Eyes glaze over when David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, whose wife escaped Libya in 1967, tries to raise the issue of the forgotten Jewish refugees from Arab countries. But the main reason for the general amnesia is that Jews driven from Arab countries have been able to pick up the pieces of their lives. Here’s his eloquent re-working of an earlier article for the Times of Israel (with thanks: Roger, Edna, Dhia):
I am a forgotten Jew. My experience — the good and the bad — lives on in my memory, and I’ll do my best to transmit it to my children and grandchildren, but how much can they absorb? How much can they identify with a culture that seems like a relic of a past that appears increasingly remote and intangible?
True, a few books and articles on my history have been written, but— and here I’m being generous — they are far from best-sellers.
In any case, can these books compete with the systematic attempt by Libyan leaders to expunge any trace of my presence over two millennia? I repeat, can they vie with a world that paid virtually no attention to the end of my existence?
Take a look at The New York Times index for 1967, and you’ll see for yourself how the newspaper of record covered the tragic demise of an ancient community. I can save you the trouble of looking — just a few paltry lines were all the story got.
I am a forgotten Jew.
I am one of hundreds of thousands of Jews who once lived in countries like Iraq and Libya. All told, we numbered close to 900,000 in 1948. Today, we are fewer than 4,000, mostly concentrated in two countries—Morocco and Tunisia. We were once vibrant communities in Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and other nations, with roots dating back literally 2,000 years and more. Now we are next to none.
Why does no one speak of us and our story? Why does the world relentlessly, obsessively speak of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars in the Middle East — who, not unimportantly, were displaced by wars launched by their own Arab brethren — but totally ignore the Jewish refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars?
Why is the world left with the impression that there’s only one refugee population from the Arab-Israeli conflict, when, in fact, there are two refugee populations, and our numbers were somewhat larger than the Palestinians?
I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to understand this injustice. Should I blame myself? Perhaps we Jews from Arab countries accepted our fate too passively.
Maybe we failed to seize the opportunity to tell our story.
Look at the Jews of Europe. They turned to articles, books, poems, plays, paintings, and film to recount their story. They depicted the periods of joy and the periods of tragedy, and they did it in a way that also captured the imagination of many non-Jews.
Perhaps I was too fatalistic, too shell-shocked, or just too uncertain of my artistic or literary talents. But that can’t be the only reason for my unsought status as a forgotten Jew.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to make at least some noise. I have. I’ve organized gatherings and petitions, arranged exhibitions, appealed to the United Nations, and met with officials from just about every Western government. But somehow it all seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. No, that’s still being too kind.
The truth is, it has pretty much fallen on deaf ears. You know that acronym — MEGO? It means “My eyes glazed over.”
That’s the impression I often have when I’ve tried raising the subject of the Jews from Arab lands with diplomats, elected officials, and journalists — their eyes glaze over (TEGO).
No, I shouldn’t be blaming myself, though I could always be doing more for the sake of history and justice. There’s actually a far more important explanatory factor, I believe.
We Jews from the Arab world picked up the pieces of our shattered lives after our hurried departures — in the wake of intimidation, violence, and discrimination — and moved on. We didn’t stand still, wallow in self-pity, or pass on our victim status to our children and children’s children.
Most of us went to Israel, where we were given a new start. The years following our arrival weren’t always easy — we began at the bottom and had to work our way up. We came with varying levels of education and little in the way of tangible assets.
But we had something more to sustain us through the difficult process of adjustment and acculturation: our immeasurable pride as Jews, our deeply rooted faith, our cherished rabbis and customs, and our commitment to Israel’s survival and well-being.
On 30th November, the official day to commemorate the exodus of Jews from Arab countries, the Democratic Party of Libya published a joint statement with the Union of Libyan Jews and the World Organisation of Libyan Jews, calling for the return of Jews to Libya. The statement is signed by Ahmed Shebani, the party’s President.
Ahmed Shebani: Libya is in a state of denial about its Jews
“The 30th of November 2020, is the commemoration day of the expulsion of Arab Jews from their countries.
1967 Libyan Jews were stripped of their citizenship and property and
expelled from Libya allowing each of them nothing more than a single
suitcase and the sum of $20 to take. It was a crime against humanity in
the full sense of the word, yet strangely, there had never been any
Security Council resolutions in this regard.
had continuously lived in Libya for over 2200 years. They are Libyans
beyond any doubt. Both history and archaeology testify to that.
Moreover, they had never been involved in any conflict with fellow
“Indeed, Islam grants freedom of religion
to all peoples and does not approve of the persecution of any minorities
whatsoever. What happened to Libyan Jews was blatantly against Islam.
The Democratic Party stands in solidarity with the right of return of
Libyan Jews and there is no linkage between them and any other
“The former President of the
Libyan Jewish community in diaspora and a founding member of the
Democratic Party, the late Mr Rafael El-Falah, used to repeat: “Libya would not rise as a peaceful and prosperous country unless
it transcends its state of denial of the historical wrong that befell
her Jews and accepts them back home“.
“As we Libyans
stand nowadays to establish a functioning secular democracy, we must
take what the late Mr El-Falah said to heart. A democratic Libya will
have no place for racism. Libyans Jews are like salt to food and like a
witness to a contract. Libya needs them now more than ever in the
forthcoming reconstruction phase and to jump start the private sector in
our national economy which was brutally vandalized over 42 years of
failed socialism and brutal military dictatorship.
It is a fact that 90 percent of the Jewish community of Libya emigrated to Israel after the end of WW2, but how many know that, until emigration became legal, hundreds of Libyan Jews passed through Italian Displaced Persons (DP) camps, intending to make it to Israel?
These Jews, some mere teenagers, had suffered through privation and even internment during WW2. They were the survivors of labour camps such as the notorious Giado camp, south west of Tripoli, where 600 Jews died of typhus or starvation. They had also survived pogroms – some 130 Jews died in the November 1945 Tripoli pogrom. To add insult to injury, another pogrom was to break out in June 1948.
Libyan Jews, most young, receiving food ratons from the Joint Distribution Committee in Tripoli, Libya (Photot: JDC Archives)
An Anglo-Arab regime controlled Libya until independence in 1951. The administration would not let Jews leave. Emigration was only legalised in January 1949. Those desperate enough were smuggled across the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats from September 1948. Some 1,300 made it to Israel via Italy between 1947 and 1949.
According to Danielle Willard-Kyle (21.30 into the video) who has made a study of the inmates of the DP camps, an additional complication is that many fleeing Libyan Jews did not have citizenship, or had been stripped of their citizenship. Arriving in the DP camps, some pretended to have Eastern European citizenship.
The international community, in the shape of the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), which had been set up to deal with the massive postwar refugee crisis, callously refused to recognise Libyan escapees as refugees. The IRO went so far as to claim that they were economic migrants. They would therefore not be eligible for asylum benefits.
The American Joint Distribution Committee, which cared for the humanitarian needs of Jews, insisted that those who had made it to Italy were bona fide refugees. But the IRO argued that if they helped the Jews, they would have to help the Arab refugees fleeing from Palestine. If the Joint had not intervened, these Jews would have been repatriated to Libya, not allowed to continue their journey to Palestine.
The Arab problem was soon dealt with by the creation of UNWRA, dedicated to this day, to helping Palestnian ‘refugees. The case of the Libyan Jews in DP camps seems to be the perfect example of an international double standard when it comes to Jewish refugees.
Lucky Nahum is a US-based fashion designer and businessman, born in Tripoli. Recently his friend Giuseppe Scalora sent him a video of the Nahum family residence in Libya, the Nahum Palace. The family owned several properties and land in the Tripoli area. When it was forced to leave Libya the family received not a cent in compensation. The Palace was also the site of the murder of its owner, the prominent leader and businessman Halfalla Nahum.
Thanking Giuseppe for the video clip, Lucky wrote this post on his Facebook page:
“Much has changed in 53 years since our expulsion, but here’s the palace today (it shows up at the 1:12 mark of the video). I think one can appreciate the size of it and what it might have been in its glory days, it appears to to have taken Giuseppe until the 3.04 mark to have walked the length of it.
This street is now called Sciara Ysticlal, and at the time Corso Vittorio was THE street. This was where all the better jewellers were, the better stores in general. Here people strolled to meet other friends, to see and be seen in their finest clothing. ”
The video shows a glimpse of a side street and the public gardens in Tripoli. These took up the entire width of the back of the Palace. The Palace faced the Corso Vittorio on one side and the Mediterranean just beyond the gardens on the other.
Postcard of the Nahum Palace in its heyday
Another property owned by the Nahum family in Trupoli
An eighty-four-year-old Jewish leader, Halfalla Nahum, Lucky’s uncle, was murdered at the entrance to Nahum Palace in 1963. A lay leader and well-to-do businessman. Halfalla was the highly respected president of the community. He worked with the Italian authorities before WWII to improve the lot of the great mass of Libyan Jews, who were poor. He was assaulted in 1920s by Fascists.
Before his murder Halfalla was first threatened with letters allegedly asking for protection money and when he refused to pay the second demand, the murderers came to his home, tied him to a chair and killed him. The police initially suspected 20 Jews because Halfalla was a generous donor to Arab philanthropic causes. The suspects included Rabbi Baruch, a shohet. He was held because of blood stains on his shirt.
A gang was finally arrested consisting of ten Arabs and one Maltese, although the family still have their suspicions that these were not the actual perpetrators.
During the summer of that year, a time of rising nationalism, other Jewish figures were attacked and injured, including Beniamino Haddad, who lost one eye.
Today, there are no Jews living in this 2,000-year-old community.
On 30 November, communities and individuals took the opportunity to remember the 850,000 Jews expelled or compelled to leave Arab countries. Below are extracts from two articles published to coincide with ‘Jewish Refugee Day’. Rabbi Andrea Zanardo made the exodus the subject of his Shabbat sermon.
In The Toronto Star (Canada) , Eta Yudin tells her Iraqi-Jewish mother’s story:
As a teenager I was fascinated by my mother’s childhood and eventual escape from Iraq. Was it her reluctance to share or my youth? I don’t know, but related stories of those dispersed from the 2,500-year-old Iraqi Jewish community are indeed rare.
I later came to understand that a reluctance to open up was common among survivors of one of the largest, and, sadly, almost forgotten, episodes of mass expulsion of the post-Second World War era.
Born in Baghdad, where Jews comprised a third of the population, generations of my mother’s family deeply integrated. My grandfather served as Member of Parliament and legal adviser to the minister of finance. At home they spoke the local tongue – Arabic. Their neighbours were Muslim and Christian.
Then, in 1941, the Farhoud, a deadly two-day pogrom inspired by European Nazis killed more than 180 Baghdadi Jews and destroyed nearly a thousand Jewish homes. This was the turning point.
Anti-Jewish incitement and violence crept into everyday life of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews, now subject to restrictions and hostility fomented by the founding of a Jewish state.
Jewish Iraqis could be arrested as “Zionist spies,” their property seized, and their right to leave denied. Then, suddenly, in 1951, Jews were offered an escape – permission to leave – if they left everything, including their citizenship, behind.
My own grandfather, a proud and passionate Iraqi, refused to leave, believing things would improve. My mother would not see or hear from him again. And thus, two and a half millennia of Jewish presence in Iraq was over.
As part of the Shabbat service, Rabbi Andrea Zanardo of Brighton Reform Congregation read out a letter from artist and musician Herbert Pagani to Colonel Gaddafi. Pagani was forced to leave his native Libya in 1969 when the colonel took power:
“…So, what are you complaining about?” the Colonel would say, in his tent. “You wanted to leave, and we let you leave.”
Yes, of course, you even encouraged us to go, stripping of their rights and property the few crazy ones who were still attached to the land. Don’t worry, though, I’m not writing to you out of homesickness.
I write to you to tell that this community of ours is very much alive. It’s growing, and is prospering. It has made a new life for itself, ‘hamdullah’, praised be God, because after we lost everything, we had no choice but to move ahead.
We’re like bees, Colonel. If the owner of the farm steals our honey in September, we make more of it, before winter comes. And if we continue stinging you with our requests for reparations, it’s more out of dignity than out of interest, it is to remind you of your debts, and above all, of your loss.
We are producers of goods, materials and morals, and we always have been, you know that, because we’re not afraid of work, because, for us, work has never been a punishment, but, rather, creativity. And a blessing.
The proof: after just a month in refugee camps in Latina and Capua, our people left the hovels and set off in search of work. Italy, who gave us shelter, thought she was giving us alms, but soon realised that she had made an investment.
But you, like all the governors of the new Arab world, wanted to wash out the Jews from the social fabric. In so doing, you’ve ruined its fibres: trade, craft, professions, everything has been lost, and has been swept away, like sand in the desert. And all the expertise you purchase from the Soviets will never replace the ancient wisdom and knowledge of us, whose vocation has always been communication: between human beings, groups, disciplines, kings, States, civilisations.
That same vocation of ours had been indispensable for the grandeur of Islam, of the Russian Empire, of the Ottoman Empire, of pre-Nazi Germany. You could have made it yours, if you had just wanted to.
Think about it, dear cousin. I am a songwriter, I was born in that slice of hell in the middle of nowhere that you govern. With the inexplicable love, almost perverse, that Jews have for the stepmother-land that adopts them, I could have made wings for your kings, for your heroes, for your saints and martyrs. I could have sung the praises of that desert of yours, with words that would have made blossom that sand rose you have instead decided to turn into a desert.
But Allah, who is great, and sees everywhere in space and time, had chosen for me to depart, by your hand, so that I could go away and sing my songs under other skies. So that your nation could continue to fulfil the mission it has pursued for centuries: to be the empty white page in the Great Book of Islam.
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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