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Books: The Politics of Memory
by Bonny V. Fetterman

In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands
by Martin Gilbert
(Yale University Press, 424 pp., $35)

How did Jews and Muslims interact in lands under Muslim rule, from Afghanistan to Morocco? Historian and Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert answers this question with a definite point of view—always referring back to the legal status of Jews as dhimmis , an officially tolerated minority under Islamic law. “The dhimmi laws made room for both persecution and protection,” he writes. “Their effect was decided by the temperament, religious zeal, and personal caprice of Muslim rulers.”

It is often assumed that Jews fared better in Muslim than in Christian lands, but Gilbert reminds us that the “Golden Age” in Muslim Spain ended with the massacre of the Jews of Granada in 1066, and a century later, Maimonides had to flee from Cordova (Spain), to Fez (Morocco), and again to Egypt before finding security as physician to the Sultan. During the Inquisition, Jews fleeing Christian Spain were welcomed in the expanding Ottoman Empire, where many Jews prospered and made significant contributions to their adopted homes. Still, Gilbert notes, they built their lives on shaky ground because of the dhimmi status.

Dhimmi laws—which originated with Mohammed’s subjugation of the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula and became part of Sharia (Islamic) law—allowed Jews to practice their religion, but also sanctioned their humiliation vis-à-vis Muslims in daily life. One example is the jizya, a poll tax levied on the Jews, which the Koran states had to be “exacted from him directly in order to vilify and humiliate him, so that Islam and its people may be exalted and the race of infidels brought low.” This anti-Jewish bias, Gilbert asserts, influenced popular attitudes even where dhimmi status was abolished, starting in the late 19th century, in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Persia.

Moving into modern times, Gilbert surveys developments in Arab countries against the backdrop of world events, as he explores the best of times (the prosperity of Jews in Egypt from the turn of the century through the 1930s) and the worst of times (the Farhud, the pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad in June 1941, which convinced many Iraqi Jews that their future was in doubt).

Levels of violence against Jews—in every Muslim land—increased with the formation of the Arab League in 1945, the U.N. partition of Palestine in 1947, and Israel’s declaration of statehood a year later. As Gilbert notes, 850,000 Jews were forced to flee their homes in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; 580,000 of them found their way to Israel. “The Jews living in Muslim lands in 1948 might have hesitated to make their way to a land at war…but they did not hesitate,” he writes. “They knew what their situation would be if they remained where they were.”

Gilbert brings this 1,400-year history up to contemporary times with the rescue of the remaining 3,886 Jews of Syria in 1992. With 20 maps by the author, this book will take its place as a classic on the subject.

The Dove Flyer: A Novel
by Eli Amir, trans. from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin
(Halban Publishers, 532 pp., £10.99; available from online retailers)

Eli Amir was 13 years old when his family left Baghdad for Israel in 1950. They spent their first seven years in Israel living in tents, and the trauma of that experience led him to devote his career to issues of immigrant absorption. In this semi-autobiographical novel, Amir recreates the world of Iraqi Jews prior to the mass departure of the 2,500-year-old community.

The novel, narrated by a 13-year-old boy named Kabi, begins with the arrest of his uncle Hizkel, leader of the banned Zionist movement. While attempting to get him out of prison, Kabi’s family and friends debate their own options. Anti-Jewish tensions in Iraq had been brewing for a decade. Like the other Jews of Baghdad, Kabi’s family remembered the pro-Nazi government of the war years and the Farhud , the pogrom of 1941, which forced them to abandon their house in a mixed neighborhood and relocate in the Jewish Quarter. Since Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 and the war with invading Arab armies that followed, life had become unbearable for the Jews of Iraq, with threats of violence and physical attacks.

At the same time, this novel shows us how deeply attached many Iraqi Jews were to their homes as well as to the Arab culture and language. The characters reflect many dreams; in fact, “the dove flyer” is a term that refers to people with fantasies. Kabi’s father is a Zionist who dreams of having a rice farm in Israel (no one told him that Israel has a desert climate), while his mother just wants to move back to her house in the old neighborhood. The headmaster of Kabi’s school, Salim Effendi, is a Communist who wants to see a just and equal society in Iraq, while a wealthy businessman called “Big Imari” is convinced that his relationship with the Regent Abdullah will protect him. Others, like Chief Rabbi Basri and old Hiyawi, the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery, simply feel too rooted in Iraq to leave. Meanwhile, no one is going anywhere because Jews are prohibited from leaving. Abu Edouard, who owns a dovecote, just wants life to become predictable again, like his doves that fly away and return every day. Meanwhile Kabi, who has the usual dreams of an adolescent boy, listens to everyone’s fears and dreams as they face an uncertain future.

Jewish Living:
A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, rev. ed.,

by Mark Washofsky
(URJ Press, 521 pp., $24.95)

How does Reform Judaism deal with the emerging issues in bioethics? What are the requirements and rituals for conversion? Can same-sex marriages be performed by Reform rabbis? Who can play a role in a Reform congregation and in a Reform worship service?

Mark Washofsky, professor of Rabbinics at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, tackles these and other questions in the revised edition of his classic guide to Reform Jewish practice. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was the editor of the first edition.) This new edition features an index, facilitating its use in educational settings, and updated references to the Reform Movement’s new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah—A Reform Siddur.

Along with the revised edition of The Torah: A Modern Commentary, by W. Gunther Plaut, and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eshkenazi and Andrea Weiss, Jewish Living serves as one of the core texts of the Union for Reform Judaism for home study and reference. Comprehensive in scope, it describes the worship service, the Reform congregation, holiday and lifecycle observances, conversion, medical ethics, interfaith services, and the relationship of Reform Jews to the Jewish community. An excellent introduction presents Reform Jewish practice as Reform halachah , a way of life based on the ongoing process of rabbinic interpretation.

Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends
by Tom Segev
(Doubleday, 482 pp., $35)

Within days of his liberation from Mauthausen, Simon Wiesenthal gathered the names of more than 150 Nazi criminals he knew must be brought to justice. Over the next five decades, Wiesenthal became the most famous Nazi hunter in the world—the man who located Adolf Eichmann, chief of the Gestapo’s Jewish Department, in Buenos Aires; tracked down Franz Stangl, the commander of Treblinka, in São Paulo; and discovered Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, “the Mare of Majdanek,” in Queens, New York. Summing up the meaning of his career, Wiesenthal said that when he meets the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust in heaven, he will say, “I did not forget you.”

“More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory,” writes Israeli journalist Tom Segev in this definitive biography. “Nobody did more than he did in this respect.”

Segev, who had access to previously classified documents, reveals that Wiesenthal worked as an intelligence agent for the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s political department in the pre-state period and for the Mossad after statehood. In the 1950s, however, the Israelis were less concerned with pursuing Nazi criminals than building a nation, and the Western Allies, after a round of war crimes trials, soon became preoccupied with the Cold War. Wiesenthal was angered and frustrated that his leads were ignored. When in 1953 he informed the Mossad that Eichmann was in Buenos Aires, his memo was filed away in an archive. (As Segev puts it, “only the file knew” that Eichmann was in Argentina.) Seven years later, when the Mossad—prodded by tips from a Jewish official in the West German government—captured Eichmann, Wiesenthal’s years of relentless sleuthing finally came to light. With the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal became a cultural icon for the generation that “discovered” the Holocaust in the 1960s.

Running a one-man operation—the Jewish Historical Documentation Center—from his Vienna office apartment, Wiesenthal gave the impression of being at the nexus of a worldwide dragnet. He knew how to approach world leaders and how to work the media. But he was also a lightning rod for attacks from expected sources (Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis) and unexpected sources—such as the World Jewish Congress, which harshly criticized Wiesenthal for his refusal to join their campaign against former U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim in 1986. Waldheim was running for president of Austria when evidence started to emerge that he had lied about his wartime past. Wiesenthal, however, refused to condemn Waldheim without a thorough investigation to determine whether he had been involved in war crimes. Segev comments: “Wiesenthal’s public stance did not meet the requirements of the sensationalist atmosphere surrounding the affair.” His position, considered a betrayal by some American Jewish leaders, most likely cost him the Nobel Prize.

This insightful biography explores the complex personality of Simon Wiesenthal and gives us a new context for appreciating his legacy: “Ironically, the more years went by and the more unlikely it became that the surviving Nazi criminals would be brought to justice, the more the Holocaust became a universal synonym for evil, a warning sign for every nation and every person,” he writes. “This happened, to a large extent, thanks to the efforts of Simon Wiesenthal.”

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of
Reform Judaism magazine.

Books marked with this icon signify that they have been recommended for discussion groups—including Reform Movement-wide discussion on the “News & Views of Reform Jews” blog—as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jewish adult literacy initiative. Visit to see readers’ personal perspectives and to add your own.


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