Tag: Jews of North Africa

1947 ‘African’ immigrant to Palestine tells his story

As  Israel celebrates its 74th Independence Day, it is fitting to recall some of the hair-raising sacrifices that Jews have made to reach what would become the Jewish state. Until Israel was declared, the British  banned mass Jewish immigration and diverted the ships with their cargo of bedraggled Holocaust survivors to camps in Cyprus. (The case of the Exodus backfired spectacularly on the British when they callously sent the refugees back to Germany. ) Some 100,000 Jews attempted to make the crossing to Palestine. Less well known and small in number ( 1,300), however, are the Jews from North Africa who were passengers on these immigration ships. One was Shmuel Sibon from the Moroccan city of Sefrou. His story was uploaded to a website, Ma’apili Magrab dedicated to the hundreds of North African immigrants who sailed for Palestine on three ships, the Yehuda Halevi, the Shifat Zion and the Poratzim (translatable as ‘those who break through’).

Shmuel Sibon: illegal immigrant

Unlike the majority of youngsters travelling to Palestine, Sibon was not a member of a Zionist youth movement. He belonged to the Boy Scouts. He resolved to emigrate to Palestine in 1947 and made contact with Zionist operatives in Morocco. He was told to wait until he received the signal to leave, and not to breathe a word to anyone about his plan.

His date of departure turned out to be the day of the Mimouna, the celebration that concludes the Passover holiday. On that day he shared his secret with his two best friends. He was walking along the road with them when suddenly a  military truck driven by a learner-driver careered into the three boys. One friend was killed, the other was badly injured. Shmuel escaped unscathed. He ran home from the scene of the accident, not wishing to be caught up in an investigation.

That night, he travelled to Fez and boarded a train for Algeria at midnight. He spent a month in Tenes, a mountain transit camp in Algeria established by the Jewish Agency. He waited a month for the ship that would take him to Palestine. The conditions in the camp were terrible. There was not enough food and the inmates had to eat grass and were infested with lice. He could not shower for a month.

Finally, the night arrived when his group, drawn from all cities in Morocco,  were to board the Yehuda Halevi. The ship left with 300 passengers, less than its full quota, because the police had got wind of the voyage.  A journey that should have taken four days, took 21. Food and clean water were in short supply and the passengers could not shower. British patrol boats followed the ship as they approached the coastline of Eretz Yisrael and one even holed the Yehuda Halevi. The passengers found themselves knee-deep in water. They were taken to  Haifa and then to Cyprus where Shmuel spent eight months.

In Cyprus the whole camp was waiting at the gate to greet the new arrivals. They asked:’where are the Africans?’, expecting to see black people disembark from the ship. They asked what Zionist group he belonged to.  Each group was responsible for feeding their own members.. He was told to join the group which offered the best food – Gordonia. And so he did.

Shmuel Sibon’s story (Hebrew)


Did Jérémy Cohen die because of an antisemitic attack – or a traffic accident?

Sarah Halimi. Mireille Knoll. Ilan Halimi. Sebastien Sellam, to name just a few. Is Jérémy Cohen the latest victim of antisemitic murder in France? Video footage has recently emerged of the young man, who generally wore a kippa,  running from a gang of antisemitic youths straight into the path of a tram in the northern Paris suburb of Bobigny.

Jerémy Cohen with his parents

 The Guardian reports:  the death of a young Jewish man in Bobigny, north of Paris, has shocked France and sparked outrage among French presidential candidates, who seized on it to denounce criminality and a possible antisemitic attack. Jérémy Cohen, 31, was killed when he was hit by a tram in Bobigny in February, which was initially reported in local media as a traffic accident.

But when his family leafleted the area to see if local people had more information on what had happened, a witness came forward with video footage, which circulated online this week.

Cohen, who had a disability, was surrounded by a group of men and attacked. As he escaped, he was hit by the tram and died shortly afterwards in hospital.

After Cohen’s family spoke to Radio Shalom about the case, presidential candidates used the death to suggest the French authorities were not doing enough on the case or on crime in general, days before the first round of the presidential election.

The former TV pundit and far-right, anti-immigration candidate, Éric Zemmour, was the first politician to raise the case on social media, asking if Cohen had died because of the violence of a group of thugs. “Did he die because he is Jewish?” Zemmour asked. “Why has this affair been covered up?”

Point of No Return adds: The districts of Bobigny and Saint-Denis in northern Paris were settled by poor Jews from Tunisia and Morocco. Radicalised Arab and Muslim youth have committed antisemitic incidents in recent years, creating a climate of fear. Many Jews have moved into central Paris for greater security. Those who could afford to leave the country have made aliya to Israel.

Bobigny train station has a sinister history. From the summer of 1943 until  the summer 1944, the station, where a vast network of  freight and passenger railway tracks converge,  became the assembly point for Jews held at Drancy camp, located about 2 km away, before their deportation to  Nazi death camps. such as Auschwitz . Bobigny replaced le Bourget station. In 13 months, 22, 407 men, women and children of all ages were forced to board sealed wagons at Bobigny station. Some 76,000 French Jews were deported and murdered by the Nazis.


Tunisian: when the Jews were ‘ethnically cleansed,’ the lights went out

It is rare that non-Jews from  the Arab world should call the exodus of the Jews by its proper name: ethnic cleansing. Writing in Israel 24/7, Salem Ben Ammar is a French political scientist of Tunisian background  (with thanks: Imre):

Moroccan Jews arriving at Haifa port

Jews had lived at home in Arabia, Iran, Egypt, the Middle East, Yemen, Libya and North Africa for millennia.

These lands that had become Muslim were marked with the footprints of the Jews.

We cannot say that they have chosen exile, because people never leave their ancestral lands en masse –  repositories of  memory and history, and to which they have given their all. They were pushed into leaving, against their will.

The exodus of 900,000 Jews is truly a matter of ‘ethnic cleansing’: to purify Muslim lands of their presence.

How can we  understand that a community rooted in most Muslim countries before Islam, finds itself driven out overnight, after decolonization and the Six-Day War, driven out like a leper, after having lived for 1,400 years more or less in harmony with Muslims, for whom they have served as an economic, cultural and intellectual catalyst?

It’s as if Palestine acted as a spur to unleashing repressed hatred towards the Jews, subjecting them to what Muhammad and his horde of assassins did to them in Yathrib, a Jewish land that had become the second stronghold of Islam.

The Jews left because they were given no choice but to wish to live in their own place, despite the discrimination they faced.

They sought to live in peace with  an environment which they had nourished with their dynamism, their perfectionism, their economic, culinary, cultural and artistic richness, their vitality and entrepreneurial energy, and their unfailing love of life. Or more simply, their joie de vivre and r legendary  good cheer.

Their forced exodus is like a curse that has struck all these countries, now orphaned of their Jews.

Their departure brings misery and despair to the Muslim peoples. The light went out in their house. It shines in Israel.

Read article in full (French)


Tombstone of a death foretold in Tunis’s largest cemetery

During a clean-up  operation  in the Jewish cemetery of Le Borgel in Tunis, the tombstone of a 37-year old batchelor, Leon Coscas, was revealed in all its splendour. (Via Jo Krief Facebook page)

The inscription was written in the first person, as if Coscas himself had written it and predicted his demise. It describes how he had died in an accident at sea.

There are magnificently- decorated tombs in the Borgel cemetery, which was established in 1894 and named after Chief Rabbi Elie Borgel. It has over 20,000 graves and is the largest Jewish cemetery in North Africa. The Twensa (original Jewish settlers) are buried separately from the Grana (Sephardim). Dignitaries, important rabbis and famous personalities, such as the singer Habiba Messica,  are buried there. Bodies exhumed after the redevelopment into a park of the Avenue de Londres cemetery, the Jewish community’s oldest, were transferred to the Borgel.  An association ((AICJT) was formed in France to carry out an inventory of the graves and restore the cemetery.

How TIME reported the North African exodus in 1962

Press reports about the mass exodus of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East are rare: perhaps the media just haven’t considered it newsworthy. But in 1962, TIME did devote column inches to the subject. Most Jews did go to Israel, although a fair proportion did end up in France. Now French Jews of North African origin are making aliya in their thousands.

Refugees from North Africa arriving in Marseille

The independence of Morocco, Tunisia and now Algeria—joyful news to Moslems—has for Jews signaled another vast and melancholy exodus like so many other uprootings since Moses. A decade ago, 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco. 150,000 in Algeria and 100,000 in Tunisia; now about half of them have left. Last week alone, 5,000 North African Jews arrived by ship and plane in Marseille. By 1975, Jewish leaders estimate, their communities in North Africa will be reduced to less than 15% of their former size.

Jews were living and working in North Africa before the Romans came. Some of them are Berber tribesmen whose ancestors were converted from paganism before the 7th century A.D. Others are Sephardim—Descendants of Spanish Jews who were forced into exile across the Mediterranean by Visigothic persecution in the 6th century or the Inquisition of the 15th. A third strain consists of European Jews who settled in North African cities after World War II. All three have found that exile is the inevitable aftermath of independence.

In Tunisia, President Habib Bourguiba promised that Jews would be allowed to practice their religion in peace: “While I am alive, not a hair on Jewish heads will be touched.” But Tunisian Jews are trapped in the cold war between Israel and the Arab states. Bourguiba’s government has disbanded even Jewish religious organizations on the ground that they promote Zionism, and Jews fear that other Arab countries could force Tunisia to impose restrictions upon them.

In Morocco, the government placed restrictions on Jewish emigration until last October, and fortnight ago closed down the office of the agency in Casablanca that chartered ships and planes for Jews eager to leave the country. Although Jews who leave for Israel are officially forbidden to return to their homes, there is little overt anti-Semitism in Morocco. But emigration goes on, and businessmen in Casablanca complain that they cannot find Jewish labor. “Morocco is down the drain for us,” says one Jewish cafe owner.

In Algeria, Jews fear the onset of independence this week even more than their Christian pied-noir neighbors. Many were active supporters of the underground Secret Army; in Constantine, for example, the first anti-Moslem commando force was composed largely of Jews—and the F.L.N. has not forgotten it.

In many Algerian towns, Moslems have stopped patronizing Jewish-owned movie houses. In the streets of Djelfa, Moslem children chant: “Ben-Gurion to the gallows, Ben Bella to the palace.” In the last 18 months, entire communities of Arabized Jews from the Sahara, whose speech and dress are indistinguishable from their Moslem neighbors, have left the country.

Some North African Jews have, of course, gone to Israel, but more than two-thirds have settled in France, if for no better reason than that they speak French. Thanks to the exodus, France now has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world.* Jewish, Christian and nonreligious charitable organizations have collaborated to help the newcomers, but their life is often unbearably hard.

Read article in full


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.