Life & Culture

The Jews driven out of homes in Arab lands

The removal of the Jews from the Arab world has been all but ignored, says Tom Gross


It is not surprising, given the sheer scale of the Holocaust and its sadism, that it has dominated contemporary discourse among Jews and others. But, while the extermination of European Jews has rightfully (though belatedly) generated a great deal of study and research, the removal of the Jews from the Arab world has been all but ignored.

This ignorance extends to policy-makers at the highest level. Some journalists and politicians I have spoken to have expressed surprise when I even mentioned that Jews had lived in sizeable numbers in the Middle East before Israel’s independence.

In fact, Jews have lived in what is now the Arab world for over 2,600 years, a millennium before Islam was founded, and centuries before the Arab conquest of many of those territories. In pre-Islamic times, whole Jewish kingdoms existed there, for example Himyar in Yemen.

Up to the 17th century, there were more Jews in the Arab and wider Muslim world than in Europe. In Baghdad, in 1939, 33 per cent of the population were Jews, making it at the time proportionately more Jewish than Warsaw (29 per cent) and New York (27 percent). Jews had lived in Baghdad since the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Today, only five Jews reportedly remain there.

Before they were driven out en masse, the Jews of the Arab world, like Jews in Europe, were often important figures in their societies. The first novel to be published in Iraq was written by a Jew. Iraq’s first finance minister was a Jew, Sir Sasson Heskel. The founder of Egypt’s first national theatre in Cairo in 1870 was a Jew, Jacob Sauna. Egypt’s first opera was written in 1919 by a Jew. Many of the classics of Egyptian cinema were directed by Jews and featured Jewish actors.

The pioneer of Tunisian cinema was also Jewish (he was one of the first in the world to film underwater sequences), as was Tunisia’s leading female singer.

The world bantamweight boxing champion was also a Tunisian Jew and so were many other leading boxers and swimmers — including Alfred Nakache, the Algerian swimming champion who later survived Auschwitz. (Hundreds of Jews died in Nazi camps set up in Libya and some other Libyan Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen.)

Even the less prominent Jews were often interwoven into the wider societies. As a Moroccan proverb put it: “A market without Jews is like bread without salt.” (In the west, there are many prominent Jews with roots in the Arab world. The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a Syrian Jewish mother; Bernard Henri-Levy’s parents were Algerian Jews, and so on.)

In Israel, 160,000 Arabs stayed after the country’s rebirth in 1948 and took Israeli citizenship. (That number is now 1.7 million, representing over 20 per cent of Israel’s population, and Israeli Arabs serve in posts ranging from Supreme Court justices to Israeli diplomats). And when Israel declared independence following the UN partition plan, many of the Palestinian Arabs who left were not pushed out, but departed on the orders of their own leadership so as to stay out of the way when several Arab armies marched in with the aim of wiping out the Jews.

In sharp contrast, the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Arab world in the mid-20th century was systematic, absolute and unprovoked.

There were 38,000 Jews in western Libya before 1945. Now there are none; 47 synagogues are gone and a highway runs through Libya’s main Jewish cemetery. In Algeria, there were 140,000 Jews. Now there are none. In Iraq, there were about 150,000 Jews. Five remain. There were 80,000 Jews in Egypt. Almost all are gone.

Many Jewish refugees from the Arab world still suffer the trauma of armed men arriving at their door, and being marched away without explanation and without being able to take their possessions.

Unlike Palestinian refugees who left in smaller numbers (between 1948 and 1951, according to UN statistics, 711,000 Palestinian Arabs left what became Israel, although many historians put the numbers at fewer than this) the 856,000 Jews who were made refugees from Arab countries have never received any proper recognition or international financial help. Instead, there is wilful ignorance. So, for example, in Cairo today, the Swiss, German, Canadian, Dutch, South Korean and Pakistani embassies all occupy the stolen homes of wealthy, expelled Jews. Similar situations exist in some other Arab capitals.

Adding to the injustice, some Middle East commentators like to propagate the myth that the Jews of the Arab world were never discriminated against or persecuted or attacked.

Not only were Jews often treated as second-class citizens with discriminatory laws and additional taxes imposed on them, but many were killed or injured in pogroms: Jews were killed in Fez in Morocco, in 1912; in Constantine in Algeria, in 1934; in Rabat in Morocco in 1934; in Gabes in Tunisia in 1941; in Aden in 1947, when 82 Jews were killed, hundreds of shops were destroyed; in Iraq in 1941, when at least 180 Jews were murdered and many others raped and injured, thousands of homes were also looted.

In Libya, 130 Jews were killed in 1945; in Aleppo in 1947, 75 Jews were said to have been murdered. In 1939, bombs were planted at a Cairo synagogue.

Nor can such attacks be excused as somehow being merely in reaction to Zionism. There were many attacks before this period. In 1807, in Casablanca, there was a massacre of Jews. In 1840, the infamous Damascus blood libel led to the kidnapping and torture of dozens of Jewish children. (As late as 1986, the Syrian Defence Minister, Mustafa Talas, published a book, The Matzah of Zion, in which he claimed that the Jews did indeed use the blood of a Christian monk to bake matzah and therefore he said the 1840 pogrom was justified.)

In 1857, an innocent Tunisian Jew, Batto Sfez, was beheaded and his head tossed around like a football by a mob, leading the French authorities to intervene.

In Morocco, as far back as the eighth century, whole communities were wiped out by Idris the First. In 1033, about 6,000 Jews were murdered in Fez by a Muslim mob. In 1465, another massacre took place in Fez, which spread to other cities in Morocco. There were pogroms in Tetuan in 1790 and 1792, in which many children were murdered. Between 1864 and 1880, there were a series of attacks on the Jews of Marrakesh, and hundreds died. In 1903, there were pogroms in Taza and Settat, in which more than 40 Jews were killed.

Other pogroms occurred in Aleppo in 1850 and 1875, in Damascus in 1848 and 1890, in Beirut in 1862 and 1874. In Cairo, Jews were set upon by mobs in 1844, 1890, and 1901-02, and in Alexandria in 1870, 1882 and 1901-07. In 1907, in Casablanca, 30 Jews were killed and many women raped. There were also a series of massacres in Algeria in 1805, 1815 and 1830, and in Libya in 1785. And so on. By the 1880s, the situation for Yemeni Jews was so bad, that many started to walk to Palestine to join European Jews there and 15,000 Yemeni Jews had arrived by the late 1930s.

Today, the only Middle Eastern state where Jews and Arabs cohabit together in any numbers is Israel. (Indeed the Arab population in Israel is now much larger than it was during the British mandate period.)

Some Arab reformers have lamented the loss of Jews, giving it as a key a reason why the Arab world is now in such disarray. The Egyptian-born journalist Magdi Allam says that “by losing their Jews the Arabs have lost their roots and have ended up losing themselves.”

A deeper understanding about the fate of the Jews of the Arab world is not just important because a great injustice has been done to them, but because, by ignoring their plight, and history, and concentrating only on the Palestinian Arabs who in 1947-48 were made refugees from Israel, policy makers from US Secretary of States downwards have formed a lopsided view of the conflict.

If it were better understood that there were two sets of suffering — Jewish and Arab — then grievances surrounding the Palestinian question could be more easily reconciled and a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict perhaps made less hard to achieve.

This article is a foreword by Tom Gross to a new book ‘Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish civilization in the Arab world vanished overnight’ by Lyn Julius (Vallentine, Mitchell and Co, £25). Tom Gross is a former Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph.

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