Justice for Jews from Arab lands: support grows in UK

By Sandy Rashty, November 27, 2014
A prosperous Jewish family smoking water pipe in Syria in the early years of the 20th century

A prosperous Jewish family smoking water pipe in Syria in the early years of the 20th century

"Jews from Arab lands suffered - their story should be told. They weren't just uprooted; their history was uprooted."

So says Florette Hyman, who was born Florette Menir in Cairo, and who came to the UK in 1957 after her family was forced to leave Egypt.

"Everyone is talking about the Palestinian refugees. I feel that no one has asked the question: What about the Jews from Arab lands?" she said.

Until now, there has been no official date to mark the mass exodus of Jews who abandoned their homes and businesses in the face of increasing persecution in Arab countries after the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Over 870,000 Jewish refugees were driven out of Arab countries and sought sanctuary around the world, including in the UK where they make up just under five per cent of British Jewry.

Achievers from Iran, Iraq and India

A number of prominent public figures can trace their roots to the Jewish communities of Arab countries.
Iranian-born Lord Alliance prevented the collapse of the British textile industry for many years when he put together the Coats Viyella company.
A Liberal Democrat peer, he came to the UK aged 17 with just £14 in his pocket. Last month, he donated £15 million to the Manchester Business School, one of the largest donations ever to a UK institution.
Dr Naim Dangoor, whose grandfather was Chief Rabbi of Iraq, sought refuge in Britain in the 1960s. A property developer, he established a centre in London for immigrants. The family donates millions to communal organisations and education initiatives.
Brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi were born in Baghdad, but grew up in Finchley. They went on to build one of the world's largest advertising agencies.
Property tycoons David and Simon Reuben, who are worth an estimated £9bn, are of Iraqi-Jewish descent, but were born in Bombay.
Alan Yentob, an award-winning broadcaster at the BBC, was born in London to an Iraqi-Jewish family.

This year, the Knesset in Israel passed a bill designating November 30 as the official day to commemorate the stories of Jews who fled Arab countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Syria, as well as Iran.

Some of the refugees have campaigned for restitution, hoping to regain the property or value of the capital lost at the time of displacement. Others just want to be heard.

Mrs Hyman, now 64, was eight-years-old when she left Egypt for Britain. Along with her parents and five siblings, she lived in one-room in a refugee camp near Leeds. Her father Abraham, grateful for the "haven", wrote a letter of thanks to the Queen and named his youngest daughter Elizabeth after her.

"I'm quite emotional talking about it now," Mrs Hyman said. "When Israel was created, it was dangerous for Jewish people to go out at night in Egypt; they would disappear.

"I remember a policeman coming into our house with papers on a Friday night, saying we had to leave. My father's family had been in Egypt since the 12th century.

"Everything we had was taken away from us - my father's packing company was taken away. They made roads out of the tombstones in Jewish cemeteries. I can't even go back and visit my grandfather's grave." In 1948, more than 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt - now, there are fewer than 15.

Roger Bilboul attended the Jewish Lycée de l'Union Juive school in Alexandria before leaving, aged 18, in 1959. He has backed an international campaign to regain access to Jewish archives left in Egypt.

"I left because of the situation, it wasn't good for Jews," recalled Mr Bilboul, who now lives in London.

"People were being put in prison all the time with no excuse. There was the nationalisation of Jewish businesses, a lot of stuff was confiscated and left behind. Some people are now going through the courts to try and get back their property.

"The contribution that Jews made has been largely forgotten; but it's something Egyptians themselves are now keen to put on the map."

Moshe Kahtan, whose father Saleh was a legal adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, also regrets that the contribution made by Jews has been forgotten. He dismisses the prospect of restitution as "wishful thinking".

"Freedom," he said. "You better forget this word in that place - it didn't exist for Jews.

"At its peak, half of the population in Baghdad was Jewish. In the 1930s, they started relieving Jews of their positions… they were imitating what was happening in Nazi Germany. Jobs were taken over by Muslims. Jews had a yellow identity card - they confiscated my passport."

The father-of-three was given refuge in the UK, after dramatically fleeing Baghdad and leaving the country in a smugglers' boat in 1967. Mr Kahtan, who escaped before Iraqi secret police came looking for him, recalled: "One day, I thought 'I have to leave'. I got in the boat with women and children.

"The smugglers were Arabs; they smuggled alcohol, cigarettes - not only Jews.

"It was supposed to be a 15-minute journey from Iraq to Iran, but it took hours after the naval border police started shooting at us. After we escaped, they closed the border."

Mr Kahtan had paid for his boat passage, but saw gold coins being used to bribe guards at Iranian checkpoints - money that he later learned had been provided by Israel.

A banker, Mr Kahtan, who sat on the Board of Deputies in the 1990s, made aliyah in 2008 and now lives in Herzliya. "From 1948 onwards, all we've heard is about the rights of Palestinian refugees," he said. "It's very important that the stories of Jews from Arab countries are told, so people know what happened and don't listen to falsehoods."

Nadia Nathan, who was a teacher at the Jewish Frank Iny school in Baghdad, left after the public hanging of nine Jews in the capital in 1969.

"Things became very dangerous for us," she said. "Jewish students were beaten; we were followed everywhere, my brother was put in prison with other Jews, but we got him out with money.

"I had a Muslim friend, who said to my Christian friend: 'If I see you talking to Nadia again, I will kill you'.

"One day, Kurds came into the school and said 'we can smuggle out six people'. And so, we went up through the mountains to Iran. The smugglers took everything from us, even our blankets, but they left us with one cooked chicken to eat. They didn't know that we had hidden money in it." Mrs Nathan settled in Israel before marrying her husband in 1972 in London, where she now lives.

To mark the commemoration day this Sunday, Harif, a UK group which represents Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, has organised a private lecture event at the Jewish Museum. A film by Sephardi Voices UK, which collects testimony, will also be screened.

This week, Moroccan artist Bettina Caro, who links her work to the stories of Jews from Arab and North African countries, spoke about her experience on a panel at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. Her exhibition will run at the LJCC until December 18.

Last updated: 11:19am, November 27 2014