Travelling through Lebanon, Andrew Doran of the Philos Project met surprise when he told Arabs that Jews had once lived among them. He hopes that the Abraham Accords make it possible for the first time for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews driven from Arab countries to re-visit them. Perhaps special visas should be issued to them, he writes in The Hill:
The Lebanese, for their part, were fascinated to learn about Israel. They were most surprised to learn that Israel is essentially a Middle Eastern and North African country — that most of Israel’s Jews today descend primarily not from Europe but from the Arab world: Morocco, Iran, Yemen, Central Asia and beyond. This often surprised the Lebanese, much as it stuns others in the region.
Too few Westerners and Middle Easterners – in fact, few outside Israel – know the story of the exodus of Jews from the region after 1948. Until then, many Middle Eastern countries had substantial indigenous Jewish minorities, called Sephardim, or sometimes (even derogatorily) Mizrahim (“Easterners”). These Jews lived and died for centuries in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Upwards of 1 million fled their homes after neighbors and governments turned on them following the creation of modern Israel.
Few of them were Zionists. Many knew nothing of the movement. Most wished to remain in their homes, but they weren’t given that choice. Apologies and invitations to return have been few, and one hears little of these exiled Jews from international human rights groups. Nor is it often acknowledged, outside Israel, that 20 percent of its population is Arab, the consequence of a decision in 1948 to grant citizenship to many Israeli Arabs on the land, despite the declaration of war by five Arab states against Israel that year.
Since 1948, being an Israeli citizen has made it nearly impossible for one to travel to most of the Middle East. Thus, for nearly three quarters of a century, Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Sephardi Jewish refugees haven’t been free to travel or encounter their Arab neighbors in the region. For Sephardic Jews, their encounters with other Middle Easterners typically occur in Europe or North America. When they meet the countrymen of their parents and grandparents, the response is invariably the same: “I had no idea there were Jews from my country.”
Today, however, for the first time, Israel’s Middle Eastern communities – most of Israel’s citizens – have begun to travel to places in the region that were heretofore impossible because of laws forbidding contact with Israelis. A powerful and purposeful barrier between Middle Eastern peoples is thus crumbling.