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Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online

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(JTA) During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says still haunts him almost 20 years later.

“I was horrified to see children playing atop the ruins of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, scampering about debris littered with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya many years ago for Italy, told the Behdrei Haredim news site in Israel last week.

The experience turned Gerbi into an advocate for what are known as heritage sites in his old community. But over the years, his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews remain, came to naught.

So Gerbi began to consider alternatives. And now, the psychologist who lives in Rome has announced a new effort to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish ones that have been devastated in his country of birth.

“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were obliterated,” he told the news site. “So I decided to make a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”

The virtual cemeteries will have sections for prominent rabbis and commemorative pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps operated by Nazi-allied Italy – as well as other pages recalling the victims of three waves of pogroms, in 1945, 1948, and 1967, he said.

Users of the website will be able to light memorial candles virtually and dedicate Kaddish mourning prayers through the website interface. “It will be a way to remember the dead of a community gone extinct,” Gerbi said.

The initiative is a collaboration with ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which seeks to document the experiences of Jews around the globe and over time. Together, they’re asking people with information about Jews buried in Libya to reach out.

Their effort is in line with other initiatives that aim to rebuild extinct Jewish communities online because their former homes are so inhospitable to restoration efforts, such as Diarna, a massive website that allows users to explore the cities in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews used to live.

Gerbi’s effort is narrower, focusing exclusively on the cemeteries of Libya, where, during World War II, 40 000 Jews lived in communities with a centuries-long history.

The Holocaust and the antisemitic policies of the independent Libyan government that followed, as well as hostility toward Jews by the local population, drove all of them out. By 2004, Libya didn’t have a single Jew residing in it, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Gerbi’s family was part of that migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them among the last Jews to leave the country. By 1969, the country had only 100 Jews.

The decades that followed, under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, offered few opportunities for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the last decade has been marked by intermittent fighting among clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.

While those conditions have been harsh for Libyans, Gerbi said he hopes the shake-up could eventually give rise to a government that would be willing to address the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalise relations with Israel, as other Arab nations in the region have done in the past year. But he knows that could take many years, and he has essentially given up hope of having officials facilitate physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.

The situation of those sites was poor even before Libya erupted into civil war, he said.

It’s been 19 years since his visit to Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery, but “the gruesome sights and chilling images I saw won’t let go of me”, he said. In 2007, Gerbi visited the site again, “and I was shocked to discover that even the debris had been cleared out. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and high-rise buildings. There’s isn’t a shred left.”

In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes with human remains stuffed into them haphazardly. They had been collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.

Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organisation of the Jews of Libya, which promotes the interests of people whose families have roots in Libya.

Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Tripoli is being turned into an Islamic religious centre without permission.

“The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities [read: militias] since there is now no Jew living in Tripoli,” he told Moked, the Italian Jewish news site.

“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan clearly is to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”

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Shabbos Project

Shabbos Project in 1 500 cities

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The Shabbos Project is once again happening this weekend in more than 1 500 cities and 100 countries around the world.

Following last year’s pivot to home-based Shabbos experiences and Zoom challah bakes – necessitated by the pandemic – this year, the Shabbos Project is close to returning to pre-COVID-19 levels of involvement.

In South Africa, events centre on the Big Shabbos Walk, with shuls arranging a whole host of Shabbos afternoon programmes, many of them outdoors to take advantage of the weather, which also makes it safer from a COVID-19 point of view.

All across the world, things are back in full swing.

Among the new initiatives: a student from Cornell University in New York is leading a campaign among fellow students to switch off their phones for Shabbos. International youth movement EnerJew is co-ordinating the “Gift Shabbos” campaign in which Jewish teenagers in 20 cities in the former Soviet Union will bake challah and deliver it along with greeting cards and candles to elder community members. And Olami France is co-ordinating a full Shabbos experience for students on college campuses in Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, and for French-speaking students in Jerusalem, Madrid, and Porto.

The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is organising a challah bake for its community of Jewish pen pals of all ages living around the world. Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s pioneering leader and innovator in the field of disabilities, has launched an accessible Shabbos-themed digital platform to help children around the world learn about Shabbos in an engaging and exciting way.

And Zehud, which provides online Jewish education to children in isolated Jewish communities across Europe, is hosting a Zoom challah bake for families from all 57 regions where it’s active.

In Prague, Czech Republic, a community Shabbaton will include Shabbos dinner at a local kosher restaurant, a children’s prayer workshop, and a havdalah concert at the Lauder Jewish day school. Cali, Colombia has an all-week programme, including a flower workshop for women, cocktail class for men, and a Thursday night pizza bake, followed by a central Shabbaton for the community. And in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, four very different organisations – Aish UK, Chabad, Jsoc, and the University of Birmingham Chaplaincy – are joining forces for a special student challah bake.

In Israel, where the Shabbos Project has been a real unifying force in society, a group of women in Kochav Yair have organised a street kiddush for the entire yishuv for people of all levels of observance to get to know each other better. In Eilat, open-invitation Shabbos dinners are happening at four central locations across the city. In Karnei Shomron, members of the religious Bnei Akiva and secular Tzofim youth groups have joined forces to arrange a Shabbos gala dinner for soldiers from the local battalion. And, the residents of Raanana will be providing hot, homemade Shabbos meals to Magen David Adom first responders. Finally, a group of Israel-based influencers on Instagram, from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of observance, are publishing a series of posts to bring awareness of the Shabbos Project to a younger audience.

Meanwhile, a woman in Park Potomac in the United States is going door to door in her neighbourhood, inviting anyone with a mezuzah for Shabbos. Organisers of a challah bake in Lisbon, Portugal are using the proceeds to distribute Shabbos meals to Jewish families in need. And in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, four families new to the Shabbos experience are hosting Shabbos dinner – they’ve invited all their neighbours and have received a special Shabbos kit to assist them with the preparations.

Other highlights include a glow-in-the-dark challah bake in Toronto, Canada; Guatemala reopening its shul for special Shabbos services after a two-year hiatus; a Shabbos dinner run by and for university students in Nice, France; and a Shabbaton for high school learners in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders

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(JTA) In an interview that aired on HBO, both of the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand reiterated that they stood behind the company’s decision to stop selling their products in the West Bank.

But for Jerry Greenfield, being accused of antisemitism is “painful”. For Ben Cohen, it’s “absurd”.

“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are being characterised as boycotting Israel, which isn’t the case at all. It’s not boycotting Israel in any way,” Greenfield said in an interview with Axios that aired on its HBO show on 10 October.

The Jewish duo, who founded the company in 1978, are no longer its owners, but they remain the most recognisable public faces of the company. They had previously defended the West Bank decision in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the move took place in July, but the Axios interview gave them a chance to expound on the human side of the aftermath.

“It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people and I totally understand it. It’s a painful issue for a lot of people,” Greenfield said.

They were also asked how it felt to be “wrapped up in accusations of antisemitism”.

“Totally fine,” Cohen said, laughing. “It’s absurd. What, I’m anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew! All my family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”

Ben & Jerry’s had long been engaged in social issues when it decided to pull its product from the West Bank after months of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of Israel’s latest armed conflict with Gaza. The decision prompted calls to boycott Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, along with accusations of antisemitism from some pro-Israel activists. The state of Arizona divested nearly $200 million (R2.9 billion) from Unilever in September, and several other states have since reviewed their investments in the conglomerate.

Unilever has also said in public statements that it doesn’t believe Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the state of Israel, and that it plans to keep selling within the borders Israel established after the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Israeli law outlaws business that boycotts the West Bank, so it remains to be seen whether the company will be allowed to follow through with its plan.

When asked why Ben & Jerry’s continued to sell its ice cream in states with policies that aren’t in line with Cohen and Greenfield’s values – such as Texas, where access to abortion is now limited, and Georgia, where voting rights have been curtailed. Cohen didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know. I mean it’s an interesting question, I don’t know what that would accomplish, we’re working on those issues of voting rights and … I don’t know. I think you ask a really good question, and I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Cohen said.

Greenfield suggested that the answer had to do with international law.

“One thing that’s different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law, so I think that’s a consideration,” Greenfield said.

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Featured Item

Jewish Zambian freedom fighter laid to rest in state funeral

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It’s not often that one finds a Jewish freedom-fighting 96-year-old in Zambia, but Simon Zukas was one such man. Born in Lithuania and profoundly influenced by the events of the Holocaust, he played a pivotal role in bringing democracy to Zambia. He passed away on 27 September, and was laid to rest in an official state funeral on Tuesday, 5 October.

“Simon was profoundly influenced not just by the moral-ethical teachings of Judaism, but by the historical experience of the Jewish people with whom he never ceased to identify,” said African Jewish Congress (AJC) spiritual leader Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft in his eulogy. “In large part, his abhorrence of injustice, particularly when based on race, was informed by the tragic fate of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe including his own home-town during the Holocaust.” Silberhaft was flown out by the Zambian government to officiate the funeral.

Describing Zukas as “a devoted patriot, freedom fighter, and heroic pioneer of the nation of Zambia”, Silberhaft said that he was born Shimon Ber Zukas “in a small Lithuanian town in 1925, and had just entered his teens when he arrived in what was then Northern Rhodesia just before the outbreak of World War II. For the rest of his long and productive life, he would devote himself to furthering the well-being of his adopted country.”

He landed up in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia because it didn’t have quotas limiting Jewish settlers, unlike South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe.

Zukas studied civil engineering at the University of Cape Town, and got involved in student politics. He later joined the struggle for Zambian independence, and was eventually deported to the United Kingdom.

“He was declared a ‘danger to peace and good order’, and, after a fruitless appeal to the high court and eight months in jail in Livingstone, he was deported to England, a country he had previously neither visited nor lived in,” wrote Sishuwa Sishuwa in the Lusaka Times. “Though constituting a risk to his own life, his decision to confront those who perpetuated injustice and become an active participant in the struggle for independence was a statement of his commitment to equality.”

But in 1965, following statehood, new Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda invited him to return. By now a qualified engineer running a successful consultancy in England, Zukas said he moved back to offer his professional expertise to major infrastructure projects. A career in politics also followed: his efforts to persuade Kaunda and his United National Independence Party to abandon a one-party state failed and, in 1990, he broke ranks and joined the drive towards multiparty politics, playing a leading role in its subsequent return. He was most recently leader of the Forum for Democracy and Development, an opposition political party. He retired from politics in 2005.

Alongside his political and engineering endeavours, Zukas was committed to his Jewish identity. He was chairperson of the Council for Zambian Jewry, and vice-president of the AJC.

AJC President Ann Harris wrote to Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema on Zukas’s passing, describing how the AJC “represented the interests of all the Jewish communities in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa of which Zambia is a proud leader. Simon Zukas was an active member of our organisation. His pride in his nation of Zambia and the excellence and fortitude with which he served his country in many different public spheres created a glow of honour which reflected on our congress.”

Calling Zukas a “father figure”, she wrote that “he had the strength and loyalty to be at one and the same time the proudest of Zambians and an outspoken example of his Jewish identity. To us, the loss is immeasurable, and we are quite sure that all of Zambia feels the same.” She wished the president and the people of Zambia “long life” on his passing.

Writer Cynthia Hartley described in her blog how she found herself “crying hopelessly at the news of his death. We met through mutual friends in Zambia as well as work, engineering, politics, and art. Mike, my husband, was Jewish, and that was an important initial connection. Neither Mike nor Simon were observant Jews, but both cared deeply about the Jewish community and its continuity.

“There are excellent obituaries of Simon Zukas but not all explain how extraordinary his moral principles were, given the universal background of racism he faced,” she wrote. She advised reading his autobiography, Into Exile and Back.

Alongside Zukas every step of the way was his loving wife, Cynthia (nee Robinson). Together, they had two sons. A painter by profession, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2012, “for promoting visual arts in Zambia and for creating a historical archive of Zambian art”.

In his eulogy, Silberhaft described her as a “true partner” in her husband’s life’s work, and “an outstanding citizen in her own right”. Hartley said that “they were an extraordinary couple in their support for and understanding of each other. It was a relationship I have long envied.”

Silberhaft said, “Regardless of his foreign birth and the fact that he wasn’t just white but a member of a small religious minority, Simon Zukas was a Zambian to the core, and so was he regarded by his fellow citizens, regardless of race of creed.

“As spiritual leader to the AJC, I was privileged to have had many opportunities of meeting and working with him, and can attest to how strongly the teachings of his Jewish heritage underpinned his approach to everything that he did,” he said. “I’m bidding farewell not only to a member of my own far-flung African congregation, but also to a true colleague and friend. May the memory of Shimon Ber Zukas be a blessing, and may the example he set be a source of inspiration for all the generations to come.”

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