The invisible exiles speak out

Hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners were dispossessed over the past six decades-yet unlike the Palestinians, their exodus barely registered a blip on history’s radar screen. They are Jews and this is their story.

As told by Annette Kornblum (with Richard Greenberg) in B’nai Brith magazine. (With thanks: Israel B)

“It was the mid-1960s, and life was good for the Khedr family of Cairo, Egypt. Marc Khedr, then in his early 20s, was a well-paid technical drawing instructor, and his father was the co-owner of a major department store. Although the Khedrs were Jews, they mingled easily with their Christian and Muslim business partners, friends, and colleagues.

“And then on June 6, 1967, the same day that Egypt and Israel went to war, the lives of this prosperous and seemingly well-integrated family turned inside out. Marc and his father were rousted at 2 a.m. by Egyptian soldiers who ransacked their home. They soon found themselves in the back of a canopied truck that jounced over rutted roads in the darkness for hours. They had no idea where they were going or what to expect when they got there.

“The truck stopped, and there was wind,” remembers Marc Khedr, now 60, a retired auto repair shop franchisee who lives in San Francisco. “And you could see big gates. We had to jump, and the old ones were pushed down.” The Khedrs had arrived at Abu Zaabal, a prison two hours from Cairo, where they found themselves interned with 400 other Jewish political prisoners. Their crime: Being the wrong religion in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The next morning, the inmates were forced to run in the courtyard as they were chased by an Egyptian soldier who swatted them with a belt. An 80-year-old man later fainted after hearing that his two sons had been forced to sodomize one another. The captives dined on stale bread laced with sand and cigarette butts, and slept in an overcrowded room with 60 other Jews, sometimes using the leathery bread as makeshift pillows. “Everyone had to sleep against each other, side by side, like sardines,” Khedr recalls. “If you got up to go to the john, you had to step over bodies and by the time you got back your place was taken.”

“Marc and his father were held in Abu Zabbel for eight months before being moved to Tora, another Egyptian prison camp. Altogether, they endured three years and one month of mistreatment in Egyptian gulags. (Khedr insists that the additional one month of captivity be noted.) In the meantime, they lost their property and their citizenship in a country that several generations of the family had called home for at least 150 years. Khedr’s horrific memories of persecution and dispossession are echoed by hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries-the forgotten refugees of the Middle East.

“When people speak of Middle Eastern refugees, everyone thinks immediately of the Palestinians,” says Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. “It’s not well known that there were more Jews displaced from Arab countries [856,000] since 1948 than Palestinian refugees [725,000], according to United Nations estimates. It’s time for this issue to assume its rightful place on the international agenda.”

“The 20th-century dislocation of Jews from Arab and other Middle Eastern countries has been nearly absolute. By the hundreds of thousands they left Libya, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and Aden, as well as Iran (which is not technically an Arab country.) In some of these countries, no Jews remain, and by most accounts, fewer than 3,500 now reside in the entire Arab world. But it wasn’t always that way.

“The average Ashkenazi Jew might know that Warsaw was 40 percent Jewish before World War II, but he’d probably be surprised to learn that Baghdad was 40 percent Jewish, as well,” notes Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “The subject of Jewish life in the Arab world is still largely unfamiliar to Ashkenazim, who make up the majority of the American Jewish community, so the tragic story of the Jewish exodus from the Middle Eastern countries has received far too little attention in the United States.”

“The mass-exodus of Jews from Arab countries began immediately before the establishment of Israel in 1948 and escalated following subsequent Arab-Israeli wars and other political convulsions in the Middle East. The Jewish de-population eventually spilled over into neighboring non-Arab countries, primarily Iran, and continued through the deposition of the Shah in 1979.

“As Urman implies, the Jews’ saga is one-half of a Tale of Two Peoples, the co-protagonist being the Palestinians. Over the past six decades, the paths of these two groups have both coincided and diverged radically. If both arguably began mid-century as exiles, only the Palestinians retain that status. According to a highly elastic definition of the term “refugee” used by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there are now roughly 4 million Palestinian refugees worldwide.

“In contrast, the dispossessed Jews of the Middle East have long since found homes elsewhere (although judging by the UNRWA standard-which applies only to Palestinians and includes the descendants of exiles-there would now be about 4 million Jews scattered throughout the world who could claim the status of refugees, according to Urman). Roughly two-thirds of the Jewish exiles from Arab countries moved to Israel, where today, more than half of the populace is descended from Jews who fled the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century. Others resettled in the United States, Europe, and Canada.”

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