To mark Jewish Refugee Day, Sandy Rashty of the Jewish Chronicle records the stories of several Jews who fled Arab countries.
A Syrian Jewish family at the turn of the century, smoking narghile
“Jews from Arab lands suffered – their story should be told. They weren’t just uprooted; their history was uprooted.”
So says Florette Hyman, who was born Florette Menir in Cairo, and who
came to the UK in 1957 after her family was forced to leave Egypt.
“Everyone is talking about the Palestinian refugees. I feel that no
one has asked the question: What about the Jews from Arab lands?” she
Until now, there has been no official date to mark the mass exodus of
Jews who abandoned their homes and businesses in the face of increasing
persecution in Arab countries after the state of Israel was established
870,000 Jewish refugees were driven out of Arab countries and sought
sanctuary around the world, including in the UK where they make up just
under five per cent of British Jewry.
This year, the Knesset in Israel passed a bill designating November
30 as the official day to commemorate the stories of Jews who fled Arab
countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Syria, as well as Iran.
Some of the refugees have campaigned for restitution, hoping to
regain the property or value of the capital lost at the time of
displacement. Others just want to be heard.
Mrs Hyman, now 64, was eight-years-old when she left Egypt for
Britain. Along with her parents and five siblings, she lived in one-room
in a refugee camp near Leeds. Her father Abraham, grateful for the
“haven”, wrote a letter of thanks to the Queen and named his youngest
daughter Elizabeth after her.
“I’m quite emotional talking about it now,” Mrs Hyman said. “When
Israel was created, it was dangerous for Jewish people to go out at
night in Egypt; they would disappear.
“I remember a policeman coming into our house with papers on a Friday
night, saying we had to leave. My father’s family had been in Egypt
since the 12th century.
“Everything we had was taken away from us – my father’s packing
company was taken away. They made roads out of the tombstones in Jewish
cemeteries. I can’t even go back and visit my grandfather’s grave.” In
1948, more than 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt – now, there are fewer than
Roger Bilboul attended the Jewish Lycée de l’Union Juive school in
Alexandria before leaving, aged 18, in 1959. He has backed an
international campaign to regain access to Jewish archives left in
“I left because of the situation, it wasn’t good for Jews,” recalled Mr Bilboul, who now lives in London.
“People were being put in prison all the time with no excuse. There
was the nationalisation of Jewish businesses, a lot of stuff was
confiscated and left behind. Some people are now going through the
courts to try and get back their property.
“The contribution that Jews made has been largely forgotten; but it’s
something Egyptians themselves are now keen to put on the map.”
Moshe Kahtan, whose father Saleh was a legal adviser to the Iraqi
Ministry of Finance, also regrets that the contribution made by Jews has
been forgotten. He dismisses the prospect of restitution as “wishful
“Freedom,” he said. “You better forget this word in that place – it didn’t exist for Jews.
“At its peak, half of the population in Baghdad was Jewish. In the
1930s, they started relieving Jews of their positions… they were
imitating what was happening in Nazi Germany. Jobs were taken over by
Muslims. Jews had a yellow identity card – they confiscated my
This Sunday is the Israeli national day for commemorating the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Over 40 events are being planned all over the world to mark the day. Stephen Oryszczuk in the UK publication Jewish News finds out why the issue is a question of justice:
The Israeli government this year
designated a new day, 30 November, to remember historic wrongs done to
the Jewish people. The wrong in question was the uprooting of 850,000
Jews from ancient communities in Arab and Muslim lands, including Iran,
after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Some call it a period
of “systematic persecution” or “ethnic cleansing”.
Events will be held around the world on
Sunday. There will be a Board of Deputies reception at the Jewish
Museum in Camden. On Saturday at St John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue,
historian Nathan Weinstock will explain “how a Belgian Ashkenazi Jew
wrote the story of the eradication of Jews from Arab lands”.
Weinstock says the story “demands an
understanding of the dhimma – Jewish social status under Islam – and an
appreciation of the repercussions of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict,
leading to the great post-World War II Jewish exodus”.
Once-equal Jewish citizens were
persecuted, Jewish stores and workshops were looted, Jewish workers were
fired and Jews were restricted from entering universities. Expelled
from Egypt, displaced in Iraq and held hostage in Syria (on the
suspicion that they would “join the Zionist enemy” and attack their
country of birth), most left when they could, leaving all possessions
behind. The story is one of immense sadness.
Many Sephardi Jews had deep cultural
ties to the land, and influenced it greatly. Jewish writers were the
foundation of Iraqi literature, for example, and in mid-19th century
Egypt, the man who invented the nationalist slogan ‘Egypt for the
Egyptians’ (known as ‘the Egyptian Molière’) was a Jew named Jacob
Sanua. The repercussions of this huge and little-known upheaval shape
today. “No understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict is complete
without taking into account the fact that half of all Israeli Jews are
descended from, or are themselves, Jewish refugees from Arab or Muslim
lands,” says the Board of Deputies.
But why is the issue only now being
recognised? “Successive Israeli governments didn’t really make much of
it, contrary to what Arab countries did for Palestinian refugees,” says
Baghdad-born Edwin Shuker, who now lives in London. “It was a huge
mistake on many levels. There are fewer than 5,000 Jews left in Arab
lands. I am part of a dying generation. We want this narrative
incorporated into the Jewish people’s story.”
For Shuker, the 30 November
commemoration “opens a new chapter” in that story, and Lyn Julius,
co-founder of Harif, the UK association of Jews from the Middle East and
North Africa, agrees that it is a “watershed” moment. But she says the
refugees themselves partly explain the slow process of recognition.
“When they came to Israel in the 1950s, they compared themselves to
Europe’s Jewish refugees, to Holocaust survivors.
What happened to them was far worse, so
they thought ‘let’s just get on with it, let’s not make a fuss’.” It
was early in the state’s creation, and the country needed to build an
Israeli identity, she explains. “Forget the past and move on, that was
the only way to integrate Jews from 130 countries,” says Julius.
“Politically, it was disastrous, and
the Palestinians made all the running, screaming that they were the only
refugees, which the world bought.” Some are cynical about the timing of
the Knesset law, which came in the middle of the peace negotiations
with the Palestinians earlier this year. Arab- Israeli peace process
analyst Dr Constanza Musu says Israel “conducted a very systematic
campaign to have the issue of refugees addressed in the negotiations”.
Iranian Jews pray at the tomb of a rabbi in Yazd (photo: Iranian Media )
This AP dispatch has gained wide coverage in the Israeli and western press. Timed to coincide with the Iran nuclear talks, it is designed to curry favour with the West, and the US in particular. Cloaked in a veneer of objectivity, it projects an image of an Iran tolerant of its minorities. Gone is the extremist Ahmadinejad – the regime under Ayatollah Rouhani is ‘moderate’. Why are 1,000 Jews going on pilgrimage, and who is the rabbi they are venerating? The article does not tell us.
YAZD, Iran (AP) — More than a thousand people
trekked across Iran this past week to visit a shrine in this ancient
Persian city, a pilgrimage like many others in the Islamic Republic —
until you notice men there wearing yarmulkes.
a home for Jews for more than 3,000 years, has the Middle East’s
largest Jewish population outside of Israel, a perennial foe of the
country. But while Iran’s Jews in recent years had their faith
continually criticized by the country’s previous governments, they’ve
found new acceptance under moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
“The government has listened to our grievances
and requests. That we are being consulted is an important step
forward,” said Homayoun Samiah, leader of the Tehran Jewish Association.
“Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nobody was listening to
us. Our requests fell on deaf ears.”
Most of Iran’s 77 million people are Shiite
Muslims and its ruling establishment is led by hard-line clerics who
preach a strict version of Islam. Many Jews fled the country after the
1979 Islamic Revolution. Jews linked to Israel afterward were targeted.
Today, estimates suggest some 20,000 Jews remain in the country.
Tensions grew under Ahmadinejad, who
repeatedly called the Holocaust “a myth” and even sponsored an
international conference in 2006 to debate whether the World War II
genocide of Jews took place. Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi once
accused Jews as whole of being drug dealers.
But since Rouhani took office last year, Jews
say they have been heartened by the support they’ve received. His
government agreed to allow Jewish schools to be closed on Saturdays to
mark Shabbat, the day of rest. Rouhani also allocated the equivalent of
$400,000 to a Jewish charity hospital in Tehran and invited the
country’s only Jewish lawmaker to accompany him to the United Nations
General Assembly in New York last year.
“We were fearful in the ’80s. We were feeling
the pressure. Now, we are not concerned anymore. We feel secure and
enjoy freedoms,” said Mahvash Kohan, a female Jewish pilgrim who came to
Yazd from Shiraz. “In the past, Israel and others were providing
incentives such as housing that lured some Jews. Now, it’s not like
that. And Iranian Jews have better living and working conditions in
Iran. So, no one is willing to leave now.”
Still, human rights groups say Jews and other
minorities in Iran face discrimination. Last year, officials in Iran’s
presidency denied that Rouhani had a Twitter account after a tweet that
appeared to be from the leader offered a greeting for Rosh Hashana, the
Jewish New Year. Iranian state television also has aired anti-Semitic
Those taking part in the recent Yazd
pilgrimage to the tomb of a famed Jewish scholar, however, praised the
Iranian government’s new outreach.
Iraqi-Jewish refugee arrives in Israel, 1951. To hear Lyn Julius being interviewed on the Voice of Israel about Jewish refugees from Arab lands, click here.
Barely three years after the Nazi Holocaust came to light, Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world. And the ghosts of Nazism haunt us still, argues Lyn Julius in the Times of Israel:
On 30 November, schools, ministries and
organisations in Israel and worldwide will be marking a new day in the
calendar — a day to remember the flight of Jewish refugees from Arab
countries and the destruction of their ancient communities.
is often said that these Jews paid the price for the creation of
Israel. In revenge for the mass exodus of Palestinian Arab refugees,
Arab mobs and governments turned on their defenceless Jewish citizens.
But in truth, there is sound evidence that even before the establishment
of Israel, and before the great mass of Arab refugees had fled, Arab
governments were conspiring to victimise their Jews and dispossess them
of their land and property.
This week, 67 years ago, saw anti-Jewish
tensions reach new highs in Palestine and the Arab world as Arab
delegates ramped up their rhetoric at the UN, which was due to vote on
the Partition of Palestine.
According to UN records the Egyptian delegate,
Heykal Pasha, was already warning on 24 November 1947 about the
consequences of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine:
“the United Nations…should not
lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a
million Jews living in Muslim countries…creating anti-Semitism in those
countries even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which
the Allies tried to eradicate in Germany…making the UN…responsible for
very grave disorders and for the massacre of a large number of Jews.”
Heykal Pasha’s words were prefaced with talk of ‘massacre’ ‘riots’ and ‘war between two races’. According to Yaakov Meron,
Pasha’ s threats were not confined to Egypt but repeatedly mentioned
Jews in other Muslim countries. They were not uttered on the intiative
of Egypt but were ‘the outcome of prior coordination between Arab states
then represented at the UN and the Arab league.”
The Palestinian delegate, Jamal Al-Hussayni,
said the Jews’ situation in the Arab world “will become very precarious.
Governments in general have always been unable to prevent mob
excitement and violence.”
Syrian UN representative Faris Al-Khuri is
quoted in the New York Times as far back as 19 February 1947 stating
that: “Unless the Palestinian problem is settled, we shall have
difficulty in protecting the Jews in the Arab world.”
A Jewish publication reported: “With the
entire Arabic press fulminating against the perfidy of Zionism, and with
Arab politicians rousing their underfed and enervated masses to a
dangerous pitch of hysteria, the threats were certainly not empty.”
In Iraq the threats were made publicly, and its Foreign Minister Fadel Jamali stated at the UN:
“The masses in the Arab world
cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world
will greatly deteriorate. There are more Jews in the Arab world outside
Palestine than there are in Palestine. In iraq alone we have about
150,000 jews who share with Muslims and Christians all the advantages of
political and economic rights. But any injustice imposed on the Arabs
of Palestine will disturb the harmony among Jews and non-Jews in iraq.
it will breed interreligious prejudice and hatred.”
Just two days after the State of Israel was
proclaimed, a New York Times headline on May 16, 1948 declared “”Jews in
Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands, Nine hundred thousand in Africa and
Asia face wrath of their foes.” An article, written by Mallory Browne,
reported on a series of discriminatory measures taken by the Arab League
against the Jewish residents of Arab League member states ( at that
time, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen).
The article reported on a: “text of a law
drafted by the Political Committee of the Arab League which was intended
to govern the legal status of Jewish residents of Arab League
countries. It provides that beginning on an unspecified date all Jews
except citizens of non-Arab states, would be “considered ‘members of the
Jewish minority state of Palestine.’ Their bank accounts would be
frozen and used to finance resistance to ‘Zionist ambitions in
Palestine.’ Jews believed to be active Zionists would be interned and
their assets confiscated.”
Text of draft law*
1. Beginning with (date), all
Jewish citizens of (name of country) will be considered as members of
the Jewish minority of Palestine and will have to register with the
authorities of the region where they reside, giving their names, the
exact number of members in their families , their addresses, the names
of their banks and the amounts of their deposits in those banks. This
formality is to be accomplished within seven days.
2. Beginning with (date), bank accounts of
Jews will be frozen. These funds will be utilized in part or in full to
finacne the movement of resistance to Zionist ambitions in Palestine.
3. Beginning with (date) only Jews who are
subjects of foreign countries will be considered as ‘neutrals’. These
will be compelled either to return to their countries with a minimum of
delay, or to be considered as Arabs and obliged to accept active service
with the Arab army.
4. Jews who accept active service in Arab
armies or place themselves at the disposal of these armies, will be
considered as ‘Arabs’.
5. Every Jew whose activities reveal that he
is an active Zionist will be considered as a political prisoner and will
be interned in places speficially designated for that purpose by police
authorities or by the Government. His financial resources, instead of
being frozen, will be confiscated.
6. Any Jew who will be able to prove that his
activities are anti-Zionist will be free to act as he likes, provided
that he declares his readiness to join the Arab armies.
7. The foregoing (para 6) does not mean that those Jews will not be submitted to paragraphs 1 and 2 of this law.
*Source : JJAC
In brief, the Draft Law was a prediction of
what was to happen to almost a million Jews in the Arab countries. It
became a blueprint, in country after country, for the laws that were
eventually to be enacted in these countries against Jews, for the
actions that devastated the Jewish communities in Arab lands; and for
the forced exodus that was to follow.
On 19 January 1948, the World Jewish Congress
sent a memorandum appended to the Arab League draft law to the United
Nations Economic and Social Council to protest against it and the
anti-Jewish unrest it had generated in the Arab world. Unfortunately,
the fate of this memorandum rested in the hands of the President of the
Council, Dr. Charles H. Malik, the representative of Lebanon to the
United Nations, designated by Arab states to be their Council
representative. Lebanon was one of the founding members of the Arab
League, one of the states which had deliberated upon the anti-Semitic
draft law. Mr. Malik used a procedural maneuver to ensure that nothing
was done in response to the World Jewish Congress memorandum.
Years later, in 1984, sitting in the garden of
his house with other Arab Affairs journalists, the Israeli columnist Dr
Guy Bechor challenged Charles Malik. Why did he do nothing to block an
anti-Zionist, nay antisemitic plan?
” Lebanon had no choice but to toe the Arab
line,”replied Malik. As a Christian he had to prove loyalty to the
Arab/Palestinian cause, and was even required to be more anti-Israel
than the Muslims.
What is shocking is that 856, 000 Jews were
driven from their homes by Nuremberg-style laws just three years after
after the full horror of the Nazi Holocaust of six million European Jews
had come to light. Nazism had a great following in the Arab world and
influenced reactionary movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood,
founded in 1928. Arab collaborators with the Nazis, such as the Grand
Mufti of Jerusalem, were never tried for war crimes in 1945. Instead,
antisemitism in Arab states, much of it using Nazi tropes and memes, has
soared to stratospheric heights.
The ghosts of Nazi-inspired genocide and
ethnic cleansing are still with us. The victims are still the same
victims: the Jews and their state, heretical Muslims, Kurds, non-Muslim
minorities. We can begin to exorcise these ghosts by learning about past
wrongs – beginning on 30 November.
A ma’abara or transit camp, home for Jewish refugees driven from their homes in the 1950s
Sadly, the ‘Benayoun affair’ is overshadowing the first ever commemorative Day for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Shimon Oyahon MK, the driving force behind the Law designating 30 November as the Day, says the singer’s latest controversial release is a distraction from the real racism that caused the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Arab world. Read his Times of Israel blog (with thanks: Jonah) :
The controversy surrounding Amir Benayoun and
whether his recent song “Ahmed Loves Israel“ should lead to cancelation
of his invitation from the president’s residence has sadly become a
major distraction from a far greater injustice predicated on racism and
discrimination. Few people who have followed this front-page story
are aware that the event at which Benayoun was supposed to appear was
the first ever official state ceremony in commemoration of the Jewish
refugees from Arab countries.
real issue of racism here is the expulsion and forcing out of 850,000
people from their ancestral homes because they were Jews and no one is
talking about that, or has talked about it for 66 years. Suddenly a song
that some consider offensive is gaining attention and once again people
are forgetting about the historic injustice done to so many people that
has still not been rectified.
Unfortunately, most are not aware of the
history of the Jews and their eventual ethnic cleansing from the Middle
East and North Africa during the Twentieth Century. While the Land of
Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish People, for thousands of years
Jews developed their unique and indigenous civilization around the
Middle East. Jews and Jewish communities have existed in the Middle
East, North Africa, Babylon, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the
Gulf region for millennia.
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.