Jewish refugees arriving in Haifa from Libya
Non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries have the status of dhimmi, which means “tolerated” or “protected”. But improved legal status did not necessarily translate into improved lives, as prejudice in Morocco, for instance, was deeply entrenched, Dr David Bensoussan argues in Asia Times.
This flows from the assertion that Jewish and Christian scripture was distorted by
their unworthy depositories. It is legislated under the Pact of Umar
which was amended several times with the addition of other
A dhimmi is in an inferior position within Muslim society: they
have special taxes, wear recognizable clothing, are the subject of
humiliating measures, and do not have legal status when they are
involved in a legal matter involving Muslims. Shi’ite Islam considers
Jews to be a source of impurity. While the conditions of Jews have
differed between countries, some features overlap for Jews in Morocco,
and in the Ottoman and Persian Empires.
In the 19th century, several travellers, consuls and educators, sent out
by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, sent back alarming reports on
the situation of Jews, including the following: daily humiliation,
objects of scorn, submissive to the point of atrophy, constant
insecurity, abductions, densely populated Jewish quarters, dramatic
impoverishment and seriously unsanitary living conditions. They
described nightmarish fanaticism on the one hand and resignation on the
The difficult circumstances of Jews, who made up 0.5% to 3% of the
population, depending on the country, was also raised by Muslim
chroniclers. Jews automatically became the scapegoats whenever there was
political instability, a military defeat or difficult economic
conditions, as well as drought. Massacres and plundering happened on a
regular basis. 
Generally speaking, the rulers were benevolent to a certain degree – of
course there were exceptions – and their decisions were not always
For example, the decree agreed to in 1864 by the Moroccan ruler and the
philanthropist, Moses Montefiore, on the cessation of mistreatment of
Jews, never actually changed anything.
Jews were accused of ritual murder in Damascus in 1840 and in Cairo in
1902. In the Ottoman Empire, there were reforms that ended the mandatory
wearing of distinctive clothing and the special tax on non-Muslims, but
once again, in the more remote areas of the Empire, this was never
The precolonial and colonial period
Being on the fringes of the 19th century expansion of Europe, many Jews
sought consular protection, and the parameters were set down at
international conferences in Tangier, Madrid, Lausanne, and so on.
Algerian Jews obtained the right to French nationality in 1870, Tunisian
Jews obtained it at their request in 1923 and Moroccan Jews maintained
their status of dhimmi when Morocco became a protectorate.
A large number of Jews acquired Egyptian nationality but this was
quietly withdrawn in 1940 which left about a quarter of Jews without a
nationality. In Yemen, Sharia law was applied in 1948 and Jewish orphans
were taken in order to be converted to Islam, a practice that had been
in use since 1922.
It should be pointed out that improved legal status for Jews did not
always translate into improved lives, because mentalities do not evolve
as quickly as one might hope. Overall, the Westernization of Jews in
countries where the majority is Muslim preceded that of Muslims by more
than one generation because of, among other reasons, the reach of the
school network of the Alliance Israelite Universelle.
Under the colonial regime, Jews were finally able to live outside the Jewish quarter, the mellah or hara,
and they no longer had to wear distinctive clothing. Many Muslims saw
this as changing the Jewish status that they felt had been carved in
stone by Islamic law. The tradition of prosecuting Jews during difficult
domestic times, as well as the resentment against colonial power and
the emancipation of Jews, were all key factors in triggering anti-Jewish
actions, as happened in Fez in 1912, in Cairo in 1945, and so on.
In order to avoid antagonizing the Muslim majority and even the
anti-Semitic European colonists, the colonial authorities often turned a
blind eye to the abuse of Jews, for example in Baghdad in 1941. No
doubt Jews were considering leaving their country if they could not
achieve equal rights. During the Second World War, a pro-Nazi regime
came to power in Iraq and the sweeping pogrom, the Farhoud, was carried
out in 1941. The Mufti in Jerusalem was the self-appointed voice of Nazi
propaganda and he encouraged Bosnia Muslims to join the Waffen SS. As
well, Jews in Libya were sent to death camps in Europe and a number in
Jews in Tunisia were made to do forced labor.
After the Second World War
After the war, there was growing insecurity in eastern Jewish
communities. There had been a pogrom in Libya in 1945, anti-British and
anti-Semitic riots within the same year in Egypt, in Syria, Yemen and
Aden in 1947, and Jews were excluded from the Syrian and Lebanese
administrations in 1947. The political committee of the Arab League,
made up of seven countries, proposed in 1947, well before Israel’s
independence, that the assets of Jews be frozen. 
Israel’s independence and their surprise victory over invading Arab
armies was a miracle in the eyes of Jews. Pressure was put on Jews who
were told to prove their loyalty by opposing the Jewish state and the
Arab press was full of invective against Israel and Jews. People left in
a panic for Israel from several countries despite threats to destroy
the newly formed state.
There were multiple anti-Jewish measures: non-renewal of professional
licenses in Iraq, a prohibition on leaving Iraq in 1948 and Yemen in
1949, the withdrawal of Egyptian nationality from Jews, who then became
stateless in the 1950s, and the withdrawal of the right to vote for Jews
in Libya in 1951.
Add to that the pogroms in Djerada, in Morocco in 1948, in Damascus and
Aleppo in 1948, in Benghazi and Tripoli in 1948, in Bahrain in 1949, in
Egypt in 1952, and in Libya and Tunisia in 1967. There were arrests and
expulsions in Egypt in 1956, economic strangulation by spoliation in
Iraq in 1951, in Syria in 1949, in Libya in 1970, or by exclusion in
Syria and Lebanon in 1947, in Libya in 1958, in Iran in 2000, or by
allowing Egyptian business only in Egypt in 1961.
Jewish heritage was destroyed in Oran in 1961 and in Libya in 1969 and
1978, there was police abuse and abductions of young girls with forced
conversions in Morocco from 1961 to 1962, Jews were kidnapped in Lebanon
in 1967, there were public hangings in Baghdad in 1969, anti-Semitic
cliches were used in the Arab press, and campaigns were used to increase
anti-Jewish sentiment and incite hatred, using Zionism as an excuse.
After the Six-Day War, this rhetoric increased considerably.
Even though there were assurances of equality before the law in
countries considered to be moderate, such as Morocco and Tunisia after
their independence, membership in the Arab League meant a full boycott
in terms of relations or contact with Israel. Mail was prohibited, it
was difficult to get a passport, and any media that did not portray
Israel extremely negatively was prohibited from reporting. This boycott
absolutely prevented any dialogue that could have led to mutual
Discriminatory measures that were taken against Jews and the state of
Israel led to the quasi-disappearance of Jews in these countries. No
Arab state has taken responsibility for the fate of its Jewish citizens.
We are witnessing nowadays preservation measures of Jewish patrimony
and increased Israeli tourism in Morocco. On the other hand, former
Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric denies the holocaust and
calls for the elimination of Israel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan acts as if it wanted the state of Israel to become a dhimmi state.
In conclusion, modern times opened the door to the possibility of the
dignity of citizenship for Jews, and prejudice compelled them to leave
their place of birth. The end of commonplace Jewish servitude in
Muslim-Arab countries was dramatic for the Muslim world, which is why
Arab nationalism has made Palestine its focal point for mobilization.
Zionism represents Jews who have reclaimed their dignity and defend
themselves, in other words the antithesis of dhimmis.
One must consider, furthermore, that the measures taken against Jews
varied from one country to another. Once they were promulgated, the
measures taken to protect Jews were rarely applied. In addition, it did
not take much to arouse the people’s animosity toward Jews, regardless
of these measures.
The policy of terror and exclusion led to ethnic cleansing without
regard for rights or a possessions that were lost, confiscated or
abandoned, or to discriminatory measures along with their vicious
propaganda, which ultimately led to an exodus that was practically
forced, and often people left very quietly.
These discriminatory measures came in different forms and varied
depending on the country. If it had not been for the Arab media’s
anti-Israeli frenzy and the discriminatory measures against Jews, it is
highly likely that some of them would have decided to stay in their
country. The feeling of insecurity constantly hung over Jewish
communities. Their departure became necessary for their survival,
otherwise it was just a question of time before they would be taken
hostage by the potential unrest, which they were sure they would fall
victim to next.
Jews who had been present in Arab Muslim countries for a 1,000 years
were squeezed out in the span of one generation, and they had to choose
exile to other countries.