The Story Seldom Told

This article is currently featured on Lay of the Land:

This week, two momentous dates in history were remembered. Not with much fanfare but with the odd tweet or posting on social media platforms; but these were dates and events that altered the course of history and the profound effects are felt to this day. The first was the partition vote at the United Nations in 1947 that would pave the way for the creation of the Jewish State, the other was the commemoration of the expulsion of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries.

On the 29th of November 1947, the United Nations voted to divide what was then British Mandate Palestine into two – land for the Jews and for the Arabs. The Jews accepted, and the modern state of Israel was on its way to being born. The Arabs refused and would soon declare war on the fledgling Jewish State. The State of Israel would be formally declared by David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister, on the 14th of May 1948. The Arab response would take place on the night of 14-15 May, when the forces of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon invaded. The Egyptian Foreign Minister informed the United Nations Security Council that “Egyptian armed forces have started to enter Palestine to establish law and order” (his cable to the Security Council, S/743, 15 May 1948). Arab leaders at the time encouraged their citizens to leave until they had “driven the Jews into the sea”.  Israel would mobilise as many of its able citizens as possible and the Haganah and Palmach (part of Haganah) forces would combine to form the Israel Defense Forces. By the end of the war, Israel was victorious and had made significant territorial gains. Many of the Arab citizens declined to return, despite the invitation by Ben Gurion in the Declaration of Independence to be equal citizens and help build the new state.

2014

What is a seldom discussed story (at least until recent years) has been the experience of Jews living in MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) countries during this time. For centuries and even millennia in some, Jews thrived in these countries. At the time of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, ancient Jewish communities had existed in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Jews under Islamic rule were given the status of dhimmi (second-class citizenship), often subjected to a special dhimmi tax, along with certain other pre-Islamic religious groups. These groups were accorded certain rights as “People of the Book”. In medieval times, many Jews found refuge in Muslim lands; but there were other times when Jews fled persecution in Muslim lands and found refuge in Christian lands. Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula were invited to settle in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, where they would often form a prosperous model minority of merchants acting as intermediaries for their Muslim rulers.

Jews would live there for centuries, speaking the same language and observing many of the same customs and integrating well with their fellow citizens. This would change dramatically in 1948.

By 1948 Jewish communities in MENA countries, were flourishing in their numbers. In Morocco the community numbered 265 000, Iran 100 000, Algeria 140 000, Egypt 75 000 and in substantial numbers in other countries. https://www.youtube.com/embed/35eEljsSQfc?enablejsapi=1&autoplay=0&cc_load_policy=0&cc_lang_pref=&iv_load_policy=1&loop=0&modestbranding=1&rel=1&fs=1&playsinline=0&autohide=2&theme=dark&color=red&controls=1&

With the birth of the State of Israel, the reaction from the Arab world was hostile. Some Jews started to leave these countries but were forced to leave their belongings behind; for the majority, their fate was more terrifying.  Here are some accounts of what happened to these communities:

Iraq:

In Iraq, where a large community of Jews lived for 2,600 years, violent riots known as the Farhud erupted in June 1941. These riots targeted the Jewish population, mainly in Baghdad.  Soldiers who attempted a failed coup took advantage of the power vacuum left by a lack of leadership; and swarmed into Jewish communities together with a bloodthirsty mob, killing 179 innocent people, injuring more than 2,100, and leaving 242 children orphans. This act of violence was celebrated across the Arab world and in Nazi Germany.

Death to Jews. On 1 June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom erupted in Baghdad, bringing to an end more than two millennia of peaceful existence for the city’s Jewish minority.

In 1948, as a response to UNGA Resolution 181 (“the Partition Plan”) and Israel’s independence, laws were passed making Zionism a criminal and even a capital offense, allowing the police to raid and search thousands of Jewish homes for any evidence of Zionism. Between May 1950 and August 1951, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government succeeded in airlifting approximately 110,000 Jews to Israel in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. At the same time, 20,000 Jews were smuggled out of Iraq through Iran. A year later, the property of Jews who emigrated from Iraq was frozen, and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who remained in the country.

Morocco

Prior to World War II, the Jewish population of Morocco was approximately 265,000, and though they were not deported by the Nazis, they still suffered great humiliation under the Vichy French government. Following the war, the situation deteriorated.

In June 1948, bloody riots in Oujda and Djerada killed 44 Jews and wounded many more. That same year, an unofficial economic boycott was instigated and by 1959, Zionist activities were declared illegal. In 1963, at least 100,000 Moroccan Jews were forced out from their homes and approximately  150,000 Jews sought refuge in Israel, France and the Americas.

Last Man Standing. Most the Jews in Morocco today are dead and buried. In this 2018 photograph, Joseph Sebag is the last Jewish man in the seaside Moroccan town of Essaouira.

In 1965, Moroccan writer Said Ghallab described the attitude of Moroccan Muslims toward their Jewish neighbours:

The worst insult that a Moroccan could possibly offer was to treat someone as a Jew. The massacres of the Jews by Hitler are exalted ecstatically. It is even credited that Hitler is not dead, but alive and well, and his arrival is awaited to deliver the Arabs from Israel.”

Egypt

In the 1940s, hostility against the Egyptian Jewish community, which numbered around 80,000, increased. Laws were passed limiting the employment of Egyptians of Jewish descent, as well as requiring majority shareholders of companies to be Egyptian nationals. Since Jews were denied citizenship as a rule, many Jews lost their jobs and businesses.

During the 1948 War of Independence, thousands of Egyptian Jews were put into internment camps, forced out of their jobs, and arrested for supposed collaboration with an enemy state. Synagogues, homes, and businesses were bombed, and many Jews were killed and wounded. More than 14,000 Jews immigrated to Israel during this time seeking safety. Between 1948 and 1958, more than 35,000 Jews fled Egypt. 

End of an Era. Jews forced to leave, a former Jewish school, Abbasyia, Cairo.

Between 1956 and 1968 another 38,000 Jews fled Egypt, many to Israel, to escape systematic persecution such as government expropriation of their homes and businesses and arbitrary arrests.

Yemen

The Yemeni Jews endured some of the worst persecution. At the end of November 1947, the Arab population of Aden held a 3-day strike in protest against UNGA Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan). The protest quickly turned violent. Over 80 Yemeni Jews were slaughtered, more than 100 Jewish-owned businesses were looted, and homes, schools, and synagogues were burnt to the ground. This was one of the most violent attacks on any Jewish population in the Arab world.

Fleeing for their Lives. A Yemenite family walking through the desert to a reception rescue camp near Aden.

The Israeli government embarked on a unique plan to save the persecuted Yemeni Jews. From 1949 to 1950, “Operation Magic Carpet” (known in Hebrew as “On the Wings of Eagles”) went into effect. US and British aircraft were used, flying o Aden and airlifting the Jews from Yemen and bringing them to Israel. By the end of the operation, over 47,000 Yemeni Jews were rescued.

 Libya

 Jews lived and thrived in Libya for more than 2,300 years, with a population of over 37,000. During World War II, the Libyan government implemented their own Nazi-inspired policies; and more than  2,000 Jews were transported to desert concentration camps where hundreds died. In post-war Libya, Arab nationalism grew in popularity, resulting in violent attacks against the Jewish community.

Thriving Jewish Life. City Jews of Tripoli, Libya, 1925. (Photo by G. Casserly/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

In 1945, in the city of Tripoli, more than 140 Jews were killed in a violent antisemitic riot, and a few years later in 1948, violent attacks resulted in 12 dead and the destruction of over 280 Jewish homes. In the three years between 1948 and 1951, 30,972 Jews fled to Israel due to hostile government policies.

Inside Story. Interior of a former Jewish Home in Libya. Jews had lived in Libya for over two millennia.

Syria

By 1943, the Jewish community of Syria numbered approximately 30,000.  After Syrian independence from France, the new Arab government prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine, severely restricted the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools and called for boycotts against Jewish businesses. Attacks against Jews escalated with no intervention. In 1945, in an attempt to thwart international efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Syrian government fully restricted Jewish emigration, burned, looted and confiscated Jewish property, and froze Jewish bank accounts.

When the UN partition was declared in 1947, Arab mobs in Aleppo devastated the 2,500-year-old Jewish community and left it in ruins. Many Jews were killed, and more than 200 homes, shops and synagogues were destroyed. Thousands of Jews illegally fled as refugees, 10,000 going to the United States and 5,000 to Israel. Their remaining property was taken by the local Muslims.

Road from Damascus. A Jewish family in Aleppo, Syria, circa 1910.(Library of Congress)

Syrian Jews that remained were in effect hostages of a hostile regime as the government intensified its persecution. Jews were stripped of their citizenship and experienced employment discrimination. Assets were frozen and property confiscated. The community lived under constant surveillance by the secret police and the freedom of movement was also severely restricted. Any Jew who attempted to flee faced either the death penalty or imprisonment at hard labour camps. Jews could not acquire telephones or driver’s licenses and were barred from buying property.  The road to the airport was constructed over the Jewish cemetery in Damascus and schools were closed and handed over to Muslims.

The story of the Jews from MENA countries is a very important part of modern history that has gained traction in recent years. Concerted efforts have been made by the government to remember and commemorate this and the 30th of November has been declared an official day of commemoration of Jewish Refugees.

Today, the majority of Israelis are descendants from those who had to flee MENA countries with an estimated 1 million who can trace their roots back to Morocco.  It is incumbent on us to bear witness and tell their stories.

Theirs cannot be the story seldom told.

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