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The Air Force Museum, Near Be’er Sheva

Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum
Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum

Moshe, our ten-year old grandson, has become enamoured of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). He has read a thick history of the IAF at least three times. One day in the late summer, when I saw him reading the book, I mentioned I had visited the IAF museum several years ago. He immediately asked his parents to take him there. They agreed, and planned a family trip for Succot. The group quickly expanded to include two of his siblings and both sets of grandparents.

This week, the long anticipated outing took place. Nine of us piled in to a rented van for the trip to Hatzerim, a little to the west of Be’er Sheva. Harold, Aliza’s father, asked Moshe how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10. The answer came back immediately: “20.”

An open-air museum

The word “museum” generally brings to mind a picture of a large building, full of pictures on its walls and tastefully displayed artifacts. The IAF museum has no large building. Just inside the museum entrance are a snack bar and souvenir shop. Nearby are a few small buildings: the administration offices, archives, and exhibits related to the history of the IAF. This is the desert—the annual rainfall of nine inches makes large roofed areas a needless expense. Besides, most of the exhibits are outside.

More than 150 aircraft are parked on a large expanse of concrete. The aircraft are arranged in chronological order of their use by the IAF. We were lucky—because there were so many of us, we had our own English speaking guide. Audrey made aliyah from France as a teenager. She spent a year improving her Hebrew before drafting into the Air Force. She was probably assigned to guiding museum tours because of her fluency in three languages. As she led us around the field, she told us about the history of IAF, the air planes, and the men who flew them. (Women have been able to train as pilots only in the last decade or so.)

One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs
One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs

Audrey had her work cut out for her. Moshe kept interrupting her with added information or questions. Several times she stopped in the middle of a comment to tell him that the plane was he had just asked about was “parked over there—we’ll get to it in a few minutes.”


Messershmitts: The beginning of the IAF

The first plane in the first row is one of the Messerschmitts Israel purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1948. The planes were brought disassembled to the new country as pieces of “agricultural equipment.” When the six planes were re-assembled, some parts were missing. For example, there was one more body than engine. After a frantic search, the procurement team located the wreck of a Messerschmitt whose engine remained in good condition. The wreck was dismantled and its engine placed in the German plane, whose body had been repainted to cover the Nazi insignia.

By now it was late May 1948, and the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. Israel was desperate. With no time to test fly the aircraft, the newly assembled planes were immediately pressed into battle just in time to stop the Egyptian army from capturing Tel Aviv. Twenty-five percent of the Israeli Air Force—one air plane—crashed into the Mediterranean.

Audrey pointed out a major problem with the German craft. Its machine gun sits behind the propeller. Any slight defect in the timing mechanism could cause the bullets from the machine gun to destroy the propeller. The Czechs were not as careful synchronizing the timing as the Germans, who had designed and first manufactured the planes, had been. Later Israel acquired some Messerschmitts with guns on their wings, which did not require synchronization with the propeller.

Another problem was psychological. Many people felt uncomfortable that Israel was using German aircraft so soon after the Nazis had tried to wipe out the Jewish people. The air force needed to find new sources of equipment.

The aircraft came from many countries

Israel bought aircraft from whoever was willing to sell them. We walked past rows of American planes and French ones. A British Spitfire was also on display, which seemed odd. When the British Mandate for Palestine expired, the British were determined not to leave anything usable in the hands of the Jews. A few Spitfires were left at one airfield. Since since none of them was complete, the British must have felt these planes were of no use. They failed to take Jewish ingenuity into account. The Israelis were able to construct two completely functional Spitfire planes, from the pieces they cannabalized from the planes. They used the engine from from a downed Egyptian Spitfire. These planes served the IAF well for years.

Audrey pointed a French Ouragon, which had survived a dangerous malfunction during a flight. As soon as she mentioned the pilot’s name, Yakov Turner, we knew the story would end well. In her introduction, she had mentioned that the

The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty
The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty

museum was the idea of General Turner when he was the commander of Hatzerim Air Force base. It had opened in 1991 when he was mayor of Be’er Sheva.

Turner was returning from a mission, about to land, when he discovered his front landing gear would not deploy. The control tower told him to eject and ditch the plane. Yakov refused to obey orders. He was not about to lose his plane. He told the tower to cover the runway with foam, he was bringing the plane in. While the airfield crew was covering the runway with foam, he dropped his remaining bombs somewhere they would do no harm and emptied his fuel tanks. When the tower radioed they were ready for him, he landed the plane on its belly on the foam covered runway. The plane sustained much damage, but was successfully repaired. Yakov walked away from the crash, and eventually flew that same plane again.

We walked past one French-built Mystere fighter, painted in a different way from the rest of the Mysteres. This plane had a history of having killed 13 enemy planes, the most hits by an IAF plane. When the IAF retired it, it was sold to Argentina, for use in its war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. A few years later, the IAF wanted to buy it back to display at Hatzerim. The Argentines agreed to sell it to Israel for $1, on condition that its Argentinian colors were retained.

A Soviet MIG fighter

One unusual plane parked at the museum is a Soviet MIG-21. At one time the MIG was the best fighter plane in the world. No one else had a plane like it; no air force could defend against it. The MIG-21 was deadly against the Mystere, the major fighter plane of the IAF in the early 1960’s. At the time, the Soviets supported the enemies of Israel. Military support included supplying several Arab countries with MIGs. Israel wanted one to study and figure out how to defend against it. They found an Iraqi pilot who was willing to steal the plane and fly it to Israel, if his family could first be smuggled out of Iraq.

The plane, obviously, did not come with an instruction manual. Danny Shapiro, who had been one of the pilots trained by the French to fly Ouragons and Mysteres, was assigned to figure out what made the MIG so lethal. He trained himself, flying the plane hundreds of hours. He realized that because the cockpit was so narrow, the only way to bring down a MIG was from almost directly behind it. Thanks to his work, the IAF was the first air force to kill MIGs.

Capturing Egyptian radar 

One of the non-aircraft exhibits was a large radar array on top of a truck. In the late 1960’s, when Egypt purchased this array from the Soviets, it was one of the most advanced in the world. The IAF needed to understand how it worked in order to counter the advantages it gave their enemy. They had to study it closely, which they could not do while it was in Egypt. To bring it to Israel, the Israelis cut the apparatus in two pieces. Two Sikorsky CH-53 Yas’ur helicopters were sent to lift it off the ground and carry it. The helicopters had problems because the machinery was heavier than they had estimated. One of the helicopters almost crashed several times. As soon as they were over Israeli territory, they landed. The radar was safe.

Daniel and Moshe filled in a few details Audrey had left out. Before the helicopters left the country, Israel sent paratroopers to Egypt to secure the site. At the end of the operation, the IAF was supposed to return and pick up the paratroopers. But when the radar arrived in Israel, the Israelis were so excited over the success of the operation, they forgot to go back. The paratroopers spent more time in Egypt than they had expected, until the IAF remembered to send a Super Ferlon helicopter back to pick them up. That Super Ferlon is parked next to one of the Yas’ur helicopters, close to where the now obsolete radar sits at Hatzerim.

Special for younger visitors

Because was in the middle of Sukkot, when schools are on vacation and many adults off from work, the museum had several activities directed to younger visitors. Tow historic planes made frequent demonstration flights directly above. A biplane flew Figure Eights, each one a little lower than the one before. It alternated with a bright yellow two seater Tzukit plane, which was used to train new pilots for more than forty years.

"Pilots for a Minute" Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots
“Pilots for a Minute” Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots

An activity strictly for children was “Pilot for a Moment,” where children had the opportunity to dress up in pilot’s uniforms. Yakov and Moshe wanted to participate; Sarah deliberated for a few minutes and then decided not to do it. Despite the lack of a visor, Moshe seemed very happy to be wearing the uniform. But, as Aliza pointed out, the boys will be in uniform soon enough. There was no need to rush it.

Over Shabbat, I asked the kids what they liked the best at the museum. Yakov said he liked dressing up as a pilot and getting in some of the planes. Sarah said she liked seeing the small planes flying so close above us.

And Moshe?
Predictably, he said it was all so good, he couldn’t choose.

Where is the Air Force Museum ?

Karaites: A Different Way of Being Jewish

The "Temple" area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.
The “Temple” area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.

Like most Jerusalemites in the holy city, I had often walked past the Karaite Synagogue. Sometimes I even wondered what it was like inside, how it differed from synagogues in which I have prayed. Last week, I got to see.

At the time, all I knew was that the Karaites rejected the Talmud and two thousand years of Rabbinic tradition. Shulie Mishkin, our guide for the morning in the Old City, mentioned they are similar to the Saducees and Essenes of the Roman period. However, as a distinct group they first appeared in Jerusalem in the 7th or 8th century. Karaites have lived in Jerusalem since. They called themselves ”Lovers of Zion” and believed it was important to live in Jerusalem, even in its destroyed state. Their cemetery in the Hinnom Valley contains graves from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. 

When we arrived at the museum, Avi, the Karaite representative, invited us to sit and watch a short video on the history of Karaism. While in the museum, he said, we would have the opportunity to see the synagogue, but could not enter it for reasons of ritual purity.

Principles of Karaite Interpretation

Karaites consider themselves a branch of Judaism, and allow intermarriage with other Jews. They believe the whole Tanakh (Bible) is holy. Indeed, most of their prayers are from the book of Psalms. As we walked through the museum, Avi stopped several times to explained their customs in detail. The three foundations of their religious observance are the Tanakh, analogy, and tradition. Because the Tanakh gives no details about how many mitzvot are to be carried out, many commandments need explication. Rabbinic Judaism relies on certain principles of interpretation that are enumerated in the Talmud. Karaites use only analogy to explain the laws.

Avi gave us an example, using the line from the Sh’ma: “uk’shartem otam–You will bind them [my commandments] upon your arm and as totafot between your eyes.” This was interpreted by the Rabbis as meaning we should put on tefillin when we pray in the morning. These small boxes of animal skin contain certain paragraphs of the Torah written on parchments. The Karaites, however, do not wear tefillin. In B’raishit, it says that Jacob’s soul was k’shura, bound up, with the soul of his youngest son, Benjamin. Karaites point out that here K-SH-R is a spiritual, not physical, bond. Using analogy, they hold therefore uk’shartem means spiritually binding the words to the body. Thus the boxes with words of the Torah are not necessary.

Further along in the room we saw an exhibit of Karaite tzitzit, the fringes tied to the corners of any garment with four corners. Two differences between their tzitzit and those of mainstream Jews were immediately apparent. The knots are tied in a different pattern, and the blue thread is prominent.

Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.
Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.

In D’varim (Deuteronomy), when God commands us to tie fringes on the corners of our garments, it is specified that the fringes include a blue thread. When the Temple was destroyed the identity of the blue dye was lost. To compensate, two traditions arose. Some Sephardi Rabbis held that the color blue is more important than the specific dye used. Accordingly, some eastern Jews continued to tie tzitzit with a blue thread. Most Ashkenazi Rabbis however, ruled that in the absence of the traditional dye, the tzitzit should be plain undyed wool. Like the Sephardim, Karaites feel that the color is more important than its source, and they tie blue and white tzitzit on four-cornered clothes.

How the Karaite Calendar Differs from the Standard One

The calendar, and thus when holidays are observed, also differ. The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar and solar cycles. New months begin at the time of the new moon. However, the major festivals (Succot, Passover, and Shavuot) must be celebrated at specific times in the agricultural cycle, which is governed by the movements of the sun.

When the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin no longer existed, there was no one to proclaim the new month or to reconcile the lunar year with the solar one. A new type of calendar was required. Somewhere between 320 and 385 CE, Hillel II, also known as Hillel the Younger, calculated the calendar that we still use today. The Karaites, however, adhere to the calendar as it was originally practiced. New months begin only when the new moon is sighted.

Karaite experts go out into the fields in late winter to check the state of the growing barley before proclaiming when the month of Nissan will begin in the spring. Passover must be celebrated at the time of the barley harvest. Avi pointed to a large photo of men checking the barley in the field. Stalks of barley at different stages of ripeness were below the photo, with explanations of what the experts looked for. If the grain in the fields looks like it will ripen in March, they declare that the month of Nissan will be proclaimed when the next new moon is sighted. If the barley is not sufficiently mature, they rule that an extra month is needed. A second Adar is proclaimed at the next new moon. The start of Nissan is then proclaimed when the following new moon is sighted. Thus, the lunar year is realigned with the solar one. 

The Karaite Synagogue
The "hall" area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.
The “hall” area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.

Following our tour of the museum we descended another floor to see the synagogue. A window to our left allowed us to peer into the synagogue and see its “temple.” This is a raised area in the front where the Chazan stands to lead the prayers. Cohanim also stand there to bless the congregation. The sanctuary contains no chairs. The congregation stands or sits on the floor for most of the prayers, and bows down at appropriate points. The lack of chairs made their sanctuary look empty, but waiting to be filled, with people, perhaps, or with the sound of prayer. 

The sanctuary had no windows, and was below street level, so a multitude of lamps hung from the ceiling. This, of course, led to a question. One of the big differences between Karaites and those they call Rabbinites relates to the use of fire on Shabbat. Karaites hold that absolutely no fire may exist on Shabbat. Mainstream Jews believe that fire is acceptable if it was lit before the Shabbat and nothing is done to change the fire. Thus we have warmth and light in our homes and synagogues on Shabbat, while the Karaites have neither. If they cannot light the lamps on Shabbat, how do they see to read the Torah and pray?

To his credit, Avi did not duck the question. It is disrespectful to pray in the dark, he said, and therefore, it is permitted to light the lamps and use electric lights on Shabbat. Artificial light can be used only in adherence to some very specific rules, which he did not go into. I wondered if his air of discomfort with his answer was because discussing the use of light on the Shabbat was too close to Rabbinic interpretation of Torah law. This was the only point in an hour and a half at which he seemed less than confident during his explanation.

Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.
Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.

As we walked out of the building, one of the women in our group noticed the mezuza attached to the door post. It was a small thick metal plaque of the Ten Commandments. “What’s written inside?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Avi. “It’s empty. The metal plaque itself reminds us to observe God’s commandments.”

So at the end, although we have many differences, nonetheless Karaites are similar to those who observe mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. We all keep the commandments in the way we believe God meant them to be observed.

(Although Karaites do not observe Chanukah, Avi added, “We do eat sufganiyot, because that’s Israeli.”)


Rockefeller’s Contribution to Jerusalem

Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister
Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister

The Number 1 bus to the Kotel goes past the driveway of the Rockefeller Museum. Its collection of antiquities from the land of Israel makes it one of the great archeological museums of the world. On my trips to the Kotel, I had seen the top of its tower above the trees, but I had never seen the whole building except in pictures. I’ve wanted to visit it for years, but because of the matzav, the situation, I have been too nervous to go on my own. It is in an Arab neighborhood, which makes the trip a little scary. When I finally went there this week with my class from Pardes, we were accompanied by an armed escort.

My nervousness is valid. Over the last year and a half, Arab terrorists have attacked Israelis in the area more than twenty-five times. While we were in the museum an Arab stabbed a policeman in the head with a screwdriver about a block or two away. A policeman who saw the attack shot the Arab attacker to prevent him from injuring other people.

There are some who say that the Arabs have a right to protect what they feel is land stolen from them by Israel. However, that is not the root of the problem. Arabs killing those they consider interlopers did not start in 1967. In 1938 one of the most prominent archeologists of the time, G. L. Starkey, was murdered by an Arab while on his way to the museum’s opening ceremony.

My visit to the Rockefeller was on a tour associated with my course, “Sages of the Mishna.” We were there to learn about the Roman and Byzantine periods during which the sages lived, from about 100 BCE to 220 CE. We couldn’t help but notice the magnificent architecture of the building itself, even though it is much more recent than the antiquities it holds.

The hill on which the museum stands is opposite the northeast corner of the Old City wall. Looking east you can see the whole of the Mount of Olives, from Silwan in the South to the Hebrew University in the North. This was the spot Godfrey de Bouillon chose for the camp of his army of Crusaders before attacking Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives in those days was probably covered with trees. I wonder if he appreciated the view. Or was he too busy planning the slaughter all the Muslims and Jews in the Holy City? Crusader descriptions of the aftermath of the battle revel in the amount of blood they shed.

More than eight hundred later, after a trip to the Middle East John Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, decided that Jerusalem needed an archeological museum. Archeologists had been excavating in and around the city since the mid-19th century. They had taken many of the best finds back to their home countries in Europe and the U. S. Breasted felt that since the Ottoman empire had fallen and the British had replaced the Turks as rulers of Jerusalem, it would be safe to keep antiquities closer to where they had been found.

Breasted approached John D. Rockefeller and convinced him to fund a museum in Jerusalem. Some of the two million dollars Rockefeller contributed went to buy the site from the al-Halili family, who lived on the hilltop.. The British High Commissioner appointed Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, to design the new museum. Construction took eight years. The British named it “The Palestine Archaeological Museum,” since it was in British Mandatory Palestine. It officially opened in January 1938 and almost immediately became known as the Rockefeller Museum.

Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum
Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum

Rockefeller got his money’s worth. The building is magnificent. The British had already decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced with the local limestone known as Jerusalem Stone. Harrison designed the building to be a combination of the best of Eastern and Western architecture. To carry out the theme, Harrison commissioned Eric Gill to carve bas reliefs in the stone. A bas relief above the entrance to the building depicts Asia and Africa with a palm tree, the ancient symbol of Judea, between them.

The building is wrapped around a lovely cloister that features a pool. Between the arches of the cloister, on both sides of the pool, small bas reliefs depict a symbol for each of the cultures that controlled the Holy Land in historical order. For example, a boat riding curly waves symbolizes the Phoenicians and a winged horse with a human face symbolizes the Muslims.

Bullet holes in wall from 1967 Six Day War
Bullet holes in wall from 1967 war

At the east end of the cloister, you can see bullet holes in the wall. The damage perhaps symbolizes the Israeli period. On June 6, 1967, IDF paratroopers fought their way through several Arab neighborhoods and arrived at the Rockefeller Museum. They were to spend the night there, and then, possibly, attack the Old City.

Meanwhile, an army officer notified Dr. Avraham Biran, the Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities that the Rockefeller was now in the hands of the IDF. Within a few hours, Biran, Nahman Avigad and Yosef Aviram, three of the most respected archeologists in Israel, were at the museum. They, along with brigade commander Colonel Motta Gur, had arrived in an armored vehicle. As they toured the museum for the first time in almost twenty years, the archeologists were joined by some of the exhausted soldiers. It must have been a surreal experience—listening to a lecture about antiquities, given by experts, as bullets periodically flew through the exhibit halls breaking windows and display cases.

They all noticed that the exhibits were exactly as they had been in 1948 when the Jordanians had captured half of Jerusalem. The only thing that had changed was that the Hebrew signs had disappeared. Some of them were plastered over. But in one exhibit hall, high on the wall, you can see the original Hebrew lettering with a rectangular frame. Several horizontal brown stripes line are also visible within the frame. The brown marks are the remains of scotch tape which held a paper covering the Hebrew lettering, hiding it from the sensitive eyes of visitors.

The exhibits themselves are fascinating. In each hall the exhibits are arranged chronologically according to their historical period. Pictures of the excavations or tels where the items were found hang of the walls above the end of the exhibit cases. The legends explaining the exhibits are typed on paper brown with age.

In addition to the items found by archeologists, there are some unusual

Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church
Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church

exhibits. The carved stone frieze from the lintel above the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the hall devoted to Christianity. At one time when the Church was being cleaned and renovated, the frieze was removed and brought to the museum for safekeeping. But when it was time to return it, a dispute erupted. Under the “status quo” agreement for Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, only the sect that owns an area of the church can clean or fix it. Since the Christian groups could not agree as to who owns the area above the door, the magnificent frieze remains at the Rockefeller Museum.

A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aksa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938
A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aqsa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938

The Muslim Hall displays carved wooden panels that decorated beams in the Al Aksa Mosque. The style of the carvings indicate they probably date from the eighth century C.E. In  1938, when the Waqf decided to renovate the mosque, they planned to discard the intricately carved panels. Someone from the museum heard about the project and convinced the Waqf to donate the panels. That is something that could not happen today.

The Rockefeller is now part of the Israel Museum (IMJ). Official ownership of the museum and its exhibits, however,  is still undetermined. A sign on one of the outer doors says “Government of Palestine Department of Antiquities,” although the Israel Antiquities Authority has its offices in the building. Therefore the IMJ has not removed any of the exhibits or made any improvements, such as adding central heating, to the museum. Since it was a cold rainy day when my class toured, and it felt freezing inside.

Someday, in the course of some negotiation or other, the museum will officially end up Somewhere. Whether or not it is in Israel, or in Palestine, or in some as yet unknown political entity, it will still be a beautiful building full of interesting finds. And maybe then it will be renovated. At that time, people who come won’t have to wear coats, scarves, hats and gloves to see the amazing antiquities.

The Disappearance of Babylonian Jewry

The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.
The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.

Farhud is an Arabic word which means “violent dispossession.” To the Jewish community of Iraq in the 1940s and later, the word meant what happened in Baghdad on Shavuot 1941. The emphasis was on the violence.

Like most of the people in my course about the Second Temple period, I had never heard of the Baghdad Farhud. What we saw at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda surprised and shocked us.     

In  1941 the Jewish community of Iraq was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Today Iraq occupies the center of what was once the powerful Babylonian Empire. It stretched from Egypt to Turkey, with coasts on the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Caspian Seas.  The first Jews there were exiles from the Kingdom of Israel, who arrived after Assyria conquered them in 720 BCE. Remnants of the ten northern tribes were still living by the rivers of Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE. He destroyed the Temple and took the leaders of that country into exile as well.

 In the early part of the first millennium, the community flourished as a center of Jewish scholarship. The Babylonian Talmud, the seminal work on which Jewish law and scholarship is based,  was composed and edited here. But later the community went through many difficult times. Most Iraqi Jews made aliyah after the founding of the State of Israel. By 2006, there were not enough Jews left to even call them a community.

When people make aliyah they bring their culture and artifacts with them.  Sometimes they establish a small museum or center dedicated to preserving their heritage. Many such institutions have been established throughout Israel. Allen and I have visited several, including the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry in Tsfat and the Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem. They are all small jewels. Their mission is to preserve history and culture, house focused research centers, and educate the general public about otherwise unknown pieces of our heritage. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is one such museum.

I first learned about the Babylonian exile in second grade Sunday school, so it seems like I have always been aware of it. I learned about the Babylonian Talmud a few years later. In high school I even studied some selections from Masechet Brachot, a portion of the Talmud dealing with prayers and blessings. The Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita were major centers of Jewish learning for over 800 years. Most of the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud studied at one of them. The Babylonian influence on the development of Judaism is immeasurable. For hundreds of years, Jews all over the world looked to Babylonia for answers to questions of law and practice.

Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda
Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda

A room at the museum is devoted to the Babylonian academies. Several vitrines feature models of what they probably looked like. Two teachers stood in the front. The Gaon, the expert older teacher spoke Aramaic, and the Meturgam, the younger teacher with a louder voice, translated the Aramaic into Arabic, the language spoken by the people. The best students sat in front, with other students behind them. Ordinary people who came to hear the lectures stood on the back.

But contact between the Jews of what had been Babylonia and the rest of the world ceased after the Mongolian conquest of the area in the 13th century. In the 18th century, it was discovered that Jews did still indeed live in that part of the world. After the Alliance Français established schools for the Jews in the 18th century, their communities in Baghdad and other cities started to flourish again. Because the schools taught both French and English, the Jews were soon able to gain jobs in the government as the influence of France and Britain expanded in the Middle East.

As we walked through the museum, we saw exhibits that testified to the good life Iraqi Jews enjoyed: beautiful clothes, musical instruments and photos of Jewish orchestras, and skillfully made religious artifacts. The docent who guided us through the museum, pointed out one silver Torah cover, which had arrived at the museum tarnished and black. Assigned to figure out what to do with it, she brought her children’s electric toothbrush to the museum to painstakingly polish the silver. She laughed as she said, “I paid a woman to come clean my house so I could come here and clean.” She did a good job–the Torah cover gleamed, reflecting the spotlight that shone on it in its class case.

The British gained control in Iraq after the first World War.  Jews were granted the rights to vote and hold office in 1921, and several served in the legislature. They continued to do so when Britain granted Iraq its independence, under British supervision.

During the 1930s German representatives in Iraq encouraged anti-Semitism and formation of groups modeled on Hitler Youth. When World War II started, and the British were losing, Germany’s influence increased. Because it needed Iraqi oil to provide fuel for its planned invasion of Russia, it encouraged the Iraqi government to seize the oil fields in the late spring of 1941. The attempt failed. Britain, however, worried that it could lose control of its source of oil, invaded Iraq. The British army reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 31.

While all this was going on, Nazi-influenced groups planned a Farhud, an action to destroy the Jewish community, to destroy Jewish businesses, kill as many Jews as they could, and expel those who remained from the country. They made lists of Jews in the cities, even marking homes and businesses owned by Jews with red handprints. It was planned for June 1. When the British came to Baghdad’s outskirts they did not enter the city because they did not want to upset the Arabs. The Jews believed they had been saved from destruction and decided to publicly celebrate the Shavuot holiday.

On June 1, a group of Iraqi soldiers met a group of Jews who were celebrating Shavuot. The soldiers attacked the unarmed Jews, killing several of them. The violence spread through the city. Gangs of armed Arabs rampaged through the Jewish neighborhoods for two days, killing men and boys, raping women and girls and then killing some of them, and burning Jewish stores and businesses.

The British on the outskirts of the city surely knew what was happening. Even if they had not been able to hear the sounds of violence, they most likely would have heard the gunshots, and surely saw the smoke of burning buildings. But they were under orders from London not to intervene. Stopping the killing of Jews could anger the Arabs and endanger the oil fields. When the rampaging and violence spread into Arab neighborhoods on the second day the British entered Baghdad and restored peace.

The final exhibit at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is a Memorial to the Farhud. Two columns list the names of those killed, 148 men, women, and children.  Our group sat in this room, surrounded by blown up photographs of the Farhud, to watch a video in which several survivors talk about their experiences. They spoke about watching helplessly as enraged Iraqis broke through barricaded doors and about seeing their mothers raped and killed. They talked about running up to the roof, of racing across roofs trying to escape. Later in the week, they returned to  houses full of broken or burnt furniture, or to one totally stripped of all furniture, clothing, and kitchen contents.

The Jews in Iraq never felt secure again.

On May 15, 1948, Iraq declared war on the newborn State of Israel and declared aliyah illegal. But in 1950, Iraq allowed the Jews to leave. First they had to relinquish all their property, and give up their citizenship and the right to return. They could take almost nothing–66 pounds of luggage and the equivalent of $140. That’s not much to start life in a new country. The government allowed some Torah scrolls to leave the country. The scrolls had their own ticketed seats in the airplanes. Other Torahs were smuggled out, removed from their cases and carefully rolled up and hidden.

Israel organized a giant airlift to rescue the Jews of Iraq, Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. The airlift was named for the Biblical figures who led the Jews from Babylonia back to the land of Israel in 450 BCE.  American airplanes were used because Israeli planes were not allowed in Iraqi airspace. By the time these operations ended in 1952, 90% of Iraq’s  Jewish population, approximately 120,000 people, had been brought home. Most of the remainder gradually left Iraq as well.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, there was less than a minyan left. Emad Levy was one of the last Jews. He was the Rabbi, kosher butcher, and mohel (circumcizer), when there was a need for his services. But even he knew there was no future for him in Iraq. One day in 2007 he received an envelope containing a bullet; he made aliyah shortly thereafter. Among his first stops in his new country was the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. Our guide welcomed him and as they talked she thought he would be a good match for her best friend. She was right, and the Israeli Iraqi community celebrated his wedding within the year. Emad still comes to the center to talk about Jewish life in Iraq.

Nonetheless, after over 2600 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has disappeared.        

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is located in Or Yehuda, Between Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv (outlined in red on the map)

Philistines and philistines

Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE, at  Museum in Ashdod
Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE. Reproductions on display at Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod


To those who have read the Bible, the Philistines were a major enemy of the tribes of Israel. Judges and Samuel describe constant warfare between the Philistines trying to conquer the land and the Jews trying to defend it.

Today, the word “philistine,” has nothing to do with a person’s ethnic origins. Describing people as philistines means they lack taste and do not care about culture or refinement. They are boors.

On a recent trip to Ashdod, we visited the Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod. There we saw examples of their pottery and other artifacts, and learned about their culture. The word “philistine” has now taken on a whole new meaning for me.

As one of the Philistines’ five cities, Ashdod is a fitting place for a museum dedicated to their culture and history. Their other cities were Gat, Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ekron. The locations of Philistine Gaza and Ashkelon are known. Archeologists are fairly sure they have identified ancient Gat and Ekron as well.

The Philistines were the sea people. They arrived on the southeastern rim of the Mediterranean from Crete or Cyprus around 1200 BCE. This was same period that the Tribes of Israel came to the area from the desert on the east. Both groups wanted to take over the land from the Canaanite kings. Conflict was inevitable.

As the Philistines expanded their holdings in the area, they fought the Egyptians, who at the time were the major Middle Eastern power. Much of what we know about them, apart from what we read in the Bible, stems from Egyptian sources. An Egyptian wall carving

A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets visitors at Ashdod museum
A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets Allen at Ashdod museum

depicts a battle in the time of Pharaoh Thutmose, who is thought to be the Pharaoh of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The carving shows the Philistines, in full battle dress. The design of the Philistine metal helmets show impressive metal working skill. So do the fragments of their weapons that have been found. A metal statue of a Philistine in full battle dress stands in the foyer of the Ashdod Museum. Like almost everyone else who visits the museum, Allen and I stood next to it for a photo.

The Philistines tended to adopt things from all the cultures they came in contact with. We can see that in their names. In their early years in Canaan, names were of Indo-European origin. In later centuries they had more Canaanite names.

The assimilationist habit also show up in their pottery. The Israel Museum has almost all the authentic Philistines antiquities. What we see in the Ashdod Philistine museum are accurate reproductions of representative finds. From these reproductions we are able to see

Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum
Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum

and appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the people. Jugs dating from the 12th to 11th century BCE are northern Mediterranean in style. Later pottery show the influence of other trading peoples. The vessels in the photo are from the 10th to 9th century BCE and show a distinct Aegean influence. The red color and shape are local style, but the black color and horizontal bands are Aegean.

Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum
Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum

An approximately six inch tall clay figurine from the 12th century BCE caught my attention. She was found in Ashdod, and named Ashdoda by those who uncovered her. Half woman and half chair, she is thought to be a 12th century BCE cultic figure. When the sculptor Henry Moore visited the museum, he remarked that if he had known of her existence, he would have made her his muse.

Ashdoda’s true role in Philistine culture is only speculation. We know very little about their religion. The Bible says they worshiped Dagon. Whether he was a grain god (from dagan, grain) or a fish god (from dag, fish) no one today knows.

The discovery of a two-horned altar and an incense altar only emphasize how little we know about their religion. Many altars of the time had horns at their corners, but why does this one have only two? Did the two horns have a specific cultic meaning, or has only half the altar been found?

If they created and used all this beauty, how did their name become a label for boorish and uncultured? The worshipers of one God looked down on those who worshiped idols. They ascribed many bad traits to the idol worshipers, including a lack of appreciation of the finer things in life. Thus Philistine evolved to philistine.

For several centuries, they were the dominant people along the Mediterranean Coast. Then the Israelite kingdoms expanded. Still later the Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms strengthened and expanded, and conquered the Philistines. They assimilated into new cultures, and disappeared from history. 

But history has a way of reviving and reinventing peoples in unexpected ways. When the Romans put down the Great Revolt in 70 C. E. they were sure they had destroyed the Jewish state for all time. Fifty-five years later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Romans had to destroy it again. Determined to destroy all traces of the people who had fought them so long, the Romans gave the area a new name. They named it Palestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemy of Judea.

After World War I, the British received a mandate to administer a large swath of the dismantled Turkish Empire. The Turks had called it South Syria; the British called it Palestine. 

Once the Philistines had been proud rulers of a large portion of today’s Israel. Today we think of them as  philistines, uncultured people lacking in taste. The re-inventions of history are not always kind.