My Word: The Middle East’s most overlooked refugees

Today, only some 4,000 Jews remain in Arab countries. In other politically incorrect words, the Jews are the victims of ethnic cleansing.

A dog is seem inside a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdade in April (photo credit: WISSIM AL-OKILI/REUTERS)
A dog is seem inside a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdade in April
As a teenager growing up in London in the 1970s I was completely swept up in the fight for Soviet Jewry, dedicating most Sunday afternoons to demonstrations outside the Soviet embassy and other sites to help promote the message “Let My People Go!”
Much of the fight was personal, with campaigns focusing on certain figures who became well known as “refuseniks.” Decades later, seeing Natan Sharansky walking down a Jerusalem street on Shabbat still gives me a feeling of satisfaction.
The movements calling for the release of Soviet Jewry drew together Jews of different ages in different continents and in many ways served those of us in the Diaspora as a rallying point around which our Jewish identity gelled.
It’s the sort of solidarity that is sadly lacking today, when Diaspora Jewish youth are as likely to be pitched against each other, in pro-Israel versus pro-Palestinian configurations, with the latter more interested in creating a Palestinian state than protecting the existing Jewish state, however they want to portray themselves.
At some point, I became aware of other distressed Jewish communities. While a broad spectrum of British Jews – like their co-religionists elsewhere – were fighting for Soviet Jews to be able to come out of the cold, few seemed aware that Jews in Damascus, Baghdad and other communities were literally dying to get out. It is sobering to recall that in those days, before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian Jews were completely free and many Israelis lived and worked in Iran.
Demonstrators for Soviet Jews held all sorts of publicity stunts; I remember a rally with pet dogs; a vigil in silence; and sitting down to block rush-hour traffic in London’s Piccadilly Circus. A few years ago I had the opportunity to show Sharansky some photos of me demonstrating on his behalf which he signed to my lasting pride “Thanks for marching for me. It worked. Am Yisrael Hai! [The People of Israel Live!]”
The work on behalf of Sephardi Jewry was much more low-key. I discovered a group called The Jews in Arab Lands Committee headed by the late Percy Gourgey MBE. Gourgey, born in India to an Iraqi-Jewish family, eagerly harnessed my youthful enthusiasm and together with a band of teenage friends I founded a student branch of the committee to help draw attention to the plight of our brethren and interest politicians and opinion makers in this little-known cause.
In many ways the fate of the remaining Jews in Arab lands was worse than that of Soviet Jewry. Drawing attention to a refusenik made the Soviet authorities realize there were international eyes following what they were doing and conditions might be improved as a result; drawing attention to a specific member of the Jewish community in Damascus was more likely to result in that person’s disappearance.
Still, with a huge amount of dedication and daring, many of the Jewish community were ultimately able to escape to freedom. When a couple of years ago I met a man who had fled from Syria as a teen I felt the same sort of satisfaction as I had meeting Sharansky and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
Today, I live in an area of Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood fondly referred to as the “Kurdish enclave” thanks to the Kurdish and Iraqi Jews who compose the bulk of the local population. Further down the road there is a large pocket of Moroccan and Tunisian Jewish families, with more French-speakers moving in.
Anyone who thinks that Israel is some kind of Woody Allen-style, Yiddish-dominated culture planted in the Middle East is in for a surprise on their first visit. The descendants of Jews from Arab lands now make up more than 50% of the Jewish Israeli population and when Israelis talk of “mixed marriages” they are usually (jokingly) referring to Ashkenazi-Sephardi ties.
There are plenty of Sephardi (and Yemenite) families who have lived in the Land of Israel for centuries, but the majority of Sephardim arrived after the creation of the state in 1948 – the non-Palestinian refugees who are largely overlooked.
On November 29, the date that the UN in 1947 accepted the Partition Plan that would lead to the establishment of the State of Israel, the world body now cynically marks “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.”
Symbolically, on November 30 Israel commemorates the expulsion of more than 800,000 Jews from Arab lands who came to Israel, started new lives in harsh conditions, and helped make the country the success it is today.
Jews first settled in future Arab lands following the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judea, more than 2,500 years before Judea would be known as “The West Bank” – when its Jewish communities had more formidable enemies than pro-boycott advocates at Airbnb.
As Lyn Julius noted in an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post this week, “More Jews (850,000) fled Arab countries than Palestinian refugees (approximately 711,000), and their exodus was one of the largest movements of non-Muslims from the region until the mass flight of Iraqi Christians...
“Mizrahi Jews, whose communities predate Islam by 1,000 years, have been written out of history.”
In world opinion, the Palestinians alone are the victims. And the Palestinians spend more effort on perpetuating this status, with the very willing help of bodies like the UN, than in building a state of their own – a state the Arab world turned down in 1947, opting instead to try to wipe Israel off the map.
The Arab world also took revenge on the Jews living among them with devastating riots and anti-Jewish measures. According to Israeli Foreign Ministry statistics, since 1948: “In the North African region, 259,000 Jews fled from Morocco, 140,000 from Algeria, 100,000 from Tunisia, 75,000 from Egypt, and another 38,000 from Libya. In the Middle East, 135,000 Jews were exiled from Iraq, 55,000 from Yemen, 34,000 from Turkey, 20,000 from Lebanon and 18,000 from Syria. Iran forced out 25,000 Jews.”
Today, only some 4,000 Jews remain in Arab countries. In other politically incorrect words, the Jews are the victims of ethnic cleansing.
Periodically, the question of restitution is raised: Most of those forced to flee Arab lands arrived in Israel with almost nothing – their businesses, homes and possessions lost or confiscated. Some suggest that any future peace agreement with the Palestinians might include a compensation deal involving the Jewish losses for Palestinian losses. This, however, raises the question of whether the state can treat the Jewish property left behind in Arab countries as its own, rather than belonging to the families who had to flee.
I recently heard veteran Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi and Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour claim that being refugees is an essential part of the Palestinian identity. Interestingly, when I mentioned Jews from Arab lands who had moved to Israel as a result of persecution, Ashrawi dismissed my comments, saying, “They can’t be refugees in their own homeland.” She refused to answer how Palestinians could be considered refugees in what she calls the State of Palestine. (But at least she had accidentally acknowledged Israel’s status as the Jewish homeland.)
Palestinian leaders continue to call for the “right of return,” to enable “Palestinian refugees,” including those born generations after 1948, to move to Israel rather than a Palestinian state, thus destroying the nature and purpose of Israel as the world’s only Jewish state.
This week, a poll by CNN/ComRes found disturbing levels of antisemitism among Europeans, with some 33% of those surveyed saying Jews were too influential in political affairs around the world. Apparently, we Jews also control the world media. I wish I felt so rich and powerful.
But I am counting and reciting my blessings. On December 2 in the evening, Jews will light the first candle of the eight-day Hanukkah holiday. The festival marks the re-dedication of the Second Temple in the second century BCE after Judah the Maccabee and his followers, against the odds, beat the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks).
Traditionally, the candles are placed in a window. To those Jews around the globe who feel uneasy putting candles where passers-by can see them, consider coming home. Not as refugees, as part of an ancient people comfortable talking in Hebrew and publicly commemorating the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.