Let my people run

Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel on Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in 1950

Last night, at least 20 people died when a protest demonstration by Copts was set upon by attackers unknown. A recent piece by the American writer of Egyptian Coptic origin Raymond Ibrahim came to mind.

“Historically, non-Muslims whose lands were seized by the jihad had three choices: conversion, dhimmitude, or death,” he writes in‘Running for their lives’. ” Today, however, they have a fourth option largely unavailable to their forbears: quit their lands of origin—emigrate—the latest testimony to the nature of Islam.”

Emigration won’t now help the mounting toll of dead Copts. But Mr Ibrahim has in mind the 100,000 Copts who had chosen the path of emigrationsince the Arab Spring burst forth in Egypt. “These large numbers are not simply indicative of those who want to emigrate”, writes Mr Ibrahim, “but those who simply can.”

More than 99 percent of Jews have emigrated from the Arab world in the last 60 years. Their emigration took two forms: those with foreign passports – and usually with enough money to bribe their way out of the country – education, languages and relatives abroad – engineered their private exits, mainly to Europe or the Americas.

Emigration may be a modern-day option but it is still a tricky and expensive business. The emigrant needs to have somewhere to go. He usually needs to have relatives or contacts prepared to vouch for him and a support network to help him resettle. So many western countries have now clamped down on asylum seekers that the would-be emigrant might need to present evidence that he can support himself in his new homeland, or possess marketable skills.

The second type of emigration was an unprecedented human movement as soon as Israel was born: great numbers of refugees were rescued by Mossad in some of the largest airlifts in history. Operation Magic Carpet in Yemen, Operation Ezra and Nehemia in Iraq, and several emigration waves from North Africa shifted tens of thousands of Jews to Israel.

These Jews were otherwise hostages in their own countries where discriminatory travel bans operated. Their liberation was achieved with hard cash. In effect Israel ransomed each Jew, paying to transport them out of the country. According to Mordechai Ben Porat in his book To Baghdad and back, Iraqi officials had to be bribed to the tune of several times their monthly salaries. Each passenger cost 12 English pounds a head to fly out. When the time came to transport Jews out of Morocco in the early 60s, Israel was paying $200 a head.

The Iraqi government agreed to release its Jews because it thought that hundreds of thousands of destitute Jews arriving on Israel’s doorstep would lead to economic collapse. The airlifts were a nice little earner for the governments and civil servants of these countries who received generous bribes. Arabs were sometimes major shareholders in the transport companies, and at the end of the day Arab states and peoples reaped a short-term bonanza in Jewish assets seized, and property abandoned or sold for peanuts.

The nightmare journey in a ramshackle cargo plane huddled with other air-sick passengers began for these Jews well before they stepped on board. For Jews in Yemen, there was a long trek on foot down to Aden and weeks in makeshift camps in the heat and dust. For Jews in Libya, thousands had been made homeless by the riots in 1945 and had been sleeping in the synagogues. Jews leaving Iraq were stripped by decree of their citizenship, and later of their property. Jews in Egypt were summarily dismissed and some given just hours to leave. Almost all were forced to leave with one suitcase and only 50 dinars in their pockets.

There was no guarantee that those suitcases would arrive at their destination. Ben Porat discovered a porters’ racket at Baghdad airport spiriting the suitcases off the passenger buses. Departing Jews complained that malicious customs men would confiscate items, ransack their bags or ruin the contents.

Naturally, the harsh conditions awaiting them in Israel – the stinking ma’abarot, the shortage of food and jobs, and the alien language and culture – were hardly encouraging. The few thousand Jews, usually the wealthier ones, who stayed behind in Arab countries, congratulated themselves at the time that they had not joined the mass exodus. But even worse torment and terror lay in store for them, and all they were doing was postponing their inevitable departure.

If hundreds of thousands of Jews had not been transported to Israel, what would have happened to them? It is highly likely they would have remained at the mercy of their host countries, vulnerable to episodes of mob violence, arbitrary arrests and rampant injustice – just like the Copts are today. Many would have languished, struggling to feed their children, deprived of jobs and livelihoods by state-sanctioned and more subtle discrimination.

Although it is fashionable to say these Jews were discriminated against and isolated in remote development towns, Israel accepted these dispossessed and huddled masses unconditionally – just because they were Jews. It gave them citizenship. Above all, it gave them the personal security and protection which minorities in Arab countries sorely lack.

Now it’s the Copts turn to run. But emigration cannot be the only answer for them. There are an estimated 10 -12 million Copts in Egypt. It seems hard to believe that all might run for their lives to the US or Australia. It is even harder to believe that the US and Australia would let them all in.

Crossposted on Harry’s Place

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