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

Nov. 20 2019

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.

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Read more at New York Times

More about: Ladino, Ottoman Empire, Sephardim, Thessaloniki

 

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship