The Story of a Sephardi Family, and the Transformation of the Middle East

In Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century, Sarah Stein tells the story of the Levys, a Jewish family from Ottoman Salonika. Matti Friedman writes in his review:

Jews, [on the eve of World War I], made up most of [Salonika’s] population and ran its affairs. . . . [T]he young David Ben-Gurion, later the first prime minister of Israel, spent a year in Salonika and noted with amazement that a ship couldn’t leave on Saturday “because the Jewish workers at the port did not work on the Sabbath.” Salonika was, he declared, “the most Jewish city on earth.”

Sa’adi, the [Levy] family patriarch, died in 1903. By the time his grandchildren were adults, in the years after World War II, none could speak his language, the Judeo-Spanish dialect Ladino. His city Salonika, the Jewish port ruled by Muslim Turks, had become a Greek Christian city, Thessaloniki. The Jews were gone.

It’s hard to imagine a place like Salonika today, but its closest approximation in the present is not far away to the east, in Israel, a Mediterranean enclave that feels a lot like Greece and has a lively and fractious Jewish culture in constant contact with Islam. But unlike the working-class Salonika Jews who played a key role in the birth of Israeli ports and shipping, few members of [the Levy] family seem to have had much to do with the new state. They were creatures of a polyglot empire, and nationalism wasn’t their style. Their faith was in Western progress and good will.

After World War I, [Sa’adi Levy’s son] Sam, a journalist, had in fact written to the Versailles peace conference to propose that Salonika become “a free and neutral city administered by Jews” with a vote in the League of Nations: “a Jewish city-state that was neither Zionist nor Greek.” It was a great idea, and of course it was doomed along with the world he knew.

Read more at New York Times

More about: Ladino, Ottoman Empire, Sephardim, Thessaloniki


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy