The Benghazi Seder of 1943

April 3 2018

Libya, controlled by Italy at the beginning of World War II, was the scene of intense fighting for the war’s first few years. By the end of 1942, the city of Benghazi, which had changed hands several times, was firmly under British control. The following spring, soldiers from the Jewish Brigade—a unit made up mostly of soldiers from the yishuv fighting under British command—found itself celebrating Passover in Benghazi alongside local Jews, many of whom had been in concentration camps. Rabbi Ephraim E. Urbach, who later became a leading Israeli scholar of ancient Judaism, and who presided over the seder in his role as a military chaplain, described it in his diary—which has survived along with the Haggadah made for the occasion. Chen Malul writes:

Many of the 600 participants of the seder came from far away. During the fighting, the Germans banished the Jews of Benghazi to Tripoli; they only started to return after the British had completely conquered Libya. Jewish Brigade soldiers, [as well as] Canadian, American, British, and Australian soldiers serving in the area, came to celebrate along with the Jewish community.

There were major logistical issues that occurred during the preparations for a war-time seder, the biggest among them being printing enough Haggadot for all the participants. To resolve this issue, the writers and editors confiscated telegrams and other letterheads from the offices of the Libyan authorities. On the backs of these scraps of paper they typed out the [custom-made] text of the Haggadah and copied it with a mimeograph machine. . . .

[T]he [Benghazi] Haggadah ties the historical exodus from Egypt with the Holocaust taking place in Europe, ending in a Zionist declaration. . . . One unique aspect of the Haggadah, in addition to the foreword written by the Jewish soldiers, were the illustrations they added to it. Under the famous line, “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You,” the soldiers added an illustration of a fighter plane dropping bombs on an unidentified target. No doubt this was symbolic of the future defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

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More about: Haggadah, Libya, Libyan Jewry, Religion & Holidays, World War II

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin