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