What Mizrahim lost, and why they need a fair deal

Donald Trump’s “Deal of the
Century”—the most recent American effort to advance a plan for
peace between Israelis and Palestinians—was released last month.For the first time, it makes an explicit mention of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Writing in Mosaic Emily Benedek explains what they lost and how a solution to the conflict will go nowhere without them. 

 Among those potentially affected by the implementation of such a
plan, one group in Israel had been watching with particular
interest: Mizraḥi Jews whose families had lived continuously in
Arab and Muslim lands from biblical times until the late 1940s
when they became the targets of organized violence on the part
of their own governments and in the ensuing years suffered
wholesale expulsion from their homes.

 These ancient
communities, whose roots in the Middle East predated by a
millennium the advent of Islam, numbered close to one million
people. After 1948, they were cast out root and branch from
Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, North Africa, and
Iran. Most found refuge in the newly established Jewish state.
There, the Knesset, initially slow to demand compensation for
their losses, would eventually mandate that no settlement with
the Palestinians would be acceptable if it failed to include
recompense for individual and communal properties—estimated, in
area, to amount to nearly 40,000 square miles, about five times
the size of Israel, and valued at $150 billion—that had been
confiscated by Muslim governments in the Middle East from their
Jewish citizens.

 The new American
plan does indeed address the case of the Mizraḥi Jews. Noting
that the Arab-Israel conflict “created both a Palestinian and
Jewish refugee problem,” and that the numbers displaced were
approximately equal on the two sides, the plan goes on to state
unequivocally that, separate from any peace agreement, “a just,
fair, and realistic solution” for the Jewish refugees,
“including compensation for lost assets” as well as compensation
to Israel for the cost of absorbing them, must be “implemented
through an appropriate international mechanism.”

All of this,of course, remains to
be seen. Meanwhile, and whether or not the Trump plan ever comes
to fruition, the Mizraḥi story deserves telling and retelling.
For an engaging treatment, the 2018
book Uprooted by
Lyn Julius, a British-born descendant of Iraqi Jews, can serve
as a useful introduction.
Uprooted opens with
glimpses of the exotic bands of Jews, many barefoot and dressed
in traditional robes and headdresses, who seemed to materialize
out of the mists of time to tumble across Zion’s borders from
the 1880s, when the first Yemenite migrants walked there across
the desert. The Mizraḥi exodus continued for more than a century
until, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ethiopians arrived via two daring

 The Mizraḥi
diaspora itself dates back millennia earlier to the Babylonian
victory over the kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE, when captive
Jerusalemites were marched off to Mesopotamia. Evidently, the
new environs proved not entirely unwelcome. For when, a
half-century later, Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed
the Jews to return home and rebuild their Temple, many preferred
to remain in their new homes in the fertile land between the
Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Indeed, so many stayed that, by
the 3rd century CE, Babylon had become the epicenter of Jewish
thought and practice.

 Not only do Jews of all stripes today
consider the Babylonian Talmud (written between the 3rd and 6th
centuries CE) to be foundational, but the gravesites of no fewer
than seventeen biblical figures are, according to tradition,
located in what are now the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Even in the early
20th century, the social and cultural importance of the Jews in
Arab and Muslim lands stood out. Jews were popular singers,
actors, and athletes; the first novel published in Iraq was
written by a Jew; in 1870, Egypt’s first national theater was
founded by a Jew; Egypt’s first opera was written in 1919 by a
Jew; both the Egyptian and Tunisian film industries were started
and dominated by Jews; and Iraq’s first minister of finance, Sir
Sasson Heskel, was a Jew. As late as 1939, Baghdadi Jews formed
fully a third of the city’s population: a greater proportion, by
comparison, than was to be found at that time in either Warsaw
(29 percent) or New York (27 percent).

By 2015, in the
entire country of Iraq, only five Jews remained. The rest, along
with almost every other Jew in the region, had been expelled.
Although the details varied from country to country, everywhere
the story was roughly the same.

The root of it, Julius writes,
was revealed in a plan laid out by the Arab League at meetings
in Syria and Lebanon prior to the 1947 UN vote for partitioning
Palestine into two states. As she puts it, the League envisioned
a movement to “rob the Jews, threaten them with imprisonment,
and expel them, having first dispossessed them.” On the eve of
the UN vote, Egypt’s delegate solemnly warned the international
body that should the measure pass, “the proposed solution might
endanger a million Jews living in Muslim countries.”

After the vote,
intention became deed as the Arab League plan, in Julius’s
words, “became a blueprint, in country after country, for the
actions that devastated the Jewish communities in Arab lands;
and for the forced exodus that was to follow.”

In all of the
affected countries except Lebanon and Tunisia, Jews were
stripped of their citizenship. In all but Morocco, Jewish assets
were frozen and property confiscated on the authority of
Nuremberg-style laws. Freedom of movement was curtailed for Jews
in Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen. Employment
discrimination forced Jews from jobs in all of the
above-mentioned countries plus Egypt and Lebanon. Zionist
activity was outlawed, and all Jews were considered Zionists.

By 1972, 90 percent
of the Jews in the Arab world had fled. The wealthy and
well-connected, about 200,000 in number, tended to move West to
Europe or the U.S., while the remaining 660,000 went to Israel.
(The chronology in non-Arab Iran is somewhat different; perhaps
a third left between 1948 and 1953, while the rest departed
between the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and today.)

Violent pogroms
played a role in showing the Jews to the door, as did continuing
governmental scheming, including, according to Julius, secret
recommendations of the Arab League from 1950-55 “designed to put
pressure on the Jews remaining in Arab countries to leave their
homes ‘without giving the impression of expelling them.’” Jews
in Yemen and Iraq, under increasing stress, in the end were
ransomed by Israel, and in the early 1960s the World Jewish
Congress paid $250 a head to Morocco to let its Jews leave.

One of Julius’s central aims in Uprooted is
to put the lie to the claim that, until modern-day Zionism came
along to poison the atmosphere, Jews under Muslim rule had
enjoyed a long “golden age” of tolerance and interfaith
understanding. Adopting Bernard Lewis’s judgment that this
concept of Muslim tolerance represents, in her summary, “one of
the great myths of history propagated by 19th-century
intellectuals,” Julius enumerates the many massacres of Jews
that took place throughout Muslim and Arab history, asserting
that “for fourteen centuries, life for a defenseless minority
[had been] precarious and insecure.”

To illustrate, she
leads us into the “Jewish quarter” to demonstrate what life was
like as dhimmis,
possessing the inferior status imposed on non-Muslim monotheists
by order of the Pact of Omar (variously dated to the 7th or 9th
century). Those who submitted to their Islamic conquerors and
gave up the right to bear arms were granted a pledge of security
and thus saved from death, slavery, ransom, or deportation. But
being a dhimmi required
the payment of a harsh tax and submission to a second-class life
of humiliation and degradation in which safety was never
assured. Dhimmis were
required to wear special clothes and badges, to step aside for
Muslims in the street, and to suffer any insult or assault that
was meted out. Forbidden from building homes or houses of
worship taller than buildings belonging to Muslims, they were
also forbidden from riding horses, marrying Muslim women, or
testifying against a Muslim in court. Constant pressure was
applied to both Jews and Christians to convert to Islam and thus
save themselves from the onerous tax.

The institution of
“dhimmitude” continued in place for more than a millennium until
it was discouraged by European colonial powers in the 19th and
20th centuries (even as they turned a blind eye to violent
Islamic expressions of anti-Semitism). But, argues Julius, its
conception of the Jews as an inferior people remained very much
alive as a motivating factor in the expulsions of Mizraḥi Jews
from Arab lands, and still today it persists in the stubborn
rejection of Israel. The early Arab fury against Zionism, in
this view, had little or nothing to do with concern for the
Palestinians (who had not yet rejected the partition of the land
they shared with the Zionists). Instead, it had everything to do
with a baked-in hatred of Jews and outrage that so debased and
despised a people should be allowed to insert itself as a
sovereign nation into the (purported) heartland of Islam.

Julius quotes
Victor Hayoun, who survived a pogrom in Tunisia in 1941,
describing the unpredictable relations between Arab and Jew
under the social legacy of dhimmitude: “Our Arab neighbors,
whose conduct toward us ranged from sincere fraternity to
humiliation and even pogroms, . . . had sharpened my childish
feeling that we were tolerated by the ‘masters of the place’ and
they could get so angry as to make my status precarious.” Thus,
rioting mobs in the late 1940s in almost every Arab country
chanted “Itbach al-Yahud (murder
the Jews) and Yahud klib al-Arab (the Jews are the
dogs of the Arabs).

Lyn Julius has not
endeavored to write an academic history in the manner of Martin
Gilbert’s In
Ishmael’s House
 or Bernard Lewis’s The Jews of Islam. Nor
is her book a work of original journalism. Nor, unlike such
memoirs of Jewish life in Arab lands as André Aciman’s Out of Egypt and
the late Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, is it
constructed around a driving personal narrative.

Rather, Uprooted is
a personal cri
de coeur 
that attempts to explain, from the
inside, via anecdotes and particularly valuable references to
little-translated works in French, the experiences of the now
lost communities of Jews who were unjustly expelled from lands
they had settled long before Muhammad dictated a single surah. It seeks, above
all, redress for the relative silence, both in Israel and,
especially, outside of it, that has greeted their traumatic

 In Israel, repeated
Mizraḥi efforts to raise the issue of compensation have rarely
gained traction. Rather than dwelling on the tragic losses of
the past, not just of the Mizraḥim but also of the tattered
remnant of European Jews recently absorbed by the new state, the
national focus was on forging modern Israelis out of immigrants,
many of them indigent or even illiterate, from more than
one-hundred communities across the globe. “The submissive and
apologetic Diaspora Jew,” Julius writes, “would be transformed
into a proud and virile, Hebrew-speaking Israeli.”

As is well known,
this effort led to its own humiliations and hardships. The
classic Israeli film Sallah Shabati (1964)
satirized, at once uproariously and bitterly, the austere new
life that Mizraḥim found waiting for them in their new-old home.
Already grappling with the wholesale destruction of their way of
life, they resented the tent camps and makeshift cabins in which
they were housed for too long. And of course there was
discrimination by Israel’s Ashkenazim who looked down upon their
“primitive” ways.

In the end, the
resettlement was a success—or at least the story has a happier
ending. Israel did what it was created to do: serving as a safe
haven for imperiled Jews. Today, Mizraḥim, who just before the
Holocaust made up only a tenth of the total number of Jews in
the world, now constitute more than half of the Jewish
population in Israel, and “intermarriage” rates between
Ashkenazim and Mizraḥim are near 25 percent. As has been
plentifully documented in Mosaic, Mizraḥim have
changed the country profoundly, influencing politics, music,
food, and religious observance.

Where the case for
restitution is concerned, the picture is less pretty, and
stubbornly unresolved. How to redress lost Jewish assets?
Between 1969 and 2009, Israel’s Justice Ministry collected
14,000 property claims from Mizraḥi immigrants, an exercise
hobbled by the refusal of Arab governments and Iran to provide
property records or other necessary documentation. Locked
official archives have also prevented access to Arab League
policies in the 1940s and 1950s aimed at disenfranchising Jewish
populations. At one point, Israel thought to offset lost Mizraḥi
assets against claimed Palestinian losses, but this was
vehemently opposed by Mizraḥim settled outside of Israel who
questioned why their claims of confiscated property should be
used to settle Israel’s accounts with the Palestinians.

More recently,
after intensive lobbying by American and Canadian Jews,
including ex-Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, the tide
has begun to turn. After the 2000 talks at Camp David, President
Bill Clinton suggested creating an international fund to address
the losses of both sides; in addition to
contributions from both Israel and the Arab countries, the fund
would primarily be endowed by the international community. The
initiative awaits an active peace negotiation for its

In 2008, the U.S.
Congress passed a resolution directing the government to include
in any official American documents referring to Palestinian
refugees a “similarly explicit” reference to Jewish refugees.
Canada followed suit in 2014, stating that the experiences of
Jewish refugees should be “taken into consideration as a part of
any just and comprehensive peace deal.” The Oslo Accords
declared that the subject of refugees from both sides should be
a “final status issue.” As we’ve seen, similar, but much more
specific language has been adopted in the Trump plan.

In 2012, Danny
Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, whose father was born
in Algeria, led an international conference in Jerusalem titled
“Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.” The following
year, Ron Prosor, then Israel’s ambassador to the UN, presented
a film at the UN’s New York headquarters recounting stories of
Jews who were forced from their homes in Arab countries. “Since
1947, there have been 687 [UN] resolutions relating to the
Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he told the audience, “and yet, as
we speak today, not one resolution says a single word about the
Jewish refugees”—even though the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees has acknowledged that Jews fleeing from both Egypt and
Libya met the organization’s definition of refugees.

Meanwhile,whatever steps have been
made toward recognition of the issue, much if not most of the
Arab world, having gotten rid of its Jews, is now bent on
erasing all signs of their once-vivid presence. (Morocco is an
exception.) Julius names one particularly painful monument: the
shrine of Ezekiel at Kifl in southern Iraq. That biblical
prophet and priest was exiled to Babylon in 598 BCE with King
Jehoiachin, lived there for the rest of his life, and was buried
there. In 1170, the traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Kifl and
described finding a synagogue dating back to the First and
Second Temple periods. During the 19th century, 5,000 Jews would
visit the shrine every year during the festival of Shavuot. In
1910, the Baghdadi bibliophile David Solomon Sassoon wrote of
the site:

lovely building over the grave is extremely old, built from very
big stones said to be the work of King Jehoiachin. Above the
doorway was a plaque dated 1809/10, which has inscribed on it
“this is the tomb of our master Ezekiel the prophet, the son of
Buzi the Kohen, may his merit shield us and all Israel.”

This Jewish site is
now a mosque, complete with external loudspeakers for summoning
Muslims to prayer. With no Jews in the area to protect them, the
Hebrew inscriptions described by Sassoon are at risk, and the
Iraqi Ministry of Heritage and Tourism has apparently ceded
control and administration of the site to a Shiite waqf. Julius
warns that similar takeovers are occurring “with UN
help”—meaning UN indifference and/or silent collaboration—in
order to erase or discredit evidence of the Jewish origins of
many Islamic sites in Arab lands. As is well known, similar
efforts of Islamification have also been ongoing in relation to
Jewish sites in Israel itself, including the Tomb of the
Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and the Temple

Addressing Western liberals, Lyn
Julius warns against the temptation to say, or to think, that
Israel was created in expiation of European sins for the
Holocaust. Rather, Israel should be seen as the homeland of an
indigenous and once-threatened people, intimately familiar with
the true nature of Arab-Muslim rule, who have returned to their
homeland and lately found their voices.

“The majority of
Israeli Jews,” she writes of the Mizraḥim, “have never left the
Middle East; they merely moved from one area of the region to
another.” Thanks to them, and to their sheer numerical weight,
any attempt to orchestrate a peace arrangement in the region
without their active participation and approval will go nowhere.

Read article in full

More reviewshere, here , here,here, here here hereandhere

One Comment

  • send this to Sanders, someone in the Mizrahi community, which I am not. But even that may do no good. He doesn't believe anything he doesn't want to despite evidence.


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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.

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