During a Dec. 4 Zoom lecture organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria, historian Elissa Bemporad offered a nuanced look at the Jewish experience in Ukraine, as well as perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine
“It was a history marked significantly more by coexistence between Jews and non-Jews than it was by violence,” said Bemporad, a professor at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Centre in New York City. “I am saying this not only in response to the genocidal war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, justifying it by manipulating the past and demonizing Ukrainians as quintessentially violent. We should resist the view of the Jewish experience in the region, as tragic as it might have been, as if it was doomed from the very beginning and enveloped in perpetual violence.”
The current war, she underscored, has brought about the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, with cities destroyed and civilian populations terrorized. “The aim of this war seems to be putting an end to Ukrainian sovereignty and identity,” she said. “As a historian, one of the most painful moments was reading about how the Russian occupiers were seizing and destroying books. As Jewish historians, we know all too well what happens when a society destroys books.”
Showing images of the destruction of Jewish buildings in Ukraine, such as a synagogue in Mariupol and the Hillel building in Kharkhiv, Bemporad spoke to the irony of one of Russia’s stated goals of the conflict: to rid the country of Nazis. Most of the Jews in these bombed-out cities have left, she said, and there is uncertainty as to whether they will return; many have either fled to Israel or settled in the West.
Bemporad discussed the pre-Second World War period, when 1.5 million Jews lived in what is today Ukraine, the largest community being in Kyiv, where 226,000 Jews resided, or one-third of the city’s population. Addressing the anti-Jewish violence in the region, she spoke about – among other uprisings, dating back to the 17th century – the Russian Civil War (1918-21) and the resulting atrocities committed against the Jewish population by both military units and the civilian population. Many of the pogroms took place in Ukraine and tens of thousands of Jews were killed.
“Jews were thought of as interlopers in the national body and imagined as forces connected to Bolshevism that would tear apart the nation’s fabric,” Bemporad said. “The fact that Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army did not play in favour of the Jews.”
But Bemporad highlighted a history of coexistence as well, stories in which some Ukrainians heroically stepped in to save the life of Jews, notably the writer Rakhel Feygenberg, who, along with her infant son, was hidden by non-Jews during a 1919 pogrom.
About the post-First World War era, she noted the ambivalentattitude the Soviet state had toward antisemitism. “While the state condemned antisemitism on paper, it was often eager to ignore antisemitism or to weaponize it in its best interest,” she said. “With regard to the pogroms, the Soviets shifted between acknowledging and downplaying the anti-Jewish violence. They were ambiguous in their treatment of the Jews, and they were the ambiguous in their treatment of the perpetrators, creating a state-controlled memory. However, when the discussion of the pogroms was perceived as at odds with the regime’s interests and priorities of building socialism based on the brotherhood of peoples, then the memory of anti-Jewish violence was silenced and the Soviets preferred not to investigate and punish the perpetrators.”
In other examples, she said the Soviets would use antisemitism among Ukrainians as a means to demonstrate they were prone to nationalism. And both Ukraine and Russia have provided recent examples of reviving the memories of and glorifying national heroes who were responsible for carrying out pogroms.
In a final slide, Bemporad displayed the results of a Pew Research Centre survey on antisemitism in Europe. Despite Russia’s attempts to portray Ukraine as a hotbed of antisemitism, more Russians had an unfavourable opinion of Jews than Ukrainians. And, in Bemporad’s view, Ukraine, despite its corruption, has become the most democratic of the post-Soviet states, excluding the Baltic countries. Further, as has often been mentioned in referring to the present situation of Jews in Ukraine, the country elected a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with more than 73% of the vote.
“Siding with Ukraine today does not entail dismissing or forgetting the dark pages of anti-Jewish violence in the region,” Bemporad said. “It is rather a reminder that we can start turning those pages and writing new ones in the book of the Jews of Ukraine.”
Bemporad, a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk and Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets. She is the co-editor of two volumes: Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators and Pogroms: A Documentary History.
The next speaker in Kolot Mayim’s Building Bridges series will be Sari Shernofsky, a retired community chaplain from the Calgary Jewish community, on Stories from the Narrow Bridge: Meeting People in Their Time of Need. She will speak on Jan. 8, 11 a.m. Visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Flame Towers, in the capital city Baku, reflect the forward-looking economy and the ancient Zoroastrian roots of the Azerbaijani people. (photo by Pat Johnson)
It is a Muslim-majority country where Jews proudly draw visitors’ attention to the fact that their synagogues and day schools receive government funding and require no security. It is a majority-Shiite country with a primarily Turkic population, where Turkish flags wave alongside Azerbaijani standards. Yet, among its closest allies is Israel, which a survey indicates is the second most admired country among its citizens. It provides 40% of Israel’s oil and receives vital security and defence cooperation from the Jewish state. One of the country’s greatest modern heroes is a Jewish soldier who died defending the country in 1992.
Azerbaijan is an enigma that defies assumptions, especially when it comes to its Jewish citizens, who have experienced almost nothing but neighbourliness from their Azerbaijani compatriots for two millennia.
Along with a small number of other Canadian journalists and community activists, I was a guest last month of the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians during an intensive weeklong immersion in the country, including its Jewish present and past.
I won’t pretend I didn’t have to Google Azerbaijan to place it alongside its Caucasus neighbours Armenia and Georgia, between the Black and Caspian seas, inauspiciously bordered by two rogue nations, Iran and Russia. Like many people, my knowledge of Azerbaijan was limited to its 30-plus-year conflict with Armenia over the disputed Karabakh region, a conflict that has led to allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and atrocities on both sides.
We traveled to Karabakh, a place of ghostly, abandoned, war-destroyed cities and countrysides plagued by an estimated million landmines. Helmeted workers pace slowly through what were once farms in the almost unimaginably Sisyphean task of demining a half-billion square metres of land. (Israeli drones and artificial intelligence are helping the process.) We visited cemeteries and monuments, drove highways lined for kilometres with portraits of war dead.
In a distinct counterpoint to this carnage, we visited the country’s Jewish residents and learned of the history of Jews and non-Jews in this place, a story of almost unprecedented fraternity unusual for any country, not least a majority Muslim society in a place where ethnic and territorial conflicts, and the ebb and flow of empires, has conspired against peace.
A history of diversity
Azerbaijan was a deviation on the standard Silk Road route, and so people were long familiar with those from the west and the east. But its economy exploded in the latter half of the 19th century, when oil was discovered. By 1901, the region, part of the Russian Empire, was producing fully half of the world’s oil.
This ancient and modern history brought waves of Jews, beginning in biblical times. The oldest communities of Jews in Azerbaijan are known as Mountain Jews, or Kavkazi Jews, whose Persian-Jewish language is called Juhuri. Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, the Mountain Jews maintain some Mizrahi traditions and their practices are heavily influenced by kabbalah. They trace their presence back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple, in 586 BCE, but these ancient communities have been joined in more recent times by other migrants.
Jews from neighbouring Georgia, where communities have also lived since the Babylonian exile, migrated to Azerbaijan during the first oil boom, in the late 19th century. After the 1903 and 1905 Kishinev pogroms sent terrified Jews from across the Russian Empire fleeing to the New World and elsewhere, a group of Ashkenazim moved from throughout the empire to Azerbaijan, drawn by its reputation for intercultural harmony.
Today, Mountain Jews make up about two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population. (Ballpark estimates are that there are 30,000 Jews in Azerbaijan.) Most Mountain Jews – 100,000 to 140,000 – now live in Israel and there is a significant population in the United States. Those who remain, however, deflect questions about why they have not made aliyah or migrated to Western countries.
“This is my homeland. Why should I leave?” asked Arif Babayev, the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Ganja, adding: “I don’t know what antisemitism is. I’ve never experienced it.”
The community of Qırmızı Qəsəbə, or Red Town, has been known as “Jerusalem of the Caucasus” and also as “the last shtetl in Europe.” It is said to be the only all-Jewish (or almost-all-Jewish community) outside Israel. The streets of the mountain village, in the northeast region called Quba, were quiet on a November Sunday. Many of the people who call the village home actually spend most of the year working in the capital city Baku, returning in summer to what amount to summer homes. The older community members and a few families stay year-round.
Three synagogues in the town survived the Soviet years – two still operating as congregations and one transformed into an excellent museum with original artifacts and in-depth exploration available on interactive screens where congregants once davened. The two synagogues, active on Shabbat and holidays, are intimate, magnificent structures. The Six Dome Synagogue, dating to 1888, was used as a warehouse and as a shmatte factory during the Soviet period and was restored and reopened for use in 2005.
Throughout history, the Jews of the area worked in viticulture (their Muslim neighbours were ostensibly forbidden from alcohol-related tasks, though this is not a country with a large strictly observant religious population), tobacco growing, hide tanning, shoemaking, carpet weaving, fishing and the cultivation of the dry root of the madder plant, which is used in dyeing textiles and leather.
In the 1930s, there was a Stalinist crackdown on Judaism, but circumcision, kosher slaughter and underground Torah study survived. Since the end of the Soviet era and the dawn of independence, in 1991, Jewish life has both thrived and shrunk – many emigrated, but those who remained have revivified their cultural and religious roots.
In wealthy and modern Baku, signs of a flourishing Jewish community are found at two government-funded Jewish schools, each with about 100 students. They follow a government-created Jewish studies curriculum that includes Hebrew, Jewish history and tradition, as well as the official curriculum of the Azerbaijani education ministry. Like so many other places throughout the country, the school is festooned with photographs of the current president and his late father and predecessor.
The school’s leadership note that there is no security outside the institution, unlike in France or even Israel. The school is in a complex that includes a non-Jewish school and the students compete together in intermurals. Jewish and non-Jewish students celebrate the Jewish holidays together.
Nearby, the Sephardi Georgian congregation and the Ashkenazi synagogue share a building that was funded by the national government. The two sanctuaries are on different floors, each with their distinctive internal architecture and warm, inviting sanctuaries.
George Deek was the youngest ambassador in Israel’s history when appointed to head the embassy in Baku, in 2018. An Arab-Christian from a prominent Eastern Orthodox family in Jaffa, Deek was a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University and held previous posts at Israeli missions in Nigeria and Norway. He is also, he noted, the Israeli diplomat geographically closest to Tehran.
The ambassador sees parallels between Azerbaijan and Israel, which are both young countries made up of people who are used to being bullied by their neighbours. Both peoples understand what it is to be small and to struggle to preserve one’s own culture, he said.
In addition to the large swath of Israel’s oil supply that comes from Azerbaijan, there is growing trade and cooperation between the countries across a range of sectors. In addition to strategic partnerships, they are sharing agriculture and water technologies in conjunction with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, in southern Israel. An Israeli company is building a Caspian desalinization plant and Israeli drip irrigation technology is being applied to Azerbaijani farms.
Tourism is a growing sector and Israel is a significant market: by next year, there will be eight flights weekly between Baku and Tel Aviv on the Azerbaijani state carrier, as well as regularly scheduled tourist flights on Israir.
Deek shared the results of a survey that seemed to provide proof of the historical and anecdotal things we had been hearing about the Azerbaijani connection not only to their Jewish neighbours but to the Jewish state. In a poll measuring Azerbaijanis’ positive opinions about other countries, Turkey came first and Israel second.
Despite all this upbeat news, and despite the fact that Israel has had an embassy in Baku almost since Azerbaijan gained independence, the diplomatic mission was not reciprocated, even as trade and person-to-person connections expanded. There is a range of geopolitical explanations for the lack of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel and Deek told our group he hoped that Azerbaijan would soon be able to open one there. And, just a few minutes after we left our meeting with the ambassador, our guide received a phone call – Azerbaijan’s parliament had just approved a resolution to open an embassy in Israel.
The decision, after all this time, is due to a confluence of events. There had been fear of an Iranian backlash to more overt relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, but global disgust over the Iranian regime’s crackdown on anti-government protesters may have diminished Azerbaijani concerns. The close relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey was probably another factor. With Turkish-Israeli relations back on a somewhat even keel after a chilly period, the time may have seemed right. With the long-simmering Karabakh conflict now concluded, as far as Azerbaijan is concerned, by the 2020 war that returned the region to Azerbaijani control, the country may be less wary of making waves among Muslim allies. That fear would likely be additionally assuaged by the Abraham Accords, which make warm Azerbaijani-Israeli relations less remarkable than they might have been just a few years ago. (Azerbaijan’s anti-Israel voting record at the United Nations is still a disappointment that some observers hope changes as ties grow.)
The tight relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel is, of course, viewed by Iran as a Zionist plot. Iran has both internal demographic and external security concerns about Azerbaijan. There are almost twice as many ethnic Azerbaijanis within the borders of Iran – about 15 million – than there are in the country of Azerbaijan, and the Islamic revolutionary regime doesn’t want any nationalist rumblings. Beyond this, the very existence of a secular, pluralist Azerbaijan stands as an affront to Iran. Azerbaijan is a majority Shi’ite country, like Iran. It is geographically and demographically small and, in the imagination of Iranian fundamentalists, it should be the next domino in the ayatollahs’ plan for regional domination. Instead, despite the familial ties across the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, intergovernmental relations are frigid.
What is it about Azerbaijan?
A new embassy. Burgeoning trade and tourism with Israel. Centuries of good relations between Jews and non-Jews. A level of comfort and security unknown to Jews in almost any other country, certainly any Muslim-majority place. What is it about Azerbaijan?
I asked a few people – religious leaders, a member of parliament, Jews and non-Jews – what the secret sauce is for the Azerbaijanis’ exceptional relations with their Jewish neighbours. No one had a pat answer.
It was people-to-people contact, one person told me. There was never a ghetto; Jews were integrated and part of a larger multicultural society. One theory is that, more recently, there have been lots of Jewish teachers in the school system, so Azerbaijanis get to know and respect Jewish people growing up. Another explanation is that Azerbaijanis view their national identity above their religious or other particular identities, so religious differences are not as divisive as in many places – a factor probably accentuated by decades of Soviet official atheism.
Rabbi Zamir Isayev, who leads the Georgian Jewish congregation in Baku, doesn’t have a simple explanation for why Azerbaijan, among the countries of the world, seems to be so good for the Jews. It’s simply in the nature of the Azerbaijani people, he says.
Azerbaijani history celebrates a number of notable Jews. The Caspian Black Sea Oil Company, which was central to the creation of the region’s dominant resource sector, was founded by Alphonse Rothschild, a French Jew, and other Jews have been involved in a range of resource and other sectors over the years.
In the short-lived government of the first independent republic of Azerbaijan, 1918 to 1920, the minister of health was a Jewish pediatrician, Dr. Yevsey Gindes. That government was also the first democracy in the Muslim world and among the first in the world to grant women the franchise. Like many countries that emerged from the collapse of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan was quickly subsumed into the new Soviet Union.
Lev Landau, Azerbaijan’s 1962 Nobel Prize winner in physics, is widely fêted. Garry Kasparov, considered by some the greatest chess player of all time, is a (patrilineal) Jew from Azerbaijan. A long list of academics, athletes, musicians and business innovators have risen to the top of their fields in the country and abroad and are celebrated both as Azerbaijanis and as Jews. A hero from recent times seems to elicit an especially emotional connection.
The conflict with Armenia, which began in the late 1980s and culminated most recently in a 2020 war, remains understandably fresh in the national consciousness. Highways and villages display thousands of portraits of war dead and the Alley of Martyrs in the heart of Baku is the final resting place of 15,000 Azerbaijanis, many from the final throes of Soviet domination and the two wars with Armenia. Among the most visited graves at the sprawling memorial park is that of Albert Agarunov.
Agarunov was a young Jewish Azerbaijani who volunteered with his country’s defence forces and was a tank commander during the Armenian capture of the strategic Karabakh town of Shusha on May 8, 1992. The 23-year-old, already apparently such a legendary figure that the Armenians had put a bounty on his head, stepped out of his tank to retrieve bodies of slain Azerbaijani soldiers from the road when he was killed by sniper fire. Agarunov was posthumously named National Hero of Azerbaijan and was buried at the solemn national monument, in a service attended by both imams and rabbis. Today, Jews place stones on his grave and others place flowers.
In terms of Azerbaijani-Israeli relations, the large number of Azerbaijani-descended Jews who live in Israel create natural familial ties between the two places. Jewish remittances from Azerbaijani oil wealth helped purchase land in Palestine, an early portent of a connection between the two places. According to one museum piece, Jewish horse wranglers from the Caucasus made aliyah and became protectors of early kibbutzim and moshavim and helped put down the 1929 Hebron massacre, although I cannot find reference to this role online.
Whether that last detail is factual or not, what seems undeniable is that the story of Jews in Azerbaijan stands out as a model of coexistence and good neighbourliness in a world that has not always been so kind. This is a story that deserves to be told more widely.
Left to right are Yoseph Hayun, Brian Libin and Shimon Kalhon, founders of Kehillat Klal Israel. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Vancouver has a new Sephardi congregation – and, while unique in the city, its structure would be familiar to plenty of Israelis and to Jews from places with a larger Orthodox population.
In recent years, alternative housing options have expanded in Vancouver, including coach houses and laneway homes. In an alley behind a home on 12th Avenue, just east of Cambie, passersby might notice a building that resembles one of these newfangled domiciles. Were it not for the mezuzah and the modest sign, they might have no idea that the space is a place for communal gatherings. According to the builder, who does triple duty as the president and leader of daily services, it is not a synagogue.
“A synagogue is a little bit tricky,” said Yoseph Hayun. “I could get [approval for] that, but it’s going to take a long time and I would have to go to a board of variance. We said this was kind of a book club.”
It’s not a lie.
“There are lots of books and we all read the books,” he said. “Then we talk about them.”
The kehillah (congregation or community), called Klal Israel, gathers in the backyard of Shimon Kalhon. The idea started after an informal group of Sephardi families, many of them Israeli, had been getting together for holidays for some time. In Israel, and in places of dense Orthodox populations like parts of the United States, intimate gathering places serving neighbourhood families are not uncommon.
Kalhon said Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other holidays have taken place under tents and they decided to make it more permanent.
The founders – Kalhon, Hayun and Brian Libin – have nothing against the existing Sephardi synagogue, Beth Hamidrash. They just enjoy the sense of family they get from their small congregation. Kalhon and Hayun also wanted something more like they were familiar with from their upbringing – Kalhon in Tripoli, Libya, and Hayun in Ramat Gan, Israel. (Libin is from Edmonton.)
“For us, we are like a family,” said Kalhon. “We don’t have any politics in the synagogue. We don’t have any membership. Every day after [services] we provide breakfast. Every Shabbat, we have lunch. We do all the holidays together.”
Hayun leads most services, unless Rabbi Yechiel (Helik) Orihman is available. Hayun does not have a rabbinic semichah (ordination), but has served as a cantor almost his entire adult life. He also leads classes and has a conversion group of five at present.
Attendance at morning minyan varies. “Sometimes we have 10, sometimes 12, sometimes 15,” Hayun said. “On the holidays, thank God, we have a beautiful minyan. Sometimes we have 30 people.”
The building itself is about 500 square feet, with air conditioning for summers like the 2021 heat dome, area heaters for winter, plumbing for a washroom and a handwashing station. There is also a fully operational kitchen in a covered patio space of about 400 square feet. There is a screen for presentations and classes, as well as room for cozy meals together.
Kalhon jokes about his family’s long walk to services – out the back door and down a few steps.
Kalhon is known to many Vancouver Jews as the owner of Sabra Kosher Restaurant and Bakery, which he opened in 1991 on arrival in the city after a lifetime in the food sector in Israel. At Klal Israel, he is the gabbai(lay leader).
For Libin, the treasurer, the new congregation has been an opportunity to improve his Hebrew skills.
“All the prayers are in Hebrew,” he said. “There’s not much English. There are times where Yossi [Hayun] will explain things, but, for the most part, I’m using a book that’s all in Hebrew. I didn’t used to. Most of us who aren’t native speakers of Hebrew, our Hebrew has improved.”
The linguistic choice is deliberate.
“This is the idea: to bring the young Israelis,” Hayun said, adding that he meets many Israelis on his soccer team, playing golf and around town who do not attend shul. “My vision is to bring them in, to try once a week, once a month, doesn’t matter. Just bring them in. That’s basically the idea and people are coming … slowly, slowly.”
Funds for the building and its operations come from the three founders and anyone else who wants to make an out-of-pocket contribution.
“We have others who are regulars who help out whenever they can,” Libin said.
While the place technically houses a book club, Hayun said it was designed following the religious laws for how a synagogue must be built.
“It’s not like you do whatever,” he said. “There are rules that you need to follow. I know the rules and I went over the books again and again to make sure that we followed the whole thing.”
The aron kodesh, the Torah ark, is the focus of the modest structure and the Torah covers were commissioned by local people for scrolls that were purchased from Israel.
The trio have already mooted what will happen if success renders the space – which seats 40 – too small. They shrug and say they’ll find a bigger place. In the meantime, Klal Israel is open for anyone who wants to join – and stay for a shmooze and refreshments after services.
The construction site of the mausoleum for Bahá’í leader ‘Abdu’l Bahá, east of Haifa Bay, Israel. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Construction of Vancouver-based architect Hossein Amanat’s mausoleum for Bahá’í leader ‘Abdu’l Bahá (1844-1921) was set back when a fire on April 8 caused significant damage to the main building at the holy site just east of Haifa Bay, Israel.
The Iranian-Canadian architect’s design features a sloping geometric meditation garden rising in a sunburst pattern to form a dome covering the tomb. Amanat’s neoclassical Persian structure extends the Ridván Garden, which was a favourite oasis where ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s father, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) – the founder of the Bahá’í faith – retreated after he was released from Acre Prison in 1877. The modest house in which he stayed during his visits there has been restored. After his father’s death, the Iran-born ‘Abdu’l Bahá’ popularized the new religion outside the Middle East in a series of visits to Montreal, and cities in the United States and Europe.
Amanat, 80, fled his native Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and settled in Canada. He is best known for his Shahyad Freedom Tower in central Tehran, which was dedicated in 1972 to honour the Pahlavi dynasty. Following Iran’s revolution, the monumental 45-metre-high archway was renamed the Azadi Tower, after the square in which it stands.
Amanat also designed a series of Bahá’í administrative buildings on Mount Carmel, including the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts, and the Centre for the International Counselors.
The April 8 blaze destroyed “several months of work” on the 2,900-square-metre circular platform and piazza, the Universal House of Justice (the governing council of the Bahá’í faith) said in an April 14 statement. Clouds of smoke billowed from the mausoleum, prompting firefighters to evacuate the nearby suburbs of Giv’at Hatmarim and Afgad.
The fire broke out when windblown sparks from welding on the dome ignited scaffolding and plastic forms being used to mold poured concrete, Ynet reported. The completed concrete walls and structures were undamaged, and the 250 million shekel ($77 million US) project – announced in 2019 – is insured, said the Universal House of Justice. The shrine and meditation garden are being paid for by donations from Bahá’í faith’s five million members around the world.
Bahá’í media representative Sama Sabet said construction “will resume soon.” She didn’t estimate the cost of the damage.
For the last century, ‘Abdu’l Bahá has been temporarily entombed in Haifa’s shrine of Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad Shírází (1819-1850), popularly known as the Báb (“Gate” in Arabic). Shírází was executed in Tabriz for apostasy after claiming to be the deputy of the promised Twelver Mahdi, or al-Qa’im. According to legend, the firing squad’s initial barrage of bullets failed to hit him, and a second team of shooters was brought in. As a Shiite heretic, his body was fed to dogs. It was rescued and hidden by believers.
In 1908, all Ottoman political and religious prisoners were freed by the Young Turk revolution. Newly released, ‘Abdu’l Bahá smuggled the Báb’s remains to Ottoman Palestine and built his iconic shrine midway up Mount Carmel, near where he himself was living. Its dome, visible from the Haifa harbour along the axis of the German Colony, was gilded in 1953.
The mausoleum and garden south of the Tel Akko archeological mound will be one of seven Bahá’í holy sites, ornamental meditation gardens and administrative complexes in a western Galilee pilgrimage route stretching from Mazra’a near Nahariya south through Acre (Akko in Hebrew and Akka in Arabic) to Mount Carmel in Haifa. The serene mausoleums of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh – together with their adjoining gardens, characterized by their sacred geometry and immaculate landscaping – were registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2008.
The Bahá’í faith believes in progressive revelation – that God has revealed himself in a series of manifestations, including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and, most recently, Bahá’u’lláh.
In 1863, Bahá’u’lláh fulfilled the Báb’s prophecies by proclaiming the Bahá’í faith. The new creed eventually evolved into a global religion. Exiled from Persia to Ottoman Baghdad and then the imperial capital Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1868, Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned in Acre’s Turkish citadel in remote Palestine. For Israelis, the notorious jail and its gallows are best known for the prison breakout on May 4, 1947, near the end of the British Mandate of Palestine, in which gunmen from the Irgun underground freed 27 incarcerated freedom fighters.
After being released from Acre Prison, Bahá’u’lláh moved six kilometres north to Mazra’a, also called Mazra’ih. Two years later, he settled in the Mansion of Bahjí (meaning “delight”) in Acre. That palatial home was built in 1821 by ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá, then the Ottoman governor of Acre. Bahá’u’lláh remained there until his death in 1892.
In addition to the mausoleums of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í pilgrimage sites in Haifa and the western Galilee on UNESCO’s World Heritage List include the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and adjoining Mansion of Bahjí and Bahjí Gardens in Acre; the Shrine of the Báb; the 19 terraces of the Bahá’í Gardens and Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa; and the House of ‘Abbud in the Old City of Acre, where the Bahá’u’lláh spent time after being released from prison.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
Bohras in prayer at the marble open-air mosque located on the grounds of Barzilai Medical Centre. (photo from Ron Lobel)
The Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon, Israel, is known for treating victims of border skirmishes with Gaza. It is also the former home of a tomb where a Shi’a Muslim sect known as Dawoodi Bohras (or Bohras) still make pilgrimages. Bohras believe that the head of Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, was buried here in 680 AD, following his death in battle.
While many Shi’as believe that Husayn’s complete body was buried at Karbala, Iraq, others, like the Bohras, claim that his head was hidden in Ashkelon and then taken away centuries later to Egypt to prevent desecration by European Crusaders. Despite that its final resting place might be in Egypt, the location in Ashkelon continues to attract pilgrims.
Dawoodi Bohras number around one million adherents worldwide – though some estimates are as high as five million – and trace their ancestry to Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate. They eventually migrated to India via Yemen after the Caliphate ended in 1171 AD. Today, Bohras live mostly in Western India, with smaller communities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya and elsewhere.
Dr. Ron Lobel, former deputy director of the medical centre, has met with various pilgrims and described them as “very decent people who visit quietly and respectfully.” He continued, “You hardly notice when they’re here.”
Lobel said, wherever Bohras hail from, they converse in Lisan U Dawat, which is similar to Gujarati, with Arabic and Farsi influences, reflecting their Middle Eastern roots. Unlike the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, there is no specific time prescribed to visit Ashkelon. Therefore, pilgrims visit whenever they are able to do so.
Bohras are of the Ismaili Shi’a subdivision and have a centralized leadership, currently headed by the 53rd da’i al-mutlaq: Mufaddal Saifudeen. The Bohras’ leadership lineage can be traced directly to Prophet Mohammed. The Druze, who today live in Israel and the Levant, split off from Ismaili Shi’as in 1017 AD and now identify as a different religion altogether.
The pilgrimage site in Israel has had structures atop that were constantly demolished and rebuilt throughout history. The last standing one was a mosque named Mashhad al-Husayn, which was razed in 1950 by Moshe Dayan despite protests by Shmuel Yeivin, then director of the Department of Antiquities. The Barzilai Medical Centre was opened in 1961, and they contend that they “had no clue that the hill within the premises was a sacred site.”
Although pilgrims had visited prior to 1948, the first known group to visit after Israeli independence came in 1980, shortly after relations between Israel and Egypt were normalized. According to Aliasgher Zakir from Kenya, these pilgrims were Indian and Kenyan Bohras who had recently moved to Egypt for business purposes. Most pilgrims also visit Jerusalem, for its religious and historical significance.
In 2000, the 52nd dai, Mohammed Burhanuddin (the father of Da’i Al-mutlaq Mufaddal Saifudeen), visited during an excavation that uncovered remnants of historic structures barely a metre below the ground. Subsequently, a marble platform was installed, which now serves as an open-air mosque for pilgrims.
“Just like us Jews, they are very stubborn about keeping their old traditions, language and customs alive,” Lobel said with a chuckle. He added that, while Muslims from other sects have also visited, only Dawoodi Bohras show consistency in making pilgrimage as an organized community.
Avi Kumaris an historian and freelance writer. He has lived in six countries and speaks 10 languages. His work has been published in many countries, from his native Sri Lanka to Israel and Ireland, and he has written on a variety of topics, including history, wildlife and linguistics.
It’s high time we changed the conversation. I know unequivocally that the whole world is sick of every conversation starting with: “The case numbers today.…” Or “Two people died today of COVID.” Or “I can’t believe how many idiots wear their masks around their chin!” Or “I’m so tired of COVID!”
Boo-Hoo. Enough ready!
Full disclosure: I am 100% guilty of some or maybe even all of these statements. And tons more that I’m too embarrassed to admit. It’s been so long. Oops, there’s another one. In my defence, I’m trying to change the conversation. For instance, I’ve caught myself saying, “I’m feeling hopeful today” several times this week. I’ve even been inspired to say “Thank you” instead of “Why me?”
We are all human barometers. Our mercury rises and falls in direct relation to the medical experts’ latest pronouncements. We hold our collective breath each time they opine. We hang on every word. And because their world rotates around COVID, ours does, too. But does it need to? The answer is a hard no.
It’s long past due to think thanks. In the past 18 months I can honestly say I’m thankful for participating in Zoom classes every day; walking more; connecting with cousins I barely knew; and meeting new people on the virtual committees I attend.
Thank you G-d for my community, my Torah learning and for endless opportunities to make life better. Thank you for allowing me to survive the pandemic. On second thought, just make that, thank you G-d.
I acknowledge my gratitude. Also, my vulnerability and dependence on G-d. An avowed believer, I’m not embarrassed to admit this. Even among avowed atheists and agnostics.
What I want to say is this: it’s time to celebrate. Not go-out-and-get-drunk celebrate. But, rather, celebrate the small victories. There are zillions of them. Or so I’m told. I’m guilty of seeing the defeats first, but I truly am working on it. Acknowledging this, here, now, I’m humbled to realize that there are infinite lessons I need to learn.
At a women’s Torah study class I attended a few months ago (via Zoom, of course), the instructor posed some simple, yet profound, ideas. Juxtaposing anxiety and positive thinking, and how they relate to emunah (faith in G-d) and bitachon (trust in G-d), she suggested we look at struggles with a different mindset: “What’s the opportunity here?” If you are a Torah-believing Jew, you know that there’s a purpose in whatever G-d throws at us, as individuals and as a collective.
On a personal level, we just have to figure out what that purpose is. Sounds simple, right? Not. Even. A. Little. As the instructor suggested, if we turn our habitual thinking around, we might just be able to parse the purpose. In other words, whatever happens to me, it was G-d’s idea, so what do I do with it? How can I maximize my potential? What’s being asked of me? While the world and its vagaries seem random, they’re far from it.
Life will actually become easier if I stop fearing unknown and challenging situations, and accept that there is always a purpose there. Of course, that’s easy to do when things are going well, but the minute I feel threatened or scared, my anxiety and fear goes from zero to 100 in seconds.
Faced with terrible tragedy, it seems impossible to believe that G-d takes care of us all the time. If He did, why would people be faced with horrific situations that rob them of loved ones, threaten their health and jeopardize their livelihoods, etc.? At times like this, our emunah and bitachon face their biggest hurdles.
How many times have I heard the phrase tracht gut vet zein gut (think good and it will be good)? On the face of it, brilliant. In reality, next to impossible. Notice I didn’t say downright impossible. It’s impossible-adjacent. I try it on occasion, but have difficulty with the carry-through. I assume it’s more of a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing that needs to be hauled out of the closet more than once a month. I must start wearing my rubber bracelet with the saying stamped on it.
There are always more questions than answers. What is this ____ (fill in the blank) meant to teach me? What does G-d want from me? How can I stretch myself spiritually, emotionally and intellectually? How can I turn this situation around to find something positive here?
In my 65 years, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that life is a series of journeys, rather than a destination. Or, to use an analogy my father, z’l, favoured: life is like swimming in the ocean. You swim and struggle and get tired. Then, you reach a little island where you can rest and gather your strength. But the water starts rising and you have to start swimming again. So, you begin the process all over.
I guess the message here is to enjoy the short stints on the little islands of calm. Appreciate them, embrace them, then prepare for more challenges. I guess the trick is to look for more islands and steer ourselves in that direction. How hard can it be?
Hmm…. I’ll let you know once I dry off.
I have few, if any, answers. However, it’s probably more important to ponder the questions than pontificate about things. Humility trumps arrogance, after all. Like the saying goes, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. We can remedy that somewhat with some good old inquisitiveness, a dash of openness, an attitude of show-me and, well, you might just find one of those islands. Or, at the very least, float for awhile, while you enjoy the sun on your face.
Just remember to always wear sunscreen.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.
When white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Va., four years ago chanting “Jews will not replace us,” it was the first encounter most of us had had with the conspiracy theory known as “the Great Replacement.”
In the pretzel logic of racists, immigration and multiculturalism are products of the Jewish imagination, with Jews perpetrating, through behind-the-curtains jiggery-pokery, what the tiny number of actual Jews in the world cannot do demographically: replace Aryan culture with alien races and cultures. The absurdity of the “theory” makes a lot more sense as one delves deeper into the trends and characteristics of antisemitism. Three wildly different but related books show that the projection of all that is wrong in society onto an empty vessel that happens to be Jewish recurs repeatedly. As ludicrous as the Great Replacement is, it dovetails magnificently with thousands of years of anti-Jewish prejudice and propaganda.
In Jews Don’t Count: How Identity Politics Failed One Particular Identity (TLS Books, 2021), author David Baddiel explores how the treatment of Jews is the exception to effectively everything today’s progressives espouse.
“It is a progressive article of faith – much heightened during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 – that those who do not experience racism need to listen, to learn, to accept and not challenge when others speak about their experiences,” he writes. “Except, it seems, when Jews do. Non-Jews, including progressive non-Jews, are still very happy to tell Jews whether or not the utterance about them was in fact racist.”
Baddiel discusses how racism and antisemitism are disentwined to disadvantage Jews, placing antisemitism lower on a “hierarchy of racisms” than other forms.
“Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways as the other minorities are – as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world,” he says. “And, if you believe, even a little bit, that Jews are moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world … well, you can’t put them into the sacred circle of the oppressed. Some might even say they belong in the damned circle of the oppressors.”
Baddiel confronts the canard that Jews can’t be victims of racism because they represent a religion, not a race – an audacious defining of an entire people by others who do not belong to the group, itself an example of something progressives would deign to do with no group other than Jews. By pushing antisemitism down the victimization scale, perpetrators can then accuse people who call out antisemitism as diminishing the experiences of minorities with legitimate claims to oppression.
When Baddiel called out one prominent antisemite, saying he had rarely heard so blatant a statement from someone with so large an audience, the perpetrator replied: “’Cos everyone was scared, that’s why.”
By alleging that a cabal of powerful Jews is policing the language of critics, the perpetrator, Baddiel writes, “isn’t a racist, he’s a hero, finally standing up and saying the things that need to be said even though it will bring down the wrath of this all-powerful Jewstablishment on his head.”
Similarly, when an article in the New York Times seemed like an attempt to rehabilitate the notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan, the author replied to a critic who mooted the negative impact this could have on Jews: “Somehow, among the million concerns, you believe that yours are supposed to rise to the top.… That is called privilege.”
A recurring theme is that, unlike other minorities, Jews are not “innocent victims.” Baddiel (and the other authors mentioned here) do not explicitly say it, but it is understood that, for antisemites, Jews are not victims because, whatever the calamity, they bring it on themselves.
Another recent book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth by Noa Tishby (Free Press, 2021), picks up on some of Baddiel’s themes.
Tishby is an Israeli-American actor with a strong Zionist lineage. Her grandmother was a founder of the first kibbutz in Israel. Her grandfather was Israel’s first ambassador to West African countries and served on the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. Her great-grandfather was the founder of Israel’s ministry of industry and trade. Tishby served in the Israel Defence Forces entertainment troops, which she describes as, basically, “a nightly USO [United Service Organizations] tour.” She starred in an Israeli prime time soap opera – Ramat Aviv Gimmel, a sort of Israeli Melrose Place – then made the move to Hollywood.
Her book is aimed at people of her demographic – young, hip, leftist (though presumably non-Jewish) readers – and she presents, through biography and history, a tidy Zionist narrative that hits the bases. She does what pro-Israel writers rarely do: she uses emotion and personal stories, rather than dogged reliance on facts, chronology and empiricism. This is not to diminish the fact-based foundation of the book, but her first-person narrative connects the reader to the land and people of Israel in a way that cold facts do not.
Tishby provides a simple but thorough overview of regional history and the development of Israel, as well as the parallel history of the Palestinian and Arab peoples in the area. She dissects the claims of the BDS movement one by one, debunking the prevailing leftist narrative in the West. She pillories the obsession of the United Nations with anything Israeli and rebuts allegations of colonialism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, unequal warfare and occupation quite effectively.
She recounts how, in the years after the Second World War, there were roughly 11 million refugees worldwide, 700,000 of whom were Palestinian.
“The 10,300,000 non-Palestinian refugees were funneled into UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, created in 1951), the UN agency dedicated to resettling and integrating refugees and/or stateless peoples,” she writes. The Palestinians got their own unique refugee agency: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
“While UNHCR is constantly working on getting the global number of refugees down, with UNRWA the numbers go up, up, up,” Tishby writes. “After the 1948 war, there were approximately 700,000 displaced people. Now UNRWA has 5.6 million ‘refugees’ registered in their books. How is that possible?”
Even Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are counted as refugees by UNRWA, she notes, asking: “Can you be a refugee from Palestine when you currently live in … Palestine?”
Near the end of the book, Tishby throws some questions at the reader: “How would you handle a wannabe Sharia state 30 miles from your house? How should Israel retaliate when Hamas fires thousands of rockets into southern Israeli towns? Why haven’t the Palestinians agreed to make a final peace deal? Will the PA unite with Hamas and, if so, will Hamas denounce violence, like, ever? Why is Israel singled out? What about other countries that actually do systematically abuse human rights? Why aren’t activists focused on their freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, which Israel grants all her citizens? Where are the boycott movements of neighbouring countries that literally kill people for their beliefs, desire for freedoms and democracy, or sexual orientation?”
Tishby’s Israel is an engaging, entertaining read and an ideal primer for newbies to the subject. For those more immersed academically or through lived experience with this topic, there is little new information, but it is largely an enjoyable read although, in an effort to be hip and approachable, she routinely employs gratuitous profanities, which might grate on some readers.
Far from these two volumes on the scale of page-turning readability is the monumental tome Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013). Published eight years ago, it had somehow escaped my eye and, when I did get my hands on it, it sat for some time on my pile. Cracking the spine was daunting because the thesis is dark and unnerving.
Nirenberg undermines the received wisdom that antisemitism is characteristic of ideological extremes in Western civilization. Instead, he depicts “anti-Judaism” as absolutely central and foundational to the very identity of Western civilization. (He differentiates “antisemitism,” which is discrimination against Jews, and “anti-Judaism,” which is perhaps a more pernicious, guileful thing, attributing “Judaism” and “Jewishness” to anything undesirable, whether the object is Jewish or not.) Applying Nirenberg’s thesis to Charlottesville is a simple way of understanding it. In the eye of the racists, immigration and multiculturalism are bad, ergo, by definition, they are “Jewish,” whether actual Jews have any hand in them or not.
Nirenberg provides a sadly compendious recital of civilizations for whom “Jews,” “Jewishness” and “Judaism” were used as a prism through (and against) which non-Jews defined their own identities.
“Why did so many diverse cultures – even many cultures with no Jews living among them – think so much about Judaism? What work did thinking about Judaism do for them in their efforts to make sense of their world?” he asks.
In Christianity, Jews are viewed as “materialist” and earthly, which is juxtaposed with Christians’ self-image as being concerned with the spiritual and the divine. In a theology where things terrestrial are equated with all things evil, the corollary is predictable.
Nirenberg quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, who said: “if the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.” The subtext of Nirenberg’s book, one could say, is that both things are true: the Jew does exist and the antisemite invented him. There are, in effect, two different “Jews”: real Jews and the image antisemites have created and refined for millennia.
It is this latter imaginary “Jew” that has been used not only to torment generations of actual Jews, but also to contrive the self-identities of civilizations. Nirenberg includes both Christianity and Islam under the rubric of Western civilization when he writes: “anti-Judaism should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.”
Since Christianity and Islam were both founded as supercessionary religions to Judaism, juxtaposing that theological parentage with an antipathy to the descendants of the parent religion creates a cognitive dissonance that Nirenberg describes as the “truth of Jewish scripture and the falsity of the Jews.”
Somehow, adherents of both religions have intrepidly managed to accommodate the dissonance.
“The simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of Judaism became for Islam – as it had been for Christianity – a structuring principle of the world, one through which Islamic truth was explored, discovered and articulated,” he writes. Jews were “both necessary and noxious, prophetic and pernicious.”
The religious bigotry permeates Western civilization, not just its religion, he argues. Nirenberg discusses how Marx employed typical Christian perceptions of Jews as materialistic to fit his atheistic ideology. He also analyzes how it influenced the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. For example, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the great document of the French Revolution, does not mention Jews or Judaism, “it was famously presented and represented to the people – in a painting and in print – as two new tablets of law, replacing those handed Moses on Mount Sinai.” Never mind Christianity and Islam, when it came time for what was probably the most progressive, liberal society yet in modern history to define itself, the revolutionaries took Jewish imagery and firmly demarcated themselves as “not that.”
What is striking when immersing oneself in volumes about antisemitism is the stark certainty of today’s “critics of Israel” that they are untainted with antisemitic bias. They apparently have given little, if any, thought or effort to learn the history of antisemitism and its myriad permutations.
While Nirenberg speaks very little about Israel, he packs a powerful punch when, after hundreds of dense pages excruciatingly dissecting how civilizations for thousands of years have understood their identities and their most significant beliefs in direct opposition to Judaism, he declares: “We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’”
Coincidence? It doesn’t seem so to those have studied the history and malleability of anti-Jewish ideas.
A friend of mine was recently angry and anxious about a university human resources form. The form reflected how people self-identified. In other words, how diverse was this Canadian university’s workforce?
The form’s questions asked about race. On that form, it said that Jewish people should mark on their forms “white.”
The person who told me about this wrote on the form that this was racist and wrong. In fact, Jews come in every single colour and are from all over the world. Jews aren’t defined by only the (Ashkenazim) European “white” category. If we’re identified as an ethnicity, that doesn’t define our race.
Also, Judaism isn’t solely a religion. We’re still considered Jewish even if one converts to another religion, or isn’t practising or is a descendant of a Jewish person. In Canada, First Nations, Inuit and Métis are Indigenous. Historically, Jews are also considered indigenous – to Israel.
Non-Jews have racialized us as “other” for thousands of years. This othering isn’t a new thing. It’s a core component of antisemitism. In Hitler’s Germany, categorizing Jews as a different race and subhuman made it easier for genocide to take place.
This historic narrative around antisemitism parallels that of many other oppressed people. Yet, the antisemitic misinformation campaign is powerful. Even though there are only about 14 million Jews in the world, antisemites consider us to have an outsized influence and power that somehow overpowers and dominates others. As an example: even as hate crimes against Jews have increased, they are poorly covered by mainstream news. Yet, we are also allegedly controlling the media at the same time. Huh?
These tropes aren’t logical or rational. Prejudice, discrimination and hate are often fueled by emotion. Leaders then use these strong feelings to gain power, control and wealth and to scapegoat minorities like Jews.
What are ways to counter this in a 21st-century context? There are social media activists who speak out daily, raising awareness and fighting against this misinformation. Many Jewish families open their home and Shabbat tables up to enable non-Jews, one at a time, to learn about who we are. Others write books and conduct interviews on radio and TV. Yet not all of us are public figures, or want to be.
Even as “regular” people, we can be proud owners of our Jewish identities. We can continue to learn, think and reflect on who we are, what we believe and our place in the world. We can stand together, recognizing that, as Jews, we are all responsible for one another – kol Yisrael arevim zeh le zeh. We can attempt, through pride and knowledge, to control our own narrative.
I, too, was frustrated by that human resources form. Now, I’m puzzled whenever I see a form that asks me what my identity is. Since a bit after the Second World War, light-skinned Jews in North America have been encouraged to tick off the “white” box on these “self-identity” forms. The horrors of the Holocaust were put aside by governments and non-Jews, in an effort to help European, “white” Jews integrate into society, but simply checking “white” erases us. It erases Jewish ethnicity and it erases Jews of colour. Jews from the Middle East, India, Asia, Africa and South America – Jews from anywhere we’ve lived where skin colour might not have been deemed Caucasian, white or European.
This North American erasure is so deep that Jews of colour often describe the discrimination they face when attending synagogue – there are many instances in which a member of the Ashkenazi “white” majority questions if they are full-fledged congregants. They’re asked if they are converts, or guests. Imagine the alienation Jewish people with darker skin face when asked, “Are you really Jewish?” or “Where are you really from?” every time they walk into a service.
Israel’s Jewish population is much more diverse in terms of skin tone than what one finds in the United States or Canada but, historically, it’s been hard for Mizrahi Jews to gain leadership roles in Israel, too. So many Israeli Ashkenazi Jews have bought into this whiteness identity, too.
In the United States, when Jews “became” white, they no longer were excluded from country clubs, university quotas, etc. There was an advantage to accepting this new categorization, even as it still created terrible, completely unethical inequities among people, including Jews, based on skin colour.
As a result of this “becoming white” transition, some oppressed minorities and the political left now may see Jewish people as part of an oppressive white majority. In this view, white Jews have no legitimate complaints about how we are treated, because, suddenly, we’re just part of the privileged majority. So, in addition to hate from the political right, there’s also abuse from the left if Jewish people speak out about antisemitism.
Navigating this landscape is difficult. We all have bias. No one is completely free of it. We’re raised with it and must each work to do better. Yet, in a time when Canadians are watching hate crimes rise against Jewish and Muslim communities, it’s our obligation to do more. Confronting Canada’s residential school history, the deaths of Indigenous children, and Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people overall forces us to think further about what it means to uphold certain “historic” narratives – narratives that don’t reflect what really happened.
Manitoba now wants to collect data about race, ethnicity and indigeneity on its COVID vaccine consent forms. This would allow the province to learn more about vaccination rates and virus rates in various populations.
I’ve printed out the paperwork for my second jab and I’m looking forward to celebrating this chance to be fully vaccinated. Even so, I’m wondering what box to tick off. Choosing “Other” reinforces that antisemitic tradition of negative identity politics. I’d like to avoid that. I’m proud to be Jewish – but it’s not one of the options on the form.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Afghanistan is seeking to repatriate a 1,200-year-old siddur, which is currently housed at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. (photo from Museum of the Bible)
The National Museum of Afghanistan, established in 1919 at the former Bagh-i-Bala royal palace overlooking Kabul, reflects both the multifaith heritage and tortured history of the Central Asian country that once dominated the Silk Road linking Europe and East Asia.
Following the outbreak of Afghanistan’s civil war in 1992, the museum was repeatedly shelled. It suffered heavy damage in a May 12, 1993, rocket strike. The combination of Taliban mortars and looters resulted in the loss of 70% of the 100,000 prehistoric, Hellenistic, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Islamic and Jewish objects once in its collection. Those pilfered artifacts flooded antiquities markets in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Now, the pro-Western regime of President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – formerly an anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. – wants its cultural legacy returned. Among the treasures it is seeking to repatriate is a 1,200-year-old siddur (prayer book) – the world’s oldest Hebrew manuscript after the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“It is our responsibility to get back our ancient treasures,” said Abdul Manan Shiway e-Sharq – the country’s deputy minister for information and publications in the Ministry of Information and Culture – in the first-ever on-the-record interview between an Afghani official and an Israeli journalist.
Shiway e-Sharq said photos of the ancient siddur in Kabul’s National Museum, dating from 1998, contradict the ownership documents provided by the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The MotB says it bought the siddur in 2013 from antiquities dealers in the United Kingdom who provided provenance documents showing the manuscript had been in Britain since the 1950s. The MotB paid $2.5 million for the prayer book. Though Shiway e-Sharq appraised the unique volume at $30 million for insurance purposes, it truly is priceless.
The prayer book may have belonged to the Radhanites, a little-known group of medieval merchants, some Jewish, who traded along the Silk Road linking Christian Europe, the Islamic world, China and India during the early Middle Ages. The Radhanites’ entrepôts and Afghanistan’s early Jewish community were likely destroyed in the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Mongol Empire grew from the steppes of Mongolia to extend from Europe to China.
Responding to a query, MotB’s chief curator Jeff Kloha said the museum will share results of an investigation when completed.
“As noted on the museum’s provenance research web page, museum staff continues to work with external scholars and experts to research this item’s historical and religious significance, as well the item’s history in (apparently) Afghanistan and later Israel and the United States,” Kloha said. “That research is progressing and nearing completion.”
The allegation that the MotB’s rare Afghan Hebrew prayer book is another ancient Near Eastern treasure that was smuggled out of its country of origin is the latest in a series of scandals about looted and forged antiquities that has rocked the Museum of the Bible since its 2017 opening.
The MotB recently shipped 8,000 clay tablets back to Baghdad that may have been taken from the Iraq Museum in 2003, when looters overran it during the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. At the end of January 2021, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security returned 5,500 papyrus fragments from the MotB with “insufficient” provenance to Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, concluding Cairo’s efforts since 2016 to regain its antiquities. And, the museum has acknowledged that all of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments it acquired are forgeries.
MotB founder Steve Green, an evangelical Christian whose family owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, and chief curator Kloha have worked to tighten the museum’s acquisition policies after the U.S. government reached a settlement with Hobby Lobby in 2017 requiring the chain store to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing ancient artifacts.
Leon Hill, the in-house counsel for Transparent Business Solutions, a Dutch company that specializes in corporate integrity management, is keen to see a resolution to the dispute over the ancient siddur. He is dismissive of Green’s explanation that he and Kloha are novices in the museum business and the acquisition of artifacts. “They can’t continue to say that. They’re no longer new. They have a duty to know better. They have a duty to the history and heritage of the artifacts they purport to protect.”
He accused the MotB of “cultural imperialism.” He said, “We hope that we won’t need to be hired by the Afghan government, and that the Museum of the Bible will do the right thing in the right way quickly.”
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
At a Jan. 3 Zoom lecture organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria, Dr. Rachael Turkienicz spoke about mussar (Jewish ethics), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and whether there is a commandment to build bridges.
Turkienicz, founder and director of the Toronto-based Rachael’s Centre of Torah, Mussar and Ethics, began at the beginning, explaining why the Torah starts with creation and not with the patriarchs and matriarchs or the first commandment in Exodus.
“We start with Genesis because it is the ‘common’ that all human beings will have, and so Judaism will begin with what we all have in common,” she said. “No person can ever say to another person, ‘My father is greater than your father.’ And Father in this instance can be capitalized. One person creates the great equalizer. We should never fight with one another over this.”
She then showed how tikkun olam follows from creation, and raised the questions, When did the world break and how did it break? As man is finite and God is infinite, cracks will occur in the process of creation, and it is up to humanity to repair them, according to Turkienicz.
How do we repair? Through free will, she explained. “Free will is the most powerful thing next to God. It is so powerful that I can use my free will to deny God.”
The problem, however, is that “nowhere do we have a program that teaches us what free will is and how to use it,” she said.
In the course of daily routines, free will can take a less prominent role in our thinking, as many of us coast along “on automatic,” i.e., we function without making choices. As a result, nothing is being repaired and the world is continuing as it always does, she explained.
One example of being on automatic is when someone poses the question to an acquaintance passing by: “How are you?” The response is frequently: “I’m OK.” Neither the person asking nor the respondent delves deeply into the subject before moving on.
Being able to use free will is further compounded by the number of choices we have in an open society. Citing academic studies, Turkienicz contended that having a vast array of options available can actually hinder our ability to make use of the power of free will.
Enter mussar, a spiritual practice founded on offering a solid framework on living an ethical life. Mussar differs from kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Whereas kabbalah is knowledge one receives, mussar moves from a person into the world, said Turkienicz.
Mussar stems from the concept that it is all well and good to know the commandments and recite Torah. However, such knowledge in itself does not make someone a mensch. “Mussar is learning to use my free will to repair the world. The commandments are the utensils, the goal is tikkun olam,” Turkienicz explained.
While mussar has been around for more than a millennium, it expanded in the 19th century to communities throughout Eastern Europe. Before the war, it was studied at the top continental yeshivot, but nearly all the leading exponents of mussar were murdered in the Holocaust. Recently, though, there has been a resurgence of the practice in both Orthodox and more liberal branches of Judaism.
Turkienicz compared mussar with other ethical philosophies, using the scenario of a person seated on a bus when an elderly person boards. Most of us are taught that we should give up our seat in such a situation. But what if the elderly person declines the offer? Ethics would say to sit back down, whereas mussar suggests that one should stay standing, because the issue is not about the elderly person but rather one’s own free will.
“Inside of me something said it is not appropriate for me to sit while an older person remains standing. Whether the elderly person sits down or not changes nothing,” she argued.
According to mussar, we are in control of the personal ingredients that comprise us, be they spirituality or patience. We all have the same ingredients, only the measurements are different, said Turkienicz. A person who does not see himself as spiritual still has a degree of spirituality. Likewise, someone who deems herself impatient has an allocation of patience within her. Our free will distributes the measurements.
“My free will chooses what is my perspective and where will I focus,” Turkienicz said.
As to whether there is a commandment to build bridges, she quoted Israel Salanter, a 19th-century rabbi and founder of the modern mussar movement, who said, “A good Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach, but about his fellow man’s stomach and his own soul.”
Turkienicz concluded that, while there is no commandment to build bridges, “everything else shows us we should do so, because, if we choose not to, we have lived where that leads us, and we don’t want to go there.”
To view the presentation in full, go to kolotmayimreformtemple.com and search “lectures.” Turkienicz’s talk was part of the synagogue’s Building Bridges series, the next instalment of which takes place March 7, featuring University of Calgary art professor Jennifer Eiserman on Canadian Jewish art. Click here for more information.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.