It’s time to address the horrific injustice done to Jews from Arab lands

Even though ancient Jewish communities were persecuted and finally expelled, the world continues to ignore their suffering.

A group of Iraqi Jews who fled to the British Mandate of Palestine following the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Baghdad. Credit: Moshe Baruch via Wikimedia Commons.
A group of Iraqi Jews who fled to the British Mandate of Palestine following the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Baghdad. Credit: Moshe Baruch via Wikimedia Commons.
Fern Sidman and David Ben Hooren

When addressing the defining moment of the 20th century in terms of man’s inhumanity to man, we often reflect on the sheer barbarism of the Holocaust. But throughout the blood-stained annals of Jewish history, many other anti-Semitic massacres have been committed.

Tragically, what is often neglected and summarily dismissed is the forced expulsion, evacuation and flight of 921,000 Jews of Sephardi and Mizrachi background from Arab countries and the Muslim world, primarily from 1948 to the early 1970s.

For over 2,500 years, Jews lived continuously in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf region. The first Jewish population had already settled there at least 1,000 years before the advent of Islam.

Throughout the generations, Jews in the region were often subjected to various forms of discrimination—and in many cases, ranked lower on the status of society than their Muslim compatriots—but they were nevertheless loyal citizens who contributed significantly to the culture and development of their respective countries.

Despite the positive influence that Jews brought to the places where they lived, more than 850,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and several other Arab countries in the 20 years that followed Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Another major forced migration took place from Iran in 1979–80 following the Iranian Revolution and the collapse of the Shah’s regime, adding 70,000 more Jewish refugees to this number.

In 1947, the Political Committee of the Arab League drafted an anti-Semitic law that violently oppressed the Jewish residents in all of its member states. In the international arena, Arab diplomats pretended to ignore the Arab League’s collusion in encouraging state-sanctioned discrimination against Jews, seeking publicly to attribute blame to the Arab “masses”—and even the United Nations itself—for any danger facing the Jews across the region. This covert move was part of the Arab states’ attempt to divert attention from the official discriminatory practices of their governments.

Between 1948-1951, 260,000 Jews from Arab countries immigrated to Israel, accounting for 56% of the total immigration to the newly-founded state. The Israeli government’s policy to accommodate 600,000 immigrants over four years, doubling the existing Jewish population, encountered mixed reactions in the Knesset, as there were those within the Jewish Agency and government who opposed promoting large-scale immigration by Jews from Arab lands.

Currently, it is estimated that only around 15,000 Jews remain in Arab countries. This mass expulsion and exodus is part of modern history, but inexplicably, it’s neither taught in schools nor remembered within the context of the conflicts in the Middle East.

Edwin Black, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling international investigative writer and the author of the 2016 book The Farhud, wrote in December 2021, “Today, we speak of a largely forgotten ethnic cleansing largely unparalleled in the history of humanitarian abuses. Recall the coordinated international expulsion of some 850,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim lands, where they had lived peaceably for as long as 27 centuries. As some know, in 2014, the Israeli government set aside November 30th as a commemoration of this mass atrocity. It has had no real identity or name like ‘Kristallnacht.’ But today, from this day forward, the day will be known as Yom HaGirush: ‘Expulsion Day.’ It has been a years-long road to identify and solidify this identity.”

On September 21, 2012, a special event was held at the U.N. to highlight the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Then-Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor asked the U.N. to “establish a center of documentation and research” that would document the “850,000 untold stories” and “collect the evidence to preserve their history,” which he said had been ignored for too long. In Israel alone, there are approximately four million descendants of these Jews from Arab lands and a few million around the world. Then-Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said, “We are 64 years late, but we are not too late.” Diplomats from approximately two dozen countries and organizations, including the United States, the European Union, Germany, Canada, Spain and Hungary attended the event. In addition, Jews from Arab countries spoke at the event.

In 2019, Rabbi Eli Abadie, formerly of the Edmond J. Safra synagogue in New York City, said in his eloquent address at a day-long seminar held at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan entitled “The End of Jewish Communal Life in Arab Lands” that “the issues surrounding the Palestinian refugees are frequently addressed at the U.N., in the news media and in legal journals. Very little has been written about the Jews displaced from Arab lands. Out of almost 1,120 U.N. resolutions on Israel and the so-called Palestinians, almost 200 resolutions deal specifically with Palestinian refugees; by contrast, not a single one deals exclusively with Jewish refugees displaced from Arab lands.”

“Jews constituted a stable and historic community in these countries dating back at least 3,000 years, centuries before Muhammad. The Aleppo Syrian Community dates back to King David 3,000 years ago, the Yemenite community to King Solomon 2,900 years ago, the Iraqi and Iranian community dates back to the first Babylonian exile 2,500 years ago and the Egyptian community over 1,000 years ago,” he added.

“Jews were known as believers and as such were not given the choice to either adopt Islam or death, but they were given the third choice—that of submission,” Abadie explained. “Therefore, coexistence between Jews and Muslims required that the Jews be submissive to the Muslims. This coexistence dated back from the time of Caliph Omar.”

“People subjected to Muslim rule were given protection from death and conversion as the Dhimmis. This protection required that the Dhimmis pay a poll tax known as “Jizya” or fine. The Dhimmis were forbidden from testifying against Muslims, owning a home, holding office, bearing arms or drinking wine in public; they could not build their houses higher than Muslim houses, they could not ride on saddles, they could not display their Torah except in their synagogues, neither could they raise their voice when reading or blowing the Shofar and were required to wear a special emblem on their clothes, yellow for Jews (the yellow star was not a Nazi invention). It was their duty to recognize the superiority of the Muslim and accord him honor,” he said.

Rabbi Abadie offered a multi-faceted plan for concretely addressing the crimes that were committed against Jews from Arab lands.

He said, “Asserting rights and redress for Jewish refugees is a legitimate call to recognize that Jewish refugees from Arab countries, as a matter of law and equity, possess the same rights as all other refugees. The first injustice was the mass violation of the human and civil rights of Jews in Arab countries. Today, we must not allow a second injustice: For the international community to continue to recognize rights for one victim population—Arab refugees—without recognizing equal rights for other victims of that very same Middle East conflict—Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”

Rabbi Abadie concluded his captivating and informative address by sparking the collective conscience of all humanity: “Let there be no mistake about it. Where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace.”

In a Dec. 4, 2021 interview with the Institute of Jewish Experience, Professor Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian thinker and author of 35 books on Middle Eastern and North African politics and cultures, spoke of Egypt’s relationship with its Jewish population: “At one time, Egypt had 100,000 Jews, among other ethnic groups living all over the country. This cosmopolitan, Mediterranean Egypt started to come to an end at the same time that the Jews were forced to leave Egypt.”

In a March 2020 article by Sarina Roffe, an expert genealogist, historian and founder of the Sephardic Heritage Project, that appeared in Brooklyn’s Community Magazine, she speaks of students from Yeshivah of Flatbush who shared stories of what happened as their families left Syria, some of them with their passports stamped “Never to Return.”

Joshua Zebak spoke of his father’s life in Damascus, as well as family members who tried to escape. “Mazal, Lulu and Fara Zebak, and their cousin Eva Saad planned an escape. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it. They were brutally killed and their remains were left in a cave. They did not see Israel, but Israel sees them. Mazal, Fara, Lulu and Eva did not reach the border, but they have reached our hearts and our history forever.’’

Danielle Tawil spoke of her mother’s family, the Antebys, and their escape from Syria. It was 1980 and people who tried to revolt were killed. Jews were not allowed to keep their customs or study Torah. Arab children threw stones at Jews. Even so, Jewish children were still able to get an education. Born in 1971, Danielle’s mother had no birth certificate, so even to this day she is not sure of her birthday. Danielle’s grandfather was arrested, thrown in jail and was accused of being a Russian spy; her grandmother was also arrested several times.

At a certain point, half the family was allowed to leave the country, so Danielle’s two uncles and grandmother left in 1980. Her grandfather and mother were left behind. They obtained false passports with fake Arab names. Danielle’s mother’s Arab name was Mahah Dakak. They managed to get to Paris, but they had to leave everything behind. Eventually they got visas and were able to enter the United States. Danielle says it is important to appreciate and “take advantage of religious freedom we have today.”

It has been nearly a decade since the Israeli government accepted culpability for neglecting the nightmarish plight of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Arab lands, yet no official curriculum has been established in Israeli schools to teach a new generation about the history of this vital segment of the population.

Even after two commissions were established that concluded the need exists to incorporate this history into their curriculum—most recently, the Bitton Commission—nothing has been done to ensure that such an educational curriculum will become a reality. Nor are there any official museums, seminars, memorials or media-centered productions that spotlight the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands. Why is this so?

As was mentioned previously, when Jews from Arab lands began streaming into Israel after the U.N. officially declared it a Jewish state in 1948, there were those in the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency who went on record opposing this wave of immigration.

The reality is that those who comprised the leadership of Israel in its infancy were secular, left-wing Jews of European ancestry. They were buoyed by the socialist doctrine that they imbibed from the Zionist youth movements they grew up with in Europe. Their ultimate objective was to create a socialist haven for Jews “of their own kind” that was predicated on the political theories of Ber Borochov and his ilk.

As such, these Jews from Arab lands represented a dangerous threat to their political agenda. The Ashkenazi Jews in leadership positions knew that these Jews from Arab lands clung tenaciously to the dictums of their faith and were deeply religious. The notion of hundreds of thousands of them reproducing at record numbers was something that the secular leadership could not swallow.

In order to forcibly secularize these Jews from Arab lands, the Histadrut—Israel’s national trade union, which became one of the most powerful institutions in Israel—would interview newly arrived Sephardic Jews. They would ask them if they were planning to send their children to a religious school. If they responded in the affirmative, they were told that they would not be given a job and would remain in poverty for their entire lives.

Because of the vehemently anti-religious doctrine that the leadership of Israel was wedded to, they were hell-bent on ripping away the “Simanim” (signs of commitment to Torah) of the Sephardic Jews who immigrated to Israel—their kashrut, their peyot and their manner of dress and religious observance.

While this is the cold, hard truth, the government of Israel has made negligible contributions in terms of rectifying the misdeeds of their original leadership.

So, many decades later, we are collectively raising our voices and calling for the government of Israel to broadcast the plight of Jews from Arab lands with a concrete educational curriculum in the school system. This means a curriculum developed by experts in Sephardic Jewish history. It also means year-round seminars for members of the IDF and a special college and university course structure. Speakers, rabbis, teachers and the media must immerse themselves in disseminating this information about Jews from Arab lands and what they endured while living in their host countries and what they experienced upon arriving in Israel.

We urgently need to rally for an international effort to create a museum that is equivalent to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial that will teach all Israelis and foreign tourists about the brutality that was foisted upon Jews from Arab lands and their ancestors. The media in Israel must focus on professionally produced television series, documentaries and books about the horrific catastrophes that befell Jews from Arab lands.

One day a year dedicated to remembering and memorializing the heartbreaking plight of Jews from Arab lands is certainly not sufficient in terms of making amends for the devastation that was perpetrated against these people throughout the course of history.

Now, before it is too late, all of us must come together in unity to amplify this issue. We call upon each of you for your help, guidance and determination to ensure that the world never forgets the injustices meted out to Jews from Arab lands.

While history may or may not recall our deeds on this earth, it is our moral obligation to stand up for our brethren and, by doing so, we will have made this world a better place for future generations.

Fern Sidman is news editor and senior journalist at The Jewish Voice. David Ben Hooren is publisher of The Jewish Voice.

This article was first published by The Jewish Voice.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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