somehow look so Jewish that we are a dead give away. We are Ashkenazi after all, not the more familiar Sephardim which would be more familiar in these parts. In the end we did the best thing. We didn't buy anything. Since our hotel was so close, we knew we could easily return.

But that experience was now to repeat again and again. Store after store had Judaica on display and ready for sale. Not only merchants, but all kinds of people we met along the way talked rather lovingly longingly and nostalgically about the Jews who were an integral part of Moroccan society. Somehow we started to feel like we had the letters JEW on our foreheads. It was certainly nothing we wanted to hide; quite the contrary, we were anxious to uncover remnants of what was a thriving and dynamic long standing Jewish community that with very few exceptions is no more. But we still were puzzled as to how both Arab and Berber knew instinctively that we were Jewish.

Nevertheless we began to find Judaica in many stores, some of it obvious, much of it kind of obscure. I wanted to buy it all of course. We entered what appeared to be a shop with fine and expensive antiques. There in the large display case were exclusively Judaica items and in the very center a Sefer Torah. Again I had the instinct to rescue. Where would I even get the money? These items had price tags in the thousands.

And then I began to think, how did these many shops come to contain these items. Did individual Jews sell these things before they departed for Israel, France, Canada and the US, or were these items abandoned by the Jews and the Jewish community in their rush to leave? In purchasing a piece of Judaica, was this rescue, or was it really buying back what already actually belonged to the Jews? I do not know the answer to this question. However the question continued to haunt me.

I have not totally resisted however. I purchased a silver Yad. It's a bit unusual. And yesterday I bought a silver Hanukiah. I really tried to resist. The initial price quoted was $700. I said no way. The merchant after working me over wanted to know how much I would pay. I finally told him $100. He didn't want to listen and asked me twice more to which I repeated my low offer, which was coaxed out of me. They are very good at this. Alright, he finally said, would I buy it for $150? I agreed and the sale was completed.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Salam Alaikum,

Salam Alaikum to which the appropriate response in Alaikum Salam, just as the appropriate response when someone greets you with Shalom Aleichem is Aleichem Shalom. We continue our fascinating adventure in Morocco.

This country, for its relatively small size, has more than its share of world renowned cities: Rabat and Casablanca, Tangiers and Fez, Marakesh, Meknes and Agadir. Since this is my first exposure to Morocco, these were nothing more than famous names. As we travel I am gaining an appreciation for why they are names known around the world and what distinguishes them one from another.

Being embarrassing ignorant of Moroccan history in general and Moroccan Jewish history in particular, I am learning a great deal. Morocco has endured many varied administrations, both foreign and domestic: Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Berbers, Almohads, Portuguese and French among others. The Moroccan capital has moved several times as well.

Morocco became home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. Jews were among the earliest of inhabitants, arriving long before the Arabs came storming across North Africa in the 7th century. Life for Jews was not always without persecution, but Jews lived with more protection in Morocco than they did in other Arab lands. In most cities and towns Jews were confined until modern times in an specified area known as the Melakh. Though the source of the name is a matter of some controversy, a prominent opinion has it that it comes from the Hebrew/Arabic word for salt, a commodity which Jews imported. Salt, of couse, is not only important for taste, but as a preservative, especially prior to the availability of refrigeration. The Melakh was invariably located next to the palace, at once an indication of Jewish influence and the designation of Jews for special protection. But it also served to separate the Jews, at least for housing from the rest of society. The Melakh in some areas at least was closed at night.

Although the famous story that the King of Denmark wore a Jewish star when the Nazis demanded that the Jews wear them is not true, evidently it is true that when the Vichy government called on Moroccan King Mohammed V to identify the Jews, he is said to have declared, "We have no Jews here, only Moroccans!" He also told the Vichy authorities that they should make an additional 50 Jewish badges for his family. The Jews of Morocco never wore distinguishing stars.

Jews functioned for centuries as traders and craftsmen, in government and even as fishermen. That Jews were settled in big cities is of couse no surprise. What is surprising is that Jews lived in communities throughout Morocco. They were part and parcel of this society, very much like we Jews are in the U.S. Surely there are higher concentrations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but we are in Salem, Corvallas abd Ashland as well. Thus Carol and I came to the Atlantic port town is Essaouria without any expectations. I had never even heard of the place. There we found no Jews, but three synagogues, two in the old Melakh, even here and one in the very center of town. As a result of the declaration of the current king, these synagogues, as are synagogues in all communities, are undergoing renovation. The craftsman who had restored the glorious ark at one synagogue was there and was clearly proud of his work. There had in fact been more than three synagogues in this small town, but the others no longer existed. Some Jews return each September to the Jewish cemetery in which are buried beloved rabbis. We then took the bus through Safi to El Jadida. (You can look these places up on a map.) Both also had Jewish communities. Today I saw where two as yet unrestored grand synagogues stood in a section of town built by the Portugese, overlooking a Jewish cemetery with over 500 graves and I was told where the synagogue in the newer area of town was. Amazing.

But now the grand history of Moroccan Jews is no more. Shabat before last I attended services at the only functioning synagogue in Tangiers. Only five Jews attended, two of them being the rabbi and his son. There are larger remaining communities of Jews, primarily businesspeople in Rabat abd Casablanca, but otherwise few Jews remain.

In the 1950s and 60s most Moroccan Jews immigrated primarily to Israel, but also to France, Canada and the US. Unlike the other Arab countries, there was no official pressure to leave though some Jews may have been made to feel uncomfortable in Morocco after the creation of Israel in 1948. Rather the Moroccan Jewish community was largely a religious community. The creation of Israel stirred traditional Zionist longings. As well the new government of Israel put strong pressure on Moroccan Jews who were seen as a needed labor force to make Aliyah. The trickle soon became a flood. Some sold there holdings. Many others unable to sell simply abandoned their holdings here. The king has urged Moroccan Jews to return. A few have. We will see what the future holds for any of the others.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Synagogue Is Not a Museum

Though some synagogues include a museum, a synagogue is not itself and ought not be treated as a museum.

Some years ago someone described to me the difference between a Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land and a Jew coming to visit Israel. A Christian pilgrim sees the Holy Land as a museum. S/he comes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. A Christian pilgrim's itinerary includes Bethlehem, Nazareth, the sights aound the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached and conducted miracles, and Jerusalem,scenes of the last days of Jesus' life.

Jews, on the other hand, view few if any Biblical scenes. Yes, Jerusalem is certainly a highlight, but it is as much to wander in the Jewish quarter as it is to offer a prayer at the Western Wall. It is as much to shop in Downtown Jerusalem as it is to visit the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem. Jewish tourists might want to visit a public school, see how Ethiopian Jews are being integrated into Israeli society, observe first han how Israel is monitoring the Lebanese border, visit a kibbutz, meet young Israeli soldiers, learn about Israeli agricultural and technological innovations, talk to government officials, swim in the Dead Sea. Surely we want to visit archeological sights, but Beit Shean, is fascinating not because of particular events that happened there, because it was an ancient Roman town where ordinary people lived, worked and raised families. We connect with Israel not simply because things happened there long ago, but because Israel is a living, breathing society with people to whom we are connected for better or for worse at the hip. We take pride in its accomplishments and feel strongly about its policies and direction.

For Jews Israel is not a museum.

The last few days Carol and I spent in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. It is a complex city, that once was the Moroccan capital. The old Medinah is a twist of roads and alleys with all kinds of unusual traffic and it is easy to lose one's sense of direction and not know which way to turn.

And like every city in Morocco, Marrakesh has a long and illustrious Jewish history. And although few Jews remain, virtually all having immigrated to Israel, France, Canada and the US, five synagogues remain in the Melah, the area in most towns where Jews lived. Of the five, two continue to function, one only on Shabbat and holidays, the other open year round with a daily Minyan.

I found my visit to the synagogue in Merakesh quite emotional: the synagogue, the photos, the zedakah box to maintain the shul. Only a couple of Jews still live in the Melah, but a few others have shops there. The name Corcus appeared as a prominent community family name. For years Joe and Lilian Corcus, who migrated in the 1960s when most Moroccan Jews left, were members of our Portland Jewish community.

As we visited a large Israeli tour group came by. They were interested in seeing the synagogue as well, but I had the strong sense that they were visiting a museum, not a living institution of Jewish life. Minyan each morning was listed to begin at 7:30. I was excited by the idea that I could participate in a Minyan in a historic synagogue in Marakesh. Unfortunately we only had five men the next morning (Wednesday) even though they assured me that Mondays and Thursdays they always get a Minyan in addition to Shabbat.

Nevertheless I thought about the difference. Synagogues are not museums, even though sometimes they have outlived their communities.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Holy Week

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, the holiest day in the Christian calendar.  In several languages Easter is known as Pascha, a name derived from Pesach.  Most years Holy Week concluding with Easter coincides with Passover.  That is not accidental, but scheduling by design.  According to three of the Gospels,  Jesus' Last Supper took place at a Passover Seder.    On the agenda at several of the earliest Christian Councils was when to schedule the Easter observance.  One seriously considered proposal was to use the Jewish calendar, thereby assuring that Easter would fall during Passover.  Though that suggestion was rejected, the solution that the Western Church uses gets the desired results most years.  It fails however during Jewish leap years, such as this one, when we add a thirteenth month to our calendar.

This past Thursday Carol and I boarded a ferry that took us from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangiers, Morocco.  In making that transition in less than one hour, we crossed over from an overwhelmingly Catholic country to a predominantly Muslim one.  What an amazing change, particularly during this Holy Week.  All of Spain was on vacation, crowds from the countryside have come for observances into the main urban areas.  Though Morocco is not devoid of Christians, there is no sense of special religious goings on.  In Spain we experienced traditions both amazing and indeed hair raising from both an American and Jewish mindset.

Very early on Palm Sunday we flew from Valencia, where we observed and enjoyed the strange Las Fallas festival I described in a previous blog, to Seville.  Seville is the capital of the province of Andalusia and as such the center of unique Holy Week observances, or so we have been led to understand.  Seville teems with the thousands of people filling hotels and restaurants for this week.

Following Palm Sunday mass children and teens of all ages accompanied by their parents and grandparents poured out of churches.  Though most of the adults were dressed in their Sunday best, this younger contingent along with some adults were dressed in white cloaks with tall pointy hoods that covered their faces revealing only their eyes through cut holes.  We couldn't help associating the dress with Ku Klux Klan uniforms!  It took our breath away.  Of course we were bringing our frightful American associations.  It was explained to us that these clothes were instead a sign of ultimate contrition, that only God could see the real human being.  Thankfully we observed this in the midst of a celebratory atmosphere, and we did our best to understand what we were bringing to the situation.

However that night the scene changed once again.  Now thousands, probably tens of thousands, of older teens and adults paraded in solemn assemblies through the blocked off streets of Seville near the Cathedral wearing mostly black robes with the same large pointy hats as we saw in the morning, but in black, again with only eyes visible.  Interspersed with these solemn assemblies were enormous floats in gold and silver depicting aspects of the final week of Jesus' life, followed by large bands playing mournful dirges.  We learned that the floats weighed thousands of pounds and were being lifted by teams of men under the floats that could only travel several feet before setting the float down.  It was a great honor to be chosen for such a team and periodically substitutes were incorporated.

The combination of darkness, the soulful hooded paraders, many of them in stocking feet or barefoot, the doleful music, the floats themselves, the large crowd of spectators who clapped and cheered each time a float was lifted was eerie and troubling to say the least.  It was also not far from our consciousness that it was in Seville in 1391 that anti-Jewish riots broke out spreading to every major city in Spain with a Jewish community.  These communities never recovered. Those Jewish areas of town continue to exist to this day as the former Jewish areas of town htough no Jews have lived there since the Jews were exiled in 1492!  Jews had lived in these cities often since the Roman period.  It was not difficult to imagine what in other circumstances high religious fervor could lead to given the proper temperament and fanatical leadership.  Given the contemporaneous American presidential race, the atmosphere around Donald Trump also had its affect on us.  We had a hard time sleeping that night.

What we did not expect was that the same ritual would take place each and every night of Holy Week...and not just in Seville.  Later that week we drove to Granada.  Though not as large as in Seville, here too observant participants marched anonymously in hoods, often in black, but also in red and green with floats and bands from the individual churches to the Cathedral and back again to the churches.  Such events we understand occur in every city large and small throughout the province.  It was eye-opening, somewhat frightening and gave us plenty to think about. 

Easter had historically been frightening times for Jews throughout the centuries in Europe.  Blood libels accusing Jews of slaughtering a Christian child whose blood was claimed to be necessary in order to bake matza took place in cities throughout Europe.  Easter was a time of Passion Plays in which it was the Jews who were portrayed as calling for the death of Jesus and were accused of being Christ killers.  We saw first hand how that in former times could easily become reality.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

I guess I never thought much about Christopher Columbus.  We used to get a day off from school for Columbus Day.  We learned that Columbus sailed for Spain, and his first voyage included the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.  Though his origins were obscure, he was likely Italian.  Long ago we were taught that before Columbus, people thought the earth was flat and that if you sailed too far, you would probably fall off.  However sometime later we were assured that even in Columbus' day, people already knew the earth was round. At a certain point when it was emphasized that Columbus exploited the native population on his several journeys, a struggle occurred between the Italian and Native American communities as to whether to celebrate Columbus as a hero altogether.

A theory was expounded at one point claiming that Columbus might well have been Jewish.  After all 1492 was when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jewish community from Spain. We know for a fact that some of Columbus' sailors were Jewish.  That obscure origin mentioned earlier fits well with Jews who might have hidden their origin and if you wanted to hide that you were Jewish, why not claim Christopher as your first name.   However that theory has been largely debunked.  (More recently I learned that the maps that Columbus used came from Majorca, a center of Jewish cartographers.)

However here in Spain Columbus is celebrated as a great hero.  That is because the exploitation of the New World initiated by Columbus' mission and subsequent explorers made Spain fabulously wealthy.  In many ways it made Spain the center of the world, until three generations later under Philip II, Spain's overreach bankrupted the country.

Columbus is buried in the cathedral in Seville, or was he?  His tomb is quite large and stunning.  He died in 1506 in Spain a the age of 54. His remains were moved several times between the old world and the new, back and forth across the Atlantic.  His wishes were to be buried in the new world, and thus Santa Domingo claims to have his remains, but Spain claims they were finally repatriated to Seville.  Our guide told us that DNA tests were done in Spain, but not in Santo Domingo.  It was Columbus' son who wrote a biography of his father, the text of which remains in the Seville archives.

In fact Colon, as he is known in Spain, made his first appeal for money to the king and queen in Seville in 1487 and was turned down.  It was only some years later almost immediately after Grenada fell, the last Muslim holdout in Spain, that Isabella, we are told, granted Columbus' request against the advice of her scientists who claimed correctly that Columbus' calculations were wrong, because the globe must be far larger than Columbus claimed.  Even after reaching what later became known as America, Columbus believed he had reached the Orient.  In the main square in downtown Grenada at the base of Colon Street stands a giant image of Isabella granting Columbus the money for his voyage.  The image contains a scroll listing the voyage's numerous conditions, one of which was granting Columbus one-eighth of any riches he brought back with him to Spain. I can only assume that she reneged on this promise, because it seems that Columbus died impoverished.

Such is life....