No. 102 16 Sivan 5748 / 1 June 1988
THE OTHER REFUGEES:
JEWS OF THE ARAB WORLD
George E. Gruen
One Million Jews in the Muslim World / The Political Climate
Changes / Anti-Jewish Pogroms in the 1940s / Mass Escape to
Israel / Hardship for Those Who Remained / The Situation Today /
The Jewish Claim for Restitution
[Editor's Note: After nearly three decades during which "Middle
East refugees" seemed to be synonymous with "Palestinian
refugees," Jews from Arab countries living in both Israel
and the diaspora formed the World Organization of Jews from Arab
Countries (WOJAC) in 1975 to make certain that any "just
settlement of the refugee problem" recognizes those Jews who were
forced to flee from lands where they had lived for centuries.
This Jerusalem Letter is based on a presentation prepared for the
Third International Conference of the World Organization of Jews
from Arab Lands held in Washington, D.C., October 26-28, 1987.]
One Million Jews in the Muslim World
Jews have lived in the Arab-speaking countries of western Asia
and North Africa for millennia. Indeed, in certain countries
such as Iraq, Yemen and Morocco, Jewish communities can be traced
back to the period of the first exile, following the destruction
of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. If one includes the
Muslim but non-Arab countries of Iran and Turkey, more than one
million Jews lived in this region before the establishment of
Israel in 1948. Today only 75,000 remain in Muslim countries."
If we exclude Turkey and Iran and concentrate on the Arab
countries, the contrast appears even sharper. As against some
880,000 Jews living in Arab countries on the eve of the creation
of the State of Israel, today fewer than 25,000 remain,
more than half in Morocco.
Although they are protected by the king and officially enjoy
full rights, their numbers continued to dwindle through gradual
emigration. The second largest community, of 4,000 to 5,000 is
in Syria. There the number remains relatively constant only
because the Syrian authorities forbid all Jewish emigration.
Even to visit relatives abroad, Syrian Jews must leave a large
financial deposit and close family members behind as hostages
for their return. Jews caught trying to flee the country are
subject to brutal interrogation and imprisonment for six months
The Political Climate Changes
Why did the overwhelming majority of the Jews in the Arab world
"vote with their feet" and leave their homes during the past 40
years? For some there was the positive attraction of political
Zionism: the rebuilding of an independent Jewish state in the
land of Israel. For others, such as the Yemeni Jews who were
flown to Israel in "Operation Magic Carpet," the return to Zion
on "the wings of eagles" appeared as the marvelous fulfillment of
biblical prophecy and an age-old Jewish longing.
But in the great majority of cases it was
a combination of negative forces in their countries of
residence -- push factors -- that impelled them to leave their
homes, sometimes at great personal peril.
1. The breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and traditional Islamic
In the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire -- a
"world state" of 400 years duration -- Jews had enjoyed a large
measure of autonomy in their communal and religious life.
Sovereignty, however, and participation in the ruling elite, were
traditionally reserved to Muslims. Although Jews and Christians
had a second class and inferior position in the Islamic order,
they had a clearly defined status. Under benevolent rulers, Jews
and other minorities enjoyed affluence and even achieved
positions of prominence. Under fanatical or arbitrary rulers
they were severely restricted and discriminated against, and at
times of political instability suffered murder and pillaging at
the hands of Muslim mobs.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ottomans tried to
reform their empire. Two attempts at constitutionalism, with
Western encouragement, tried to broaden citizenship to include
the minorities on an equal footing. But these attempts were
resisted by traditional Islamic elements. They succeeded only in
undermining the old Islamic basis of political stability and
2. The domination of the Middle East by Western colonial powers
and the rise of Arab nationalism.
With the decay of Ottoman power in the 19th century, Britain,
France, and Italy seized large areas of the Arab world, a task
they completed at the end of World War I. From this time onward,
Jews, as well as some of the Christian minorities, played a
disproportionately large role in the commercial, professional,
and administrative life of these countries. Their knowledge of
Western languages, inculcated by the educational efforts of their
Occidental co-religionists, and their commercial contacts abroad,
facilitated ties between local Jews and the colonial powers."
Local Arab nationalism developed in part as a reaction to foreign
rule. Since Jews were visibly associated in trading and
administrative relationships with the hated foreign rulers,
especially in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, it was simple for Arab
nationalists to scapegoat Jews as tools of the imperialists. As
proponents of a new educated, urban class, Arab nationalists were
at times jealous of the wealth and position attained by some Jews
in administrative and economic life. As they sought wealth and
position for themselves through government channels, their policy
of "Arabization" became a convenient justification for limiting
and ultimately supplanting Jews in these places.
3. Resentment over the development of Jewish nationalism and its
political manifestation in the Zionist movement.
With the issuance of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917,
the awarding of the Mandate over Palestine to Britain after World
War I, and the subsequent increase in Jewish immigration to
Palestine, Arabs within the Mandate and in the surrounding
countries felt politically threatened. Zionist efforts
increasingly clashed with Palestinian and pan-Arab nationalism.
There was rioting in Palestine in 1921, 1929, and throughout the
period of 1936-39. Pro-Palestinian sympathy in Arab countries
led to demonstrations which sometimes spilled over into attacks
on local Jews, as in Syria in 1936.
It must be noted that although a limited amount of Zionist
activity -- usually clandestine -- took place among Middle
Eastern Jewries in those years, it was neither widespread nor
prevalent enough to warrant being called "Jewish provocation.
4. The readiness of political movements and unpopular regimes to
scapegoat the local Jews for political purposes. The new Arab
states, politically weak autocracies emerging from imperialist
domination, would at times persecute their Jews, or allow others
to do so, to divert public attention from their own failings in
the political, military and economic spheres. This trend reached
a fever pitch directly after the unexpected defeat of the Arab
armies in Palestine, during the first Arab-Israeli war, but in
some instances it began well before 1948. The chosen
governmental methods of persecution were unjust arrests,
imprisonment and torture, discriminatory legislation,
confiscation of property, and agitation in the press and radio.
Members of the Jewish communities were scapegoated as being
Communist or Zionist (sometimes both), and imprisoned and
despoiled of their property for belonging to these movements that
were anathema to Arab regimes. Notorious examples of these
practices occurred in Iraq during the 1940s, Egypt during the
Nasser era, and Syria since its independence after World War II.
Moreover, pan-Arab and pan-Islamic parties and movements in almost
every Arab state have fomented mob violence against Jews, in
part to undercut the authority of these very same regimes, as
well as in revenge for Israeli victories in the several
Arab-Israeli wars. Indeed one might characterize these assaults
as a veritable war against the Middle Eastern Jews. In Aleppo,
Syria in 1947, much of the Jewish quarter was set ablaze. In
1948, bombs were found in numerous locations in the Jewish
quarter of Damascus; in August 1949, more bombs in the same
neighborhood killed and wounded scores. In Cairo in 1945, mobs
in the Jewish quarter burned a synagogue, a hospital, and
numerous homes and shops; on June 20, 1949, bombs in the Jewish
quarter killed 34 and wounded 80. Eighty-two died in a riot in
Aden in 1947. These are just a few of the examples that can be
cited from this notorious and bloody catalogue.
As one European observer of these disturbances, Victoria
put it rather
bluntly, "of all the non-Moslems,
the Jews are the safest targets.
They are considered to be Europeans and as such any 'barefoot'
Mohammedan is glad to shoot at them. They are not supported by a
powerful empire and attacks on them do not create diplomatic
incidents. Moreover, they are 'infidels,' which make them
particularly attractive victims of the more fanatical
Mohammedans. They are Jews, which satisfies those who are more
Anti-Jewish Violence in the 1940s
All these factors combined over the past century to weaken the
traditional position of the Jewish communities in Arab lands.
But it was the last set of factors, the state-sponsored
discrimination and pogrom-like mob violence, that precipitated
the rapid dissolution of these ancient Jewish communities. As a
result of these events, the Jews of Arab countries in effect
became political refugees, that is, persons who had a
well-founded fear of persecution and consequently fled
untenable, often life-threatening, political situations in their
countries of origin. Within a four-year period, from 1948 to
1952, 127,000 Jews escaped from Iraq, almost 50,000 from Yemen
and Aden, 36,000 from Libya, and perhaps another 100,000 from
French-controlled North Africa.
and in some cases expulsion brought about what
was euphemistically called "whole community transfer."
In Iraq, for example, a large Jewish community having roots
dating back to biblical Babylonia was decimated in less than a
year, in a particularly illuminating case
study of several of the trends listed above.
A weak, unpopular monarchy installed by the British
Mandatory power in the 1930s faced subversion by radical
pan-Arabist forces, violence and discrimination against Jews were
rife from an early period, well before the establishment of the
State of Israel.
The most notorious example of this violence was the Farhud
(breakdown of law and order), a two-day pogrom in Baghdad in June
1941. In a spasm of uncontrolled violence, between 170 and 180
Jews were killed, more than 900 others were wounded, and 14,500
Jews sustained material losses through the looting or destruction
of their stores and homes.
Although the government eventually restored order, the general
position of the Jewish community continued to deteriorate as
anti-foreign sentiment mounted and Iraq and the states bordering
Palestine -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon -- became
increasingly involved in the Arab-Jewish struggle.
Jews were squeezed out of government
employment, limited in schools, and subjected to imprisonment,
heavy fines, or sequestration of their property on the flimsiest
charges of being connected to either or both of the two banned
movements. Indeed, Communism and Zionism were frequently equated
in the statutes. In Iraq the mere receipt of a letter from a Jew
in Palestine was sufficient to bring about arrest and loss of
On November 2, 1945, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration
became the occasion for widespread rioting, murder, and
destruction of synagogues and Jewish property in Aleppo, Syria;
Cairo, Egypt; and Tripoli, Libya.
The Libyan Jewish
community was particularly hard-hit, losing 130 people in the
Tripoli area in three days of wanton violence. As in the earlier
Farhud, the pogrom had been fomented by extreme nationalist
elements who were intent on undercutting the British occupation
of the country. The British troops in control of Tripoli waited
days before restoring order, with an unconcern reminiscent of
their conduct in the Iraqi massacre. As in the Iraqi case, the
Tripoli massacre inaugurated a train of events that would
demoralize and in a relatively short time dissolve the Libyan
After the first Arab-Israeli war broke out, the belligerent Arab
governments lost all incentive to continue what little protection
they had afforded their Jewish communities. Egypt, Syria, and
Iraq took active measures against Jews under the guise of
emergency regulations. Arrests, torture, and sometimes hangings
of Jews, severe restrictions on travel, and sequestration or
confiscation of Jewish property were imposed when these countries
sent armies to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state on
May 15, 1948. A climate of fear prevailed in these communities
as sporadic attacks against Jews mounted.
Mass Escape to Israel
After the defeat of the Arab armies,
immigration of Jews from these countries increased until
it became a flood. In the first years of Israel's existence, its
government arranged a variety of rescue operations from these
countries either extra-legally or with the Arab governments'
tacit agreement. Operations "Ezra and Nehemiah" in Iraq and
"Magic Carpet" in Yemen airlifted many tens of thousands of Jews
to their new homes. Jews from other countries fled through ports
along the Mediterranean. Whatever their method of escape, Middle
Eastern Jews were required to leave behind Jewish communal
holdings, and their real property and immovable goods, which were
taken over by their home governments. In the case of Iraq, where
many Jews had been involved in banking and finance, liquid assets
were also frozen. The effect of these measures was that large
numbers of Jewish refugees from Arab countries arrived in Israel
It must be noted that certain Arab states or governments
refrained from the discriminatory behavior manifested by their
more belligerent counterparts and enacted measures to protect
their Jewish communities. In these states, notably Morocco, but
to a large extent also in Tunisia, the exodus was more gradual.
the continued existence of the small but vital Moroccan Jewish
community attests to the modus vivendi achieved by this state and
its Jews wherein Arab-Israel problems are held separate from
the relations of the state with its indigenous Jews.
Hardship for Those Who Remained
The Jews that remained within the confines of other Arab states
after the mass exoduses of the late 1940s and early 1950s
experienced periods of marked hardship, violence and
discrimination interspersed with periods of relative quiet,
mirroring the ebb and flow of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the
domestic political and economic situations. Iraq and Syria both
saw frequent coups d'etat in the late 1950s and throughout the
1960s, which fostered insecurity. Each new dictator,
for better or for worse, could not be counted upon to continue
the policy towards the local Jews of his predecessor.
under the stable dictatorship of the pan-Arabist and Arab
socialist Gamal Abdul Nasser, set about expropriating and
nationalizing Jewish property along with that of other Egyptian
minorities. In truth little difference can be discerned between
the treatment of the Jews in the so-called socialist states of
the period and that of the right-wing dictatorships. In Libya,
where Jews had extracted guarantees of protection at the advent
of independence under King Idris in 1952, restrictions on Jewish
commerce, licenses, and holding of property were gradually
imposed under nationalist pressure.""Meanwhile, the propaganda arms of the confrontation states,
(Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq), but particularly Nasser's
influential Sawt al-Arab min al-Kahira (The Voice of the Arabs
from Cairo) beamed anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish propaganda on the
airwaves all across the Middle East. This inflammatory campaign
reached unprecedented proportions in the weeks preceding the
June 1967 war. When in this poisoned atmosphere news came of the
unexpected and swift Arab defeat by Israeli forces in the Six-Day
War, mob violence broke out: riots against Jews in Libya, Syria,
Tunisia, and Yemen. In Morocco and Tunisia the governments
struggled to protect the Jews, but in Egypt and Syria the
governments themselves unleashed fresh anti-Jewish measures.
Cairo arrested some 500 Jewish men and held them for months in
terrible conditions. They were told that they would be released
only if they forfeited their citizenship and property and agreed
to be expelled from Egypt. Riots in Libya were so severe that
virtually all of the remaining Jews in the country -- slightly
more than 4,000 -- were evacuated to Italy with the help of
concerned Italian and American diplomats.
The Situation Today
In the period since the 1967 war up to the present day, there
has been a continuing decline in the number of Jews in the Arab
world. Draconian government restrictions, sporadic popular
assaults, and murderous, often unexplained and unprosecuted
individual attacks have contributed to a sense of insecurity in
the countries ruled by military dictators. It is thought that
today between 200 and 300 Jews live in Iraq, mostly elderly. Few
are permitted to travel. Some 250 Jews live in Egypt, also
mostly elderly. But in contrast to Iraq and Syria, their
situation has brightened. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of
1979 has enabled them to resume open contact with their relatives
The 5,000 Jews of Syria are a cause of continuing concern for
Jews everywhere. Now that the U.S. Ambassador has returned to
Damascus, efforts to gain permission for them to emigrate should
be high on the agenda of American-Syrian relations. The
estimated 1,200 to 2,000 Jews scattered in villages in Northern
Yemen are virtually cut off from the outside world. They may not
travel or even maintain normal postal ties with relatives abroad.
the only periodic contact with the community is maintained by two
anti-Zionist rabbis from Brooklyn. Efforts by Yemeni Jews in the
United States to organize a visit to their co-religionists in
Yemen have been systematically rebuffed by the authorities.
The remaining Jews of Lebanon, who had been protected by
successive Christian-dominated governments there, began to
emigrate after the 1967 war, with this trend accelerating after
the current civil war broke out in 1975. Today fewer than 100
remain, mostly in Christian-held East Beirut.
The kidnapping of four Lebanese Jews at the end of March 1985,
provides tragic evidence of the extent to which even Lebanon,
which had long been the most tolerant country in the Arab world,
has been engulfed by fanaticism and wanton violence. Christian
and Muslim officials, including Nabih Berri, the leader of the
Amal, the mainstream Shi'ite militia in Lebanon, condemned the
kidnapping of the Jewish leaders in Beirut. In February 1986, a
new radical Shi'ite group, the "Organization of the Oppressed in
the World," claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and
threatened to abduct and kill other Lebanese Jews unless Israel
withdrew from "all of the occupied territories" and freed all
Lebanese and Palestinian detainees. Eight Lebanese Jews have
thus far been murdered by this terrorist group, which is
ideologically linked to the pro-Iranian Hezbullah (the Party of
As of October 1987, nothing was known of the fate of Isaac
Sasson, president of the Lebanese community, kidnapped in March
1985, and Salim Jammous, secretary-general of the community, who
had been abducted in August 1984. The bodies of only three of
the victims have been recovered and given a Jewish burial. The
kidnappers refuse to release the others until their demands
against Israel are met.
In North Africa the situation is somewhat different. The roughly
10,000 remaining Moroccan Jews, as mentioned earlier, are fairly
secure under the benevolent rule of King Hassan. The 2,800 Jews
of Tunisia face uncertain times owing to the presence there since
1982 of the PLO headquarters, as well as the death of Tunisian
president Habib Bourguiba, their traditional protector. A trend
toward instability and rising Islamic fundamentalism has left its
mark on the community. In 1983, a suspicious fire that
completely destroyed the synagogue in the town of Zarzis was
viewed by local Jews as the work of Palestinian extremists.
In October 1985, on the holiday of Simhat Torah, a crazed guard
assigned to protect the Jewish community killed three and wounded
eight others in the historic La Ghariba synagogue on the island
of Djerba. According to Tunisian government sources, the Libyans
also indoctrinated Tunisian workers in Libya with anti-Semitic
sentiments. Some 30,000 were expelled back o Tunisia only weeks
before the synagogue attack. The Tunisian government had early
expressed its outrage to the Libyan government when it was
discovered that a pirate radio station based in Libya, "Radio of
Vengeance and Sacred Hate," was broadcasting calls to overthrow
the pro-Western regimes and to massacre North African Jews.
Barely half a dozen Jews remain in Libya. In a 1970 law
nationalizing the assets of some 600 Libyan Jews, the Libyan
government explicitly committed itself to issue fifteen-year
bonds to pay full and fair compensation. Nevertheless, the July
21, 1985 deadline passed without any action by Colonel Muamar
Qadhafi to fulfill this pledge.
In the section on Libya in the U.S. State Department's report on
human rights practices during 1985, the contradictions in the
Libyan policy are pointed out: "Qadhafi has stated that he is
opposed to Zionism, not Judaism, and that Arab nations should
welcome Arab Jews who wish to return o their countries of origin.
But in a speech in June 1985 he cited the Prophet Muhammed as
stating that Judaism and Islam cannot coexist in the land of the
Arabs, and in September 1985, virulently anti-Jewish broadcasts
on Libyan radio called for anti-Jewish violence in Tunisia within
Only 300 Jews are thought to live in Algeria, most having left
earlier because of the hostile popular climate attendant to this
state's radical stance on Arab-Israeli matters.
The Jewish Claim for Restitution
The Jews of Arab countries naturally consider themselves victims
of the Middle East conflict and seek restitution for their
confiscated properties -- both personal and communal -- from the
governments involved. In this quest they have significant basis
in international law, the UN Charter and conventions dealing with
human rights. Indeed, the arbitrary decrees against the Jews in
many cases run counter to the fine principles enunciated in the
much abused constitutions of their countries of origin.
Since 1967 they have also received official United Nations
recognition of their claims: United Nations Security Council
resolutions 237 and 242. Resolution 237, of 14 June 1967,
concerns itself with the safety, welfare, and security of the
inhabitants of the areas where military operations had taken
place in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and also with the protection
of minorities in the states involved in the conflict. UN
Secretary-General U Thant sent his special representative,
Nils-Goran Gussing, on a special mission to the Middle East to
implement the resolution. The Secretary-General stated expressly
that the provisions of the resolution dealing with minorities
"might properly be interpreted as having application to the
treatment, at the time of the recent war and as a result of that
war, of both Arab and Jewish persons in the States which are
directly concerned because of their participation in that war.
The Israeli government had expressed its concern about the
treatment of Jewish minorities in the Arab states since the
outbreak of hostilities.
Gussing met with officials of the Egyptian government and raised
the subject of the treatment of the reported 500 Jewish prisoners
and the confiscation of the property of Egyptian Jews. He also
met with the Syrian authorities to investigate the restrictions
placed on the Jews of that country. Moreover, the questions
concerning Egyptian Jewry were taken up by the Secretary-General
with the United Arab Republic's (Egypt) permanent representative
to the UN in New York.
Resolution 242, still considered the primary vehicle for
resolving the Arab-Israel conflict, stipulates that a
comprehensive peace settlement should necessarily include "a just
settlement of the refugee problem." Justice Arthur Goldberg, the
American delegate who was instrumental in drafting the
unanimously adopted resolution, has pointed out that the
adjective "Palestinian" or "Arab" was deliberately omitted from
the resolution to indicate that the claims of the Jewish refugees
from Arab lands need also to be addressed.
This diplomatic activity did not produce results at the time, but
it established the claims of Jewish refugees from Arab lands and
the treatment of the Middle Eastern Jewish minorities as concerns
of the international community. Following these developments,
the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty also provided for a joint
commission to handle the claims of the Egyptian Jewish refugees.
These precedents are important, as are the International
Conferences of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Lands
which seek to focus attention on the communal and personal losses
suffered by these Jewish communities. A just settlement of the
Middle East conflict must entail protection of the rights of
Jewish minorities remaining in the Arab world and a fair handling
of the claims of the Jewish refugees.
* * *
Cohen, Hayyim J., The Jews of the Middle East, 1860-1972
(Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1973).
De Felice, Renzo, Jews in an Arab Land: Libya, 1835-1970
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).
Gruen, George E., Tunisia's Troubled Jewish Community (New
York: American Jewish Committee, 1983).
Lewis, Bernard, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1984).
Rejwan, Nissim, The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and
Culture (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985).
Robinson, Nehemiah, The Arab Countries of the Near East and
Their Jewish Communities (New York: World Jewish Congress, 1951).
Stillman, Norman A., The Jews of Arab Lands (Philadelphia:
Jewish Publication Society, 1979).
* * *
Dr. George E. Gruen is Director for Middle East Affairs of the
American Jewish Committee.
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