Righting a historical wrong

A new initiative aims to bring to the world’s attention the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Jewish refugees from Triploi arrive in Haifa 521 (photo credit: Arnold Behr/Jerusalem Post Archives)
Jewish refugees from Triploi arrive in Haifa 521
(photo credit: Arnold Behr/Jerusalem Post Archives)
A Jewish man walks through the marketplace in Oujda, Morocco.
Suddenly a crowd of Muslims surrounds him, pointing and yelling “Yahud! Yahud!” The man immediately becomes the victim of a ferocious attack as he is beaten and stabbed by the frenzied mob. Bleeding profusely, he is left for dead, but manages to survive. For days, the press has been running fabricated stories that Jews are selling Muslims poisoned meat and bread. Anti-Jewish slogans have been painted on buildings throughout the city. Someone has spread a false rumor that Jews have attacked Muslims and Sultan Mohammed V has ordered all good Moroccan citizens to seek vengeance. The rumor is all that is needed. Mobs enter the Jewish neighborhood in the city and massacre its inhabitants. Whole families are butchered or severely beaten. This is but one of many similarly horrific scenarios that played out in Arab lands both prior to and following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Over the years, since Israel’s War of Independence, the issue of Palestinian refugees has dominated the discussion and, unfortunately, the equally important issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands has received scant attention. That is, until now.
In an attempt to create global awareness, the Foreign Ministry recently launched a new campaign, called “I am a refugee,” which aims to publicize the story of the Jewish refugees – a story much of the world has ignored and forgotten.
The Senior Citizens Ministry has set aside an initial budget of NIS 2 million to assist in interviewing as many refugees as possible.
The ministry has also set up a call center to gather information and assist refugees in compiling information on their lost assets.
Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations Chaim Herzog wrote in his 1978 book Who Stands Accused? Israel Answers Its Critics, “There was also a second group of refugees which, together with the Palestinian Arab refugees, comprised the so-called Middle East refugee problem.
“During the United Nations debate on the Partition Resolution of 1947, Arab leaders warned that the Jews in Arab countries would be used as hostages to prevent the establishment of Israel. With the passage of the resolution and the establishment of Israel, these dire threats were carried out in Aden, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria and elsewhere.
“Riots and pogroms, together with mass arrests and legislation confiscating the property of Jews, restricting their employment and limiting their education and freedom of movement, were the order of the day in many Arab lands. As a result, more than 800,000 Jews fled those countries to Israel between 1948 and 1967.
“Israel could have approached the question of the Jewish refugees in the same manner as the Arabs approached their part of the refugee problem... It could have kept the Jewish refugees as political pawns in camps financed by the United Nations. Instead, the Jewish people throughout the world cared for its refugees, transported them, rehabilitated them and re-established them as useful citizens and productive human beings.”
In 1941, the most noted pogrom, known as the “Farhud,” took place in Baghdad. A hundred and seventy-nine Jews were murdered in cold blood by the Iraqis. Other notable pogroms took place in Libya, Syria and Morocco, among many other places.
For some reason, these facts were never discussed in depth and this issue has been largely ignored by successive Israeli governments likely for reasons of security, diplomatic and political sensitivity.
Indeed, over the years the government has touched upon the subject, yet has never made it a core topic in its discussion with the Palestinians or other governments.
In 1969, the Knesset adopted a decision to set up a special temporary department in the Justice Ministry to gather facts and evidence regarding property expropriated from and persecution of the Jews of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In 2002, the Knesset expanded this to include Jews from all Arab countries. In 2003, it called to set up a database of refugees.
A 2010 Knesset legislation instructs the government to raise the issue of Jewish refugees in any final-status settlement with the Arabs and Palestinians.
Now, the idea is to gain recognition for Jewish refugees by taking this a step further.
Next week, in an effort to raise awareness, the organization “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries” is holding an event organized by the World Jewish Congress, in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry and the Senior Citizens Ministry.
Later this month, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon will take the issue to New York for the next UN General Assembly meeting on September 21, when he will hold a press conference concerning Jewish refugees in conjunction with the WJC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post hosted Ayalon, Deputy Senior Citizens Minister Leah Ness and World Jewish Congress Chairman Dan Diker to discuss the new initiative.
Ayalon has led this campaign for a while, writing in international publications, holding meetings with international leaders and Israel-based foreign diplomats. He also raised the issue from the UN plenum during the 60th anniversary celebrations of the UNHCR in December 2010.
In his remarks last week, Ayalon said, “Jews from various Arab countries have a claim, which is of course corroborated by facts, that they were denied rights and denied justice for too long, either by design or omission. The historic facts are that, starting in 1947, the Arab League decided to strip Jews of their citizenship in their respective Arab countries.”
Ayalon continued, “All told, of the 856,000 refugees that we know left Arab countries, approximately 600,000 came to Israel. About 200,000 went to the United States and Europe. Most were expelled.
Some, who wanted to leave of their own accord due to the constant harassment they faced as Jews, were not allowed to take anything with them and were stripped of their citizenship.
“The point here is to right [a historical] wrong... not only by the international community but also by successive Israeli governments.
It is never too late. The purpose is to recognize the injustice and to pay tribute to them, their heritage and history.”
Ayalon is initiating a day of recognition for Jews from Arab countries and, together with the Senior Citizens Ministry, hopes to build a museum that will document their stories and history. They also hope to create a day of remembrance on which schoolchildren will study the history of these refugees.
Ayalon emphasized that it is important to show how Israel treated these refugees, by welcoming them and giving them citizenship, so that it can become a model for Arab countries, for instance, on how to deal with Arab refugees. “Even today,” he said, “45 years after the 1967 Six Day War, there are Palestinian refugee camps in Judea and Samaria.”
Another goal of this initiative is to bring the issue of Jewish refugees to the attention of the international community with the hope that it will result in concrete action on their part to recognize Jewish refugees from Arab lands. “Reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians would have to be allencompassing, including dealing with Jewish refugees,” said Ayalon.
Ness said, “This is not a temporary campaign, or a pilot. We are discussing a longterm plan to advance this cause. Jews left behind not only their belongings, but their history – their personal stories. And these stories have yet to be heard.”
The Senior Citizens Ministry has launched an initiative that goes literally from house to house, gathering testimony from Jewish refugees who fled Arab lands.
Ness said, “We intend to raise the flag of justice, to give the refugees their place in history and to fulfill, in part, the Biblical commandment to ‘teach your children.’ The responsibility here, and of utmost importance at this stage, is to ensure that the story of Jewish refugees from Arab lands gets passed on to the next generation.
“I believe we’ve found the correct way to approach this issue,” said Ness.
Diker emphasized, “The World Jewish Congress has worked for many years to champion the rights to recognition and compensation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Together with the US-based group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, the WJC has championed the rights of these Jewish refugees – who between 1948 and 1976 were assaulted, robbed and forcibly exiled from their homes and home countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.”
“Now, the WJC’s international efforts, led by President Ronald S. Lauder, to raise the profile of Jewish refugees with governments, parliaments and international organizations like the UN may bear even greater fruit. Jewish refugees and their families now benefit from the unprecedented commitment of the State of Israel to seeking historical justice and acknowledgment at home, along with financial restitution and diplomatic recognition in international circles.
“The WJC has fully engaged its affiliate organizations in the effort to raise this issue with their parliamentary counterparts on the international scene with the intention of rebalancing the international approach to the refugee issue and pushing for an equitable compensation-based solution.
“In June, the WJC and the ICJP discussed the issue in a special meeting of Jewish parliamentarians from seven European countries hosted by ICJP chairwoman MP Fiamma Nirenstein, who serves as the deputy president of the Italian parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.”
Diker continued, “WJC officials also raised the issue in diplomatic meetings in Europe.
Together with JJAC, we have worked to advance additional legislation in the US House of Representatives... The WJC and JJAC are further consulting with the Canadian government and parliament with the goal of eliciting a resolution expressing specific support for an overall solution to the Jewish refugee issue in parallel with the Palestinian refugee matter.”
A NUMBER of scholars have documented the story of the Jewish refugees, serving as an important tool in preserving this tragic period in history and in educating the public on an otherwise unknown subject.
Sir Martin Gilbert, in his 2010 book In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, wrote, “Jews who have lived under Muslim rule, wherever they live today, are determined to make the international community aware of their sufferings in the aftermath of the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War.”
Many Jews were expelled from communities that existed long before the advent of Islam.
Gilbert explains, “For more than a thousand years before Muhammad’s birth in the year 570, Jews lived in what were to become – with Mohammed and his followers’ conquests – Muslim lands.”
Gilbert describes Jewish gravestone inscriptions dating from 813 BCE in the Tunisian city of Carthage, and the Yemeni tradition that a group of Jews arrived in Yemen from Jerusalem in approximately 629 BCE. Jews settled in Saudi Arabia 1,000 years before the rise of Islam and tombstones there date back to 500 years before Mohammed’s birth. In 312 BCE, Jews settled in what is today Libya.
Over the years, Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and headed north to present-day Syria and east to presentday Iran and Afghanistan. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, Jews were expelled from their ancient homeland to areas in North Africa.
In her 1984 book From Time Immemorial, Joan Peters wrote, “From the Maghreb, known as North Africa, more than 300,000 Jews have crowded into Israel since 1948. Almost 250,000 of them arrived from what is now Morocco, where Jews have lived since 586 BC.”
In his “Findings of the tribunal relating to the claims of Jews from Arab Lands” (1999), Justice Arthur J.
Goldberg, chairman of the tribunal, wrote, “The just claims of Jewish refugees from Arab lands for violation of their personal and property rights should be acknowledged by the Arab states responsible and just compensation rendered. The tribunal is firmly of the view that silence by Jews, in Israel and abroad, about the claims and rights of Jews from and in Arab countries is simply not tolerable.”
BORN IN Cairo in 1934, Rosa Molcho witnessed anti- Jewish violence and “Holocaust-type scenarios” at a young age. In 1948, a bomb exploded outside her home and, upon running outside, she discovered her mother lying on the ground covered in blood. Her mother died in her arms. A few months later, leaving everything behind, she and her family escaped to Israel via Italy and France.
With regard to the Foreign Ministry’s project she says, “I am very pleased with this initiative. I always said that I don’t need compensation. The issue here is the recognition.”
In The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands, (1999, edited by Malka Hillel Shulewitz), Harold Troper outlines the plight of Syrian Jews: “The Jewish presence in Syria dates back to biblical times... In the years before the Second World War, most of Syria’s 60,000 Jews could trace their roots back to returnees from the Babylonian captivity; or centuries later, to those who sought refuge in Syria from the ravages of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, or to Jews from Turkey who came to seek their fortune after the First World War in French Mandatory Syria.
“Whatever their past, by the early 1960s the vast majority had left. And they were glad to leave. Through most of the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish life in that country grew increasingly precarious as Jews became the targets of attacking Syrian Arab nationalists... The Syrian government condoned and even organized popular attacks on Jews in Damascus and Aleppo, where many were beaten and murdered, Jewish institutions destroyed and holy books burned. An economic boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals together with seizures of Jewish property left many destitute...
Fearing for their lives, most Jews fled, leaving behind what they could not carry.”
The uprising in Algeria by the Front for National Liberation (FLN) against the French ultimately affected the lives of Jews there. The French colonial empire was falling in the aftermath of World War II and a revolution ensued. The transition from French to Muslim rule hastened the departure of Algerian Jewry.
Benzi Sela, an Algerian born in 1955 near the city of Oran a year after the start of the revolution, experienced persecution and anti-Semitism as a youth. His classmates would chase after him on the way home in order to steal whatever money he had.
For years, his Arab neighbors had been friendly to his parents, but closer to 1948, their attitudes changed and they would enter the house to see what they could steal.
Sela’s father-in-law lived in La-Guette. He had two identical hanukkiot, one of which he ended up offering as a gift to people who came from Israel to collect money. Years later, Sela brought his father-in-law to see the hanukkia, now in the Israel Museum.
In 1961, a mob destroyed his father’s store. Realizing it was time to escape before it became too late, Sela’s family drove overnight to Ghardaïa to avoid rousing suspicion. From there, they escaped to Israel.
By 1962, most Jews had left Algeria.
MANY HISTORIANS document the claim that it was not only persecution by Arabs that encouraged Jews to leave their native countries, but also the Israeli-directed North African underground, the “Misgeret,” and other organizations engaged in Zionist activities that had an impact.
As Michael M. Laskier points out in his 1993 book The Jews of Egypt, between 1942 and 1948, emigration to Palestine began to take place under the auspices of the Hagana, the Jewish Agency, and the Mossad L’Aliya Bet (an organization responsible for illegal immigration).
“Emigration was inspired by local Zionists.”
In his book 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War published in 2008, Benny Morris explains, “Because of this atmosphere of intimidation and violence and oppressive governmental measures – though also because of the ‘pull’ of Zionism... and Zionist ‘missionary’ efforts – the Jewish communities in the Arab world were propelled into emigration.”
Others have taken this claim to an extreme, denying that persecution was the catalyst behind Jewish emigration.
Just this week, as reported in the Post, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, stated: “The claim that Jews who emigrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees’ who were uprooted from their homelands... is a form of deception and delusion.”
According to her, Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries are not refugees because they left their homes voluntarily and under pressure from Zionist groups and the Jewish Agency. She rejected the assertion that Jews left their countries of birth because of persecution.
“The emigration of Jews was a voluntary act that was influenced by factors of pressure and temptation by Zionist movements and the Jewish Agency,” she said.
Ashrawi called for drawing a distinction between Arab and Jewish refugees. Zionist gangs, she said, “forced Palestinians out of the land that had belonged to the Palestinian people for thousands of years, while Jews voluntarily and collectively left.”
While this may be one of the reasons Jews left Arab lands, there is overwhelming evidence of a methodical and well-orchestrated effort by the leaders in most Arab countries to expel the Jews.
Indeed, in his dissertation “The United Nations and Middle East refugees: The differing treatment of Palestinians and Jews,” Dr. Stanley A. Urman, executive vicepresident of JJAC, proves that Arab leaders orchestrated their efforts to expel Jews from their lands, citing a document that was affixed to a January 19, 1948, memorandum submitted by the WJC to the UN Economic and Social Council warning that “all Jews residing in the Near and Middle East face extreme and imminent danger.”
Therefore, says Urman, the meeting of the political committee at which this draft law was drafted must have occurred sometime in 1947.
The Arab League, in its council session on February 17, 1948, in Cairo, approved a plan for “political, military, and economic measures to be taken in response to the Palestine crisis,” confirming the collusion recommended by the Political Committee for Arab League member states to violate the rights of their Jewish populations.
In 2002, JJAC convened an international committee of legal experts that produced a report entitled “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress,” which found that Arab states purposely and methodically orchestrated persecution against their own Jewish citizens in order to bring about the expulsion of entire Jewish communities.
In the report, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler wrote that in addition to the fact that the Arab campaign against Jews included incitement and attacks, there existed “mass human rights violations” specifically targeting Jews in Arab countries.
According to the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, the 1945 Nuremberg Charter made wartime mass deportation a crime against humanity, and the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Civilians in Time of War also prohibits deportations and forcible transfers, whether mass or individual.
IN 1948, the president of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Stephen Wise, appealed to US secretary of state George Marshall concerning the dangerous situation Jews from Arab lands found themselves in. The US did not take action.
A New York Times article published on May 16, 1948, with the headline “Jews in Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands” does not appear to have had much effect. Three years after the Holocaust, the world seemed indifferent to the threat of annihilation of the Jews in Arab lands.
Since then, there has been some acknowledgment that the issue of Jewish refugees cannot be separated from the Arab-Israeli conflict. On two occasions, in 1957 and again in 1967, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determined that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees who fell within the mandate of the UNHCR.
The 1977 Camp David Accords, through which the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was established, provided that the parties “agree to establish a Claims Committee for the mutual settlement of all final claims.” President Jimmy Carter said then, “...obviously there are Jewish refugees...
they have the same rights as others do.”
Joan Peters wrote, “In 1981, the United States Committee for Refugees noted, as it had not done in many previous reports, the ‘600,000 Jewish refugees resettled from Arab countries... three decades ago.’ Had the Jews initially drawn worldwide attention to their Arab-born Jewish refugees in Israel, had they broadcast the persecution of the Jews and other minorities in the Arab countries – and the social and economic burden of absorbing the Jewish refugees from Arab countries – the Arab demand for one-sided repatriation might be perceived today in a different, more evenhanded and objective perspective, and other, critical unknown elements in the conflict might have by now intruded into the consideration of ‘justice.’” At Camp David II in July 2000, President Bill Clinton said, “Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.”
In 2008, the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 185 which stated that any Middle East peace agreement “must address and resolve all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees” and “ensure that any resolutions relating to the issue of Middle East refugees, and which include a reference to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, must also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”
It is important to note that UN Security Council Resolution 242, the Madrid peace conference, the road map and the bilateral agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians all refer to a just solution of the “refugee problem” without distinction between Palestinian and Jewish refugees.
In The New Anti-Semitism (1974), Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein stated: “It is a matter of concern to Jews throughout the world that the plight of these refugees – casualties not so much of war but of stateordered persecution – has attracted nowhere near the sympathy and support from the non-Jewish world as have the grievances of the refugee Palestinians.”
EVEN DURING relatively peaceful times, Jews in Arab lands were considered “dhimmi” or “protected people.” A Muslim concept based on Shari’a law and found in the Koran in connection with Muhammad’s brutal triumph over Khaibar’s Jews, dhimmitude applied to non-Muslims (specifically Jews and Christians) and allowed Muslim rulers to guarantee such citizens their lives, liberty and property and freedom of religious practice.
In reality, as dhimmis, Jews were considered second-class citizens and, throughout the centuries, were constantly exposed to mistreatment and degradation.
In Sephardi Communities Today (1985), David Sitton wrote, “The position of the Jews in the Islamic countries had never been good... Since the advent of Islam, Jews were... often compelled to pay a ransom in order to continue to reside in their native countries... It may be said that the Jews generally lived a life of persecution and humiliation among the Muslims.”
Peters agrees. “Contrary to the myth that Jews lived in harmony with the Arabs before the Zionist state, innumerable authoritative works document decisively the subjugation, oppression, and spasmodic anti-Jewish eruptions of violence that darkened the existence of the Jews in Muslim Arab countries.”
Mordechai Nisan wrote in The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands, “The Jews of the region survived indignities and threats, massacres and deprivations, yet were able in certain times and places to coexist reasonably with Muslim majority populations.”
But this all changed in 1948, when the Arab League issued an order to attack Jews in Arab lands.
Nisan continues, “The establishment of Israel in 1948 was seen by the Arabs as an unacceptable provocation which goaded them to acts of vengeance against domestic Jewish populations. The spoliation of Jewish communities, as in Egypt, and the persecution they underwent, as in the form of pogroms in Aden and Libya, forced Jews to flee for their lives.”
Morris writes, “The immediate propellants to flight were the popular Arab hostility, including pogroms, triggered by the war in Palestine and specific governmental measures, amounting to institutionalized discrimination against and oppression of the Jewish minority communities.
“Throughout the Arab world, leaders instituted extensive anti-Jewish measures and pogroms took place in Aden and Aleppo. State-controlled media spread anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda, prompting attacks against Jews in a number of countries including Pakistan, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt and Iraq. Mobs attacked Jews in Beirut and Tripoli. Dozens of Jews in Frenchruled Morocco were murdered by angry mobs.”
SIGNIFICANTLY, ARAB sources have documented Arab responsibility for expelling Jewish citizens. Researchers note that the fact that various Arab leaders threatened to expel Jews from all Arab countries is evidence that there did exist close coordination among Arab governments to expel Jews from their lands. Ya’akov Meron, an authority on the laws of Arab countries and a member of the Israeli delegation that negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt, describes how on November 24, 1947, in connection with the Partition Plan for Palestine then under discussion at the UN, Egyptian delegate Heykal Pasha said, “The United Nations... should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries...
If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of a large number of Jews.”
Meron further explains, “It is significant that this expulsion plan was announced publicly and very formally by Heykal Pasha some four months before the mass departure of 540,000 Arabs [according to UNRWA] from those areas in Palestine where the State of Israel was to be established.”
To Pasha, the expulsion of Jews was intended as some sort of retaliation in response to the UN Resolution of November 29, 1947, regarding the partition of Palestine.
After Israel’s War of Independence, Meron says, “the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands was presented as a retaliation for Israel’s victory – an event with which the Jews in Arab lands had no connection.”
In an article published in al-Nahar in Beirut on May 15, 1975, Sabri Jiryis, a researcher with the Institute of Palestinian Studies in Beirut observed, “Since 1948, you Arabs have caused the expulsion of just as many Jews from the Arab states, most of whom settled in Israel after their properties had been taken over in one way or another. Actually, therefore, what happened was only a kind of ‘population and property exchange,’ and each party must bear the consequences.
“Israel is absorbing the Jews of the Arab states; the Arab states, for their part, must settle the Palestinians in their own midst and solve their problems. There is no doubt, at the first serious discussion of the Palestinian problem in an international forum, Israel will put these claims forward.”
Khalid al-Azm, the prime minister of Syria between 1948 and 1949, wrote in his memoirs, “Since 1948, we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated between our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.”
The coordination by Arab states to expel Jews from their territories is further evident in this article, which appeared in the Syrian newspaper al-Kifah in 1949: “If Israel should oppose the return of the Arab refugees to their homes, the Arab governments will expel the Jews living in their countries.”
IN A speech delivered at the Third International Conference of the World Organization of Jews from Arab countries in October 1987, Binyamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said, “...we failed to effectively tell the story of the forced mass exodus of Jews from Arab tyrannies... It was a mistake not to make their plight a top priority in our foreign policy; it was a mistake not to do more to publicize the miracle of their absorption; it was a mistake not to demand compensation for their losses and their suffering.
“But these mistakes can still be rectified. We must put... energy and outrage into our demands on their behalf... In any settlement with the Arab regimes, their sacrifices and tragedies must be reckoned with.”
Indeed it is time to gain world recognition for Jewish refugees from Arab lands and it is certainly imperative that their history – our history – goes unforgotten.