The Jewish Nakba was bigger than the Arab

Most people are unaware of the size and scope of the Jewish refugee
problem. In both human and economic terms, the expulsion was massive.
Approximately 900,000 Jews fled Arab countries. Their property,
confiscated or stolen outright by the Arab states—in particular Egypt
and Iraq—is valued today in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Among
these assets were the buildings that housed Jewish institutions,
synagogues, factories, and personal property. Excellent article by Edy Cohen in The Tower:

The losses were particularly heavy for the Jews of Egypt. For them,
the persecution came swiftly. When Israel was established, the Egyptian
government announced that the property of anyone whose actions were
deemed dangerous to the state would be confiscated. This law was aimed
at the Jews, who were collectively accused of supporting Zionism.
Hundreds of Jewish businesses were confiscated. Their owners were sent
to prison on charges of colluding with Zionism. After a year and a half,
they were expelled with their families, most of them with nothing more
than the clothes on their backs.

In 1954, the pan-Arab dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power in
Egypt. State harassment of the Jews and official Jewish institutions
quickly intensified. Jewish schools, hospitals, and welfare and youth
organizations were nationalized or outlawed. Following the Sinai War in
1956, a second wave of persecution and mass imprisonment began.
Approximately 35,000 Jews accused of Zionism were expelled with a few
days warning. The government then issued a special decree that
confiscated all Jewish property. Those expelled had their passports
nullified and were forced to sign a declaration that they had no claims
on Egypt and would never return to it.

At the end of 1956, Shlomo Cohen-Zidon, the vice-chairman of a
federation of Egyptian immigrants in Israel, asked then-Finance Minister
Levi Eshkol for help documenting the property that had been left behind
by the Egyptian exiles. Eshkol agreed. In March 1957, a committee led
by Cohen-Zidon was convened. It worked for worked for a year and a half,
and documented over 4,000 claims. The Israeli Justice Ministry would
later document a further 3,000.

A ma’abara (refugee absorption center) in Israel, 1950. Photo: Jewish Agency for Israel / flickr

A ma’abara (refugee absorption center) in Israel, 1950. Photo: Jewish Agency for Israel / flickr

After the Six-Day War in 1967, a third wave of persecution took place
in Egypt, accompanied by the imprisonment of all Jewish men and the
confiscation of their property. This proved the last straw, and almost
the entire Egyptian Jewish community, dating back thousands of years
before the advent of Islam, took flight. The amount of Jewish private
and public property stolen by Egypt is estimated today in the tens of
billions of dollars, with some claiming that the number is in the
hundreds of billions.

Along with the Jews of Egypt, the Jews of Iraq were hardest hit by
the waves of persecution that swept the Arab world after 1948. In the
1950s, the Iraqi government allowed its Jews to leave the country on the
condition that they renounce their citizenship and their property. This
resulted in several massive waves of aliyah, whereby most of
the community was brought to Israel—over 120,000 people. Under Baath
party rule from 1968-1973, the Iraqi Jews suffered from harassment by
the government, which did not allow them freedom of movement and
confiscated their property. In 1969, a series of pogroms killed around
50 Jews. Following this, the entire community, dating back to the
Babylonian exile, fled the country.

This pattern repeated itself throughout the Arab world. For years,
the Jews of Syria were not permitted to leave. The Jews of Yemen, Libya,
and other Arab states eventually fled under pressure from official
persecution. Their property was, again, confiscated. During this time,
the Jews of all the Arab countries were second-class citizens. The
governments invariably saw them as a fifth columnists. In places like
Lebanon, apartheid laws were put in place denying the Jews government
jobs. In short, life was made impossible for the Jews until, as was
likely intended, they fled.

For decades, the plight of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries
has been denied or ignored. Certainly, it has not received proper
attention from the international media. Everyone talks about the
Palestinian Nakba and the eternal rights of Palestinian refugees. No one
talks about the suffering of the Jews of the Arab countries, the
persecution and violence they faced, and certainly not their confiscated
property.

But there is reason to hope that this is changing. In 2008, the U.S.
Congress unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing the rights of
Jewish refugees from Arab countries and saying that, if aid is given to
Palestinian refugees, there should be similar aid and compensation for
the Jewish refugees. The Canadian parliament had done the same in 2004. (sic – 2014 – ed)

Israel has also made the issue a priority. Two lobbies have recently
been established in the Knesset that deal with the issue: One for the
preservation of the culture and legacy of the Jews of Arab and Islamic
nations, and one for the return of confiscated Jewish property. In 2010,
the Knesset adopted a law to protect the rights of Jewish refugees from
Muslim countries to compensate for their stolen property. It explicitly
placed the issue in the context of the peace process. More recently,
the Knesset designated November 30 as “Jewish refugee day.”

These actions are heartening, because refugees and their descendants
believe that it is not possible to make peace between Israel and the
Palestinians while this issue is ignored. The fact that many do ignore
it does not mean we have given up. We have a moral and legal obligation
to demand compensation from the Arab nations for their crimes against
us.

We must not forget the silent and silenced trauma of a people. In
everything connected to the peace process, Israeli governments and the
countries seeking to mediate negotiations must ensure that for any
solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, any reference to
recognition of the refugees, and the creation of any mechanisms for
compensation, there must be reciprocity for Jewish refugees as well.

There may have been two Nakbas, but it must be noted that the Jewish
Nakba is not only a story of catastrophe, it is also one of triumph over
adversity. Even today, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants
are considered refugees and receive aid from UNWRA. Every Palestinian
child is recognized as a refugee and continues to be subsidized by the
international community. The Palestinians refused to develop a new way
of life, preferring to live in the illusion that someday they will be
allowed to reenter Israel and overwhelm its Jewish population by sheer
force of numbers. But the Jewish refugees from Arab nations succeeded in
overcoming their difficulties. They came to Israel with little or
nothing and built their homes here. Many of them became successful as
doctors, engineers, and lawyers, while some have even been elected to
the Knesset.

Nonetheless, the Jewish refugees should not be punished for their
success. They had to overcome enormous difficulties to become part of
Israeli society. The Jewish refugees arrived in Israel in a
post-traumatic state. They did not talk about the past they had left
behind. They were dispossessed and beaten down, and forged a life
through an arduous process of survival. Most of them became part of
larger society and made an extraordinary contribution to the state. But
others, because their wealth and property had been stolen from them,
remained mired in poverty on the periphery of Israel.

For them and their descendants, it is incumbent on the Western world
to acknowledge that there were two Nakbas, two tragedies: The tragedy of
the Palestinian refugees and the tragedy of the Jews from Arab nations.

The nature of aliyah from the Arab countries was diverse.
Some chose to come to Israel out of Zionist convictions, but others did
not. My family was one of the latter. We were third-generation residents
of Lebanon, an inseparable part of Wadi Abu Jamil Street in the Beirut
Jewish neighborhood of Harat Elihud. We did not want to leave. Over the
years, we came to Israel for family visits, but always returned to our
home in Lebanon. At that time, we were part of a community that numbered
7,000 in the 1970s.

Slowly, however, our situation became impossible. The rise of
Hezbollah on one side and the weakness of the Lebanese government on the
other left the Jews exposed to the same persecution our brothers and
sisters had suffered before us. Slowly life became impossible. We became
refugees, as defined in international law: someone who flees out of
fear of persecution due to racial, religious, or national background.

We realized that this now applied to us in 1985, when Hezbollah kidnapped and murdered 12 Lebanese Jews.

Among them was my father, Haim Cohen, of blessed memory.

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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

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.