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Jews in Muslim lands anxious over Gaza war

world Updated: Feb 17, 2009 20:48 IST

AP
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Outrage at the Israel war in the Gaza Strip has turned to intimidation and even violence against Jews living in some Muslim lands, raising questions about the stability of these often tiny communities.

In Turkey, Yemen and Indonesia, Muslims have shut down a synagogue, stoned homes and used anti-Semitic slurs. Although the incidents have been isolated, the Jewish minorities in these lands are concerned.

"Before the conflict broke out in Gaza, we were very involved in the community," said Yusron Samba, whose family for years had operated a synagogue in Indonesia that shut down in fear over the war. "Of course we're afraid following strong reaction recently from some Islamic groups questioning our presence here." The fury over Gaza has centered around the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed in the war, in which 13 Israelis also died. Israel says it could not avoid killing civilians because Gaza militants operate from residential areas, but critics accuse it of using disproportionate force in its war to halt rocket attacks on its territory.

The steep Palestinian death toll sparked protests across the Muslim world, Europe and in Venezuela, and in some cases, the rage turned to violence. Firebombs were hurled at synagogues in France, Sweden and Belgium, Jews were beaten in England and Norway and an Italian union endorsed a boycott of Jewish-owned shops. In Venezuela, vandals shattered religious objects at a synagogue and spray-painted, "Jews, get out," on the walls.

In Yemen, where Islamic militancy is on the rise, anti-Israel protesters pelted several Jewish homes with rocks and smashed windows, injuring at least one person, security officials said. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has offered to give plots of land in the capital, San'a, free of charge to Jews who want to relocate from the provinces, officials said. No one has taken him up on the offer, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the offer was made privately in a meeting between the president and Jewish leaders.

As many as 250 of Yemen's estimated 400 Jews are thought to live outside San'a.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim state, Islamic hard-liners marched to the gates of the country's only synagogue, chanting, "Go to hell, Israel."

"If Israel refuses to stop its attacks and oppression of the Palestinian people, we don't need to defend (the synagogue's) presence here," said Abdusshomad Buchori, who led the protest in the town of Surabaya and has threatened to drive out its Jews. The synagogue has been shuttered since.

In the past, Jews in Surabaya have experienced no hostility, Samba said. But increasingly _ probably because of events like the Gaza war _ a smattering of swastikas has appeared on the backs of buses, he said.

Because of the hostile reaction, "we're not exposing ourselves to the media right now," he said. "We also report all protests to the police."

Several dozen Jews are thought to be living in Indonesia, descendants of traders from Europe and Iraq.

Jewish leaders in Egypt and Syria were curt when asked about the climate toward Jews in their countries.

"We have no troubles and we don't talk politics," said Carmen Weinstein, head of the Jewish Community in Cairo. In Syria, Jewish community head Albert Komho said, "There is no fear and there are no threats. We are not involved in any political activity and we are functioning normally."

Jews moved to the Middle East and north Africa after Spain expelled them in the 15th century. Jews were often restricted to separate neighborhoods, had curtailed rights, and sometimes were persecuted. Their condition deteriorated sharply in the first half of the 20th century as a result of Arab nationalism and Israel's impending establishment. Hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from Arab lands around the time of Israel's 1948 creation, and today, only several tens of thousands remain.

Some communities are tiny, numbering about 100 in Syria and less than a dozen in Baghdad. The biggest concentrations are in Turkey and Iran, where Jews enjoy the stated protection of Islamic governments.

The Iranian Jewish community went out of its way to distance itself from Israel during the Gaza fighting, issuing a statement expressing solidarity with the Palestinians and condemning the Israeli offensive. "The inhuman behavior of the Zionist regime contradicts the religious teachings" of the Jewish faith, the statement said.