Commentary review: The other Middle Eastern refugees

History has been deeply unkind to the Jewish communities of the
Middle East and North Africa, and so too has the historical record. As
the British author Lyn Julius points out in Uprooted, the persecution
and ethnic cleansing of more than 800,000 Jewish denizens of Arab lands
from the 1940s onward is a story still confined to the margins of more
visible tragedies. Review in Commentary (July 2018 issue) by Ben Cohen:

Foremost among these is the Holocaust, commonly
regarded as a purely European episode, yet one whose German architects
intended ultimately to include the Jews of Arab lands. That ambition was
checked when the Allies stopped the Nazi advance in North Africa at the
close of 1942. Then there is the outflow of approximately 750,000
Palestinian Arab refugees during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948,
still presented in many Western and Arab circles as the origin of the
region’s present problems. The Arab-refugee issue has become grossly
expanded in another way as well: The Palestinians, uniquely among the
world’s refugee populations, are compelled by the United Nations to
transfer refugee status from parents to children. Thus there are
currently 5 million Palestinian “refugees.”

Because of these
events, the Jewish exodus from the Arab world is commonly perceived as
simply one more misfortune among the myriad population transfers and
ethno-national conflicts that followed World War II. Yet according to
the historian Nathan Weinstock, it remains an exodus with no precedent
in Jewish history, “even when compared with the flight of the Jews from
Tsarist Russia, Germany in the 1930s, or massive emigration from Eastern
Europe after the war.”

Julius, herself the product of a Jewish
family driven from Iraq, cogently explains how the Jews of the Arab
world effectively became denationalized. She argues persuasively that
the rapid unraveling of these Jewish communities, whose presence in
these areas predated the emergence of Islam, should be understood above
all else as an offense against the elementary codes of human rights.

The inherent danger with these kinds of accounts is that the victims
end up as a beatified collective, at which point historical writing
quickly becomes apologia. Julius avoids this basic trap. She makes it
clear that there is no archetypal “oriental Jew,” and no literary
sleight of hand can encompass the vastly different experiences of Jews
from cowed, closed Yemen and from open, ebullient Morocco. Nor can
Cairene Jews, educated in European private schools, be lumped in with
those crammed into the Jewish quarters of Fez or Meknes.

Insofar as
these communities began exhibiting more and more similarities as the
20th century progressed, it was the result of the draconian,
discriminatory legal regimes imposed on them by the Arab governments
under which they lived.

By the late 1950s, the vast bulk of these
communities, from the western reaches of North Africa to the eastern
borders of Saudi Arabia, had been brutally wrenched from their roots.
Typical measures along the way included stripping Jews of their
citizenship, freezing their property and assets, systematically
intimidating them through mass arrests and detentions, proscribing
Zionism as a crime, and subjecting them to humiliations both large and
petty in the workplace and in schools.

Drawing on the
scholarship of historians such as Matthias Kuentzel and Jeffrey Herf,
Julius spotlights the ideological overlaps between German National
Socialism, the various strains of Arab nationalism, and the overtly
anti-Semitic Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The root cause of the
post-1948 exodus of over 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North
Africa,” Julius writes, “was pan-Arab racism, itself influenced by
Nazism.” That truth has become more and more evident as the years have
passed, especially in Israel, where historians and politicians are
beginning to grasp the significant ties between the Holocaust and the
uprooting of the Jews from the Arab world. The clearest example of this
trend, which Julius cites approvingly, was the decision by Israel’s
Finance Ministry in November 2015 to extend Holocaust-survivor benefits
to Israelis who survived Nazi-era persecution in Morocco, Algeria, and
Iraq. In the words of Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, this was
“the righting of a historical wrong.”

If Kahlon’s
characterization appeals to Julius, it is perhaps because she sees her
task as correcting a series of historical wrongs that, 70 years after
the fact, still confound our appreciation of the Jewish exodus from the
Arab world. The critical difference between the Middle East’s uprooted
Jews and the Palestinian Arabs is that, excepting a handful of cases
from Egypt and Libya, these Jews were never assigned refugee status.
This discrepancy, Julius asserts, has “narrowed the [Middle East]
conflict to the Israel-Palestinian dispute and excluded the larger Arab
context in which the expulsion of the Jewish refugees from the Arab
countries is central.”

Israel’s approach to the claims of these
Jewish refugees has evolved. The idea of kizzuz—according to which
Jewish losses were thought of as being offset by Palestinian losses—has
given way to recognition of the judicial importance of individual
compensation. Julius credits former President Bill Clinton for
inaugurating this idea in 2000, when he opined that one element of an
eventual Palestinian–Israeli agreement would be the creation of a
compensation fund for refugees that included “the Israelis who were made
refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of
Israel.” Clinton explained: “Israel is full of people, Jewish people,
who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because
they were made refugees in their own lands.”

Julius accepts that
the parallel between the Palestinians and the Jews of the Arab world is
not a neat one. She believes, in fact, that attempting to draw such a
parallel does a disservice to the Jews, who were the targets of
government-sanctioned discrimination mainly during peacetime. The
Palestinian refugees, by contrast, were displaced as a result of the
fierce fighting between the Haganah and the invading Arab League armies.
The very act of raising this issue, Julius contends, challenges the
“unchallenged sway” that the Palestinian-refugee issue has held thus
far. At the moment, “Jewish refugee rights are dismissed as an
impediment to peace, denigrated, or ignored, while Arab rights—including
the much-vaunted Right of Return—are put on a pedestal.”

As a
corrective, Julius puts forward the idea of the Arab world’s Jews as
having endured three successive “colonizations.” In the seventh century,
there was Islam; in the 19th century, there were European powers; and,
finally, in the last century and this one, there has been a
“colonization of facts” by which “the story of the Jews from the Middle
East and North Africa has been erased and falsified.” Uprooted will
surely not be the last historical examination of the Arab world’s exiled
Jews, but it is among the first to launch a frontal assault on the
myths and preconceptions associated with their plight. For that alone,
its value will endure.

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2 Comments

  • One Shabbat I was with a group at the house of a Holocaust Survivor (a psychologist). She told us of a recent visit she made to a retirement home that primarily housed Jewish Refugees from Arab/Muslim countries. She explained where she came from then asked if any of them had an experience to share. Almost all hands went up and she said they spoke all afternoon of the tragedy these poor folks had suffered. Nobody had ever asked them before! What makes this so astounding is it took place in Israel. More people have to be made aware of the "Other Holocaust" that has not been made into the major issue that it is. Thanks for your blog~keep posting!

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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

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.