Over the years, a recurring hasbara trope has accused Arab states of ethnically cleansing their entire Jewish populations in the years between 1948-1956. They marshal vivid maps displaying the numbers of Jews originally in these countries and how many are left currently. Phrases like “expulsion,” “refugee,” “Jewish Nakba,” and “pogroms” are bandied about as if they are horrific historical fact. The truth, as often is the case concerning Zionist ideological claims, is otherwise.
Pogrom is an especially problematic term, as it was first popularized regarding mass anti-Jewish violence in Czarist Russia. It is often dangerous in historical terms to conflate two separate periods, separate regions, and separate societies as this use of the term does. The predicament of Arab Jews was caused by different factors than Russian pogroms. The Czar exploited anti-Semitism to distract from social upheaval and his dysfunctional rule. The situation in Arab lands was different. There had been little anti-Semitism there before Israel’s founding. In fact, there had been 2,000 years of peaceful co-existence. Zionism was a major precipitating factor which provoked alienation between Jews and Arabs/Muslims. Pogroms, on the other hand, predated the establishment of the State by well over half a century. The earliest pogrom occurred 16 years before the first Zionist Congress. Thus “pogrom” is appropriated from its true historical period, and exploited in this new context in order to invoke a traumatic emotional response. This is an abuse of history and a distortion, which are also features of Zionism.
Advocates of this Zionist claim have sought to counter Palestinian demands for the Right of Return with demands for compensation for the hundreds of millions (or billions, depending on which source you use) in Jewish property seized by the Arab governments after they left. But this demand could backfire because it will only remind the world that 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed during the Nakba with tens of thousands of homes of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians destroyed or confiscated. Nor were the refugees permitted to return after the 1948 War to reclaim their property. The Infiltrator Law treated them as enemies and entitled Israeli forces to shoot them on sight:
A “free fire” policy towards infiltrators was adopted…shooting those crossing the international armistice line illegally. Eventually, the Israeli leadership came to the conclusion that only retaliatory strikes would be able to create the necessary deterrence, that would convince the Arab countries to prevent infiltration…The strikes [killed] numerous civilians…
The claims of Arab Jewish “Nakba” were intended to raise a counter-claim to that of nearly 1-million Palestinians driven out of their ancestral home during the Nakba. If they were refugees, then so were the Arab Jews “driven” from their own native homes. But advocates of this view neglected the feelings of the Mizrahi Jews themselves, many of whom made aliyah out of Zionist principles. Calling them ‘refugees’ derogated their place in Israeli society and made them into alien outsiders (much as Palestinians are who settled in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan after the 1948 War).
Prof. Yehuda Shenhav, himself a Mizrahi Jew, discredits the equation of Palestinian refugees with Arab Jewish “refugees:”
…The analogy drawn between Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews is unfounded. Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders of historic Palestine. Those who left did not do so of their own volition.
In contrast, Jews from Arab lands came to this country under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some came of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.
…The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi immigrants needlessly embroils members of these two groups in a dispute, degrades the dignity of many Mizrahi Jews, and harms prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.
Shenhav has portrayed this as a self-serving political campaign to undermine a key BDS demand of the Palestinian Right of Return. It also serves to divert attention from Israel’s record of expulsion, theft and oppression of Palestinians:
An intensive campaign to secure official political and legal recognition of Jews from Arab lands as refugees has been going on for the past three years. This campaign has tried to create an analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi Jews, whose origins are in Middle Eastern countries – depicting both groups as victims of the 1948 War of Independence. The campaign’s proponents hope their efforts will prevent conferral of what is called a “right of return” on Palestinians, and reduce the size of the compensation Israel is liable to be asked to pay in exchange for Palestinian property appropriated by the state guardian of “lost” assets.
The idea of drawing this analogy constitutes a mistaken reading of history, imprudent politics, and moral injustice.
Eyal Bizawe is an Egyptian-Israeli filmmaker who criticized the Israeli educational curriculum covering the status of Jews in Arab lands. He writes:
…The approach can be summed up, it’s that the Jews in Muslim countries tended to matters in their own communities, wrote in Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic, engaged in Zionist activity – and in their spare time were persecuted. There’s no attention to Jewish involvement in national or communist politics, literature in the local language or European languages, the establishment of the Iraqi broadcast-authority orchestra, the involvement of Jews in the Egyptian film industry, or the Jewish involvement in the war in Algeria.
…You could conclude from the [curriculum] that the only contact that Mizrahi Jews…had with their local surroundings came in the form of the next pogrom… After all, there’s nothing like some good trauma to bring us all together around our memory of national tragedy, where we can put the head of a Persian Jew on the shoulders of a Polish Jew and the head of a German Jew on the shoulders of an Iraqi Jew, wailing together that the shtetl is burning.
Prof. Ella Shohat, herself a descendant of displaced Iraqi Jews, adds her own critique of this Islamophobic myth of eternal Jew hatred:
…The “Jewish refugees from Arab countries” discourse…embeds the assumption of Muslims as perennial persecutors of Jews, absorbing the history of Jews in Arab/Muslim countries into what could be called a “pogromized” version of “Jewish History”…This rhetoric incorporates the Arab Jewish experience into the Shoah, evident for example in the campaign to include the 1941 farhud attacks on Jews in Iraq in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One can denounce the violence of the farhud, and even connect it to Nazi propaganda in Iraq coming out of Berlin, without instrumentalizing it to equate Arabs with Nazis, or forge a discourse of eternal Muslim anti-Semitism.
…This millennial persecution discourse connects the dots from pogrom to pogrom, projecting the historical experience of Jews in Christian-Europe onto the experience of Jews in Muslim spaces.
To place this in a broader context of Jewish history, the distinguished historian, Salo Baron, conceived of the “lacrhymose theory” of Jewish history (account required):
I too am a child of this age. All of my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant ‘lachrymose conception of Jewish history’ – a term which I have been using for more than forty years – because I have felt that an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the total picture of the Jewish historic evolution and, at the same time, badly served a generation which had become impatient with the nightmare of endless persecutions and massacres.
In other words, for the purposes of this essay, the overstated claims against Arab states that they perpetrated a “Holocaust,” or “Nakba” against Arab Jews is part of this same view which suggests that all of Jewish history is one of unmitigated suffering, including life in the Diaspora. Thus the Arab Jewish catastrophe joins the Roman martyrdom, Spanish Inquisition and expulsion, the Russian pogroms, and Holocaust as east-west bookends of an endless narrative of Jewish suffering. Embracing this perspective reinforces the Zionist narrative, which claims that Jews can only be safe, sovereign, and in control of their own destiny in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
The Zionist view of the Arab Jewish ingathering of exiles to Zion asserts that it saved them from suffering and anti-Semitism. That it released them from lives as eternal aliens within their Diasporic existence. That it brought them to a place where they found refuge; where they could be safe as Jews. But the opposite is the case: the vast majority of Arab Jews preferred to remain in their homelands. It was the Zionist determination to declare a state–despite warnings from Arab leaders that this was a red line they could not countenance–that led to the dissolution of these communities. Ben Gurion’s sole goal was to declare a national state of the Jewish people where they would enjoy complete sovereignty. He didn’t care a whit for Jews in the Diaspora. On the contrary, he pointedly declared he would forfeit the lives of German Jews who refused to make aliya, as long as he could save others willing to emigrate to Israel.
Ben Gurion’s declaration of the State’s independence was only one cause of the unrest forcing Jews to leave their homes. He conceived a carefully coordinated, long-term campaign to inculcate Zionism among Arab Jewish communities via Yishuv shlihim, who were sent on this mission. The ultimate goal was to convince as many as possible to make aliya. They did this by painting an idyllic picture of life in Palestine (one which was quickly dispelled by the miserable conditions in the absorption camps known as ma’abarot) and warning them that they were ultimately hated as Jews in their own homeland and could have no future there.
Shohat quotes the bitterness of her own mother, who made aliyah to Israel:
In the wake of their exodus from Iraq and the shock of arrival in Israel, Iraqi Jews along with Arab/Sephardi/Middle-Eastern Jews more generally, experienced exclusion, rejection, and otherization as Arabs/Orientals, in a place that had been viewed, at the least, as a refuge. The realization of unbelonging could be glimpsed in the frequent lament: “In Iraq we were Jews, in Israel we are Arabs.”
Zionists sowed seeds of doubt in the Arab Jews about their fellow Muslim citizens. They also incited doubt among the latter about the loyalties of their Jewish brothers and sisters. Muslims questioned how any Jew with Zionist sympathies could be loyal to his/her homeland. It was only a short jump from there to the fear and paranoia necessary to demonize Jews as an enemy Fifth Column out to sabotage their Arab nation.
The truth is that Zionism in the Arab world destabilized Jewish life and created hostility and conflict. Jews were less secure and more endangered thanks to Zionism. The exodus did not save lives. In fact, it brought them to a State which viewed them with disdain and treated them harshly. A state which even bartered, sold, poisoned, and killed Mizrahi children out of misguided racist motives.
Even today, we can see that Jews are far more endangered in Israel than in the Diaspora. For every Jew killed in a terror attack outside Israel, more are killed in war and terror attacks inside Israel. Diaspora Jewish life is largely one of stability and religious tolerance. Life in Israel is filled with classism, ethnic prejudice, and economic privation (for Mizrahim, Haredim and Israeli Palestinians). There is great wealth and comfort–but there is also a huge wealth gap between the oligarch families who control the vast majority of the country’s capital and the poor referred to above.
To be clear, I have no problem with Jews making aliyah if they wish. Choice is something everyone should have (including Palestinians). But if one Jews’s choice deprives a Palestinian of having the same choice, then this is a bad bargain.
Arab Jews Invited to Return to Their Homelands
Another proof of the fallacy that Muslims and Arabs are infected with a deep-rooted historic hatred of Jews is that many states whose Jewish inhabitants left, have invited them to return. Leaders of Sudan, Egypt and Morocco have offered public invitations for them to return.
Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi made a public speech promising to restore Cairo’s grand synagogue. He spent millions doing so and the rededication was attended by 100 Egyptian-Israelis. The Economist notes the about-face orchestrated by Egypt’s leader:
When it comes to Egypt’s Jewish community, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi says all the right things…Mr Sisi promises a resurgence of local Jewry. He has invited back Jews who were pushed out after Israel’s invasion in 1956. He has listed dilapidated Jewish cemeteries as heritage sites and spent millions of dollars restoring what was once the world’s largest synagogue, Eliyahu HaNavi, in Alexandria.
Though Morocco only has 3,000 Jews, a number of them are Israeli-Moroccans who decided to leave Israel and return to their homeland. Other Israelis have substantial business interests there. Still others come to vacation and visit family. This 1979 NY TImes article portrays the radical positive shift in Moroccan attitudes toward its Jewish minority. More recently, the Economist writes:
Morocco[‘s}…Jewish community also shrank when the Arab-Israeli conflict was at its peak. But the Jews who remained now practise openly. King Muhammad VI has restored scores of synagogues and regularly hosts the diaspora at festivals where imams and rabbis sing together. Last month he inaugurated a Jewish heritage centre by touching the Torah and praying. “It was a first for a commander of the faithful [the royal title] in Islam,” says Andre Azoulay, the king’s Jewish adviser.
Despite hundreds of devastating air attacks by Israeli warplanes on Syrian targets, the latter’s government permitted a dozen Syrian-Americans to return for a visit on 2021. They were invited to meet with Syrian officials, but they declined because they did not want their visit to have a political dimension. An Israeli newspaper writes:
…Sources in the Syrian community in Israel as saying, “Some Jewish businessmen who previously lived in Syria returned with their families to work in the country with foreign passports. These Jews work there with the approval of the Assad regime.”
Sudan too, after overthrowing its Islamist dictator, Omar Bashir, issued a warm call for former Sudanese Jews to return:
“Sudan is pluralistic in its thought, pluralistic in its culture, in its ideologies and Islamic religious sects, and even religions.There is Islam, Christianity, and a minority that follow the Jewish faith,” Sudan’s Minister of Religious Affairs Nasr-Eddin Mofarah in an interview with Al Arabiya earlier this month.
Mofarah acknowledged that the Jewish minority may have left the country, but invited them to come back to Sudan “through their right of citizenship and nationality.”
“As long as there is a civilian government [in Sudan], the basis of nationality is rights and obligations,” explained Mofarah.
In 1975, the PLO proposed a resolution calling for Arab countries to permit the return of Jews to their homelands. In response, Joseph Massad writes that Morocco, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Iraq and Egypt did so.
In 1979, Radio Bagdhad urged Iraqi Jews to return from Israel, reminding them that they are second-class citizens in the Ashkenazi western-dominated Israeli society. Shenhav writes:
…In a Hebrew-language broadcast, [it] called on all Jews of Iraqi origin “to return home,” promising that they would be able to live as citizens with equal rights in Iraq. The broadcast claimed that people of Iraqi origin suffered discrimination in Israel at the hands of the Ashkenazim and that this injustice would be rectified when they returned to Iraq. With these comments Radio Baghdad broke the Zionist taboo and smoothly shifted the discussion from the national discourse to the internal Jewish ethnic discourse.
The Economist reports that views of Jews in many of these countries have shifted radically:
“The promise of our community is the rekindling of a Judeo-Islamic tradition,” says Ross Kriel, president of the new Jewish Council of the Emirates….Arab leaders from Morocco to Iraq are repeating the message…
From Iraq to Libya, a swathe of politicians, film-makers and academics, from secular types to the Muslim Brotherhood, have been re-examining the past, including the post-1948 eviction [sic] of Jews…
Today 13 Egyptian universities teach Hebrew, up from four in 2004. Some 3,000 Egyptian students will finish their Hebrew studies this year, double the number five years ago.
Arab documentaries search for Jewish diasporas that once lived in Arab lands. A new generation of Arab novelists elevates Jews from bit-players to centre-stage. “I wrote it to show that Jews are part of our culture,” says Amin Zaoui, the Algerian author of “The Last Jew of Tamentit”
These sources point to a general reassessment among Arabs of their relations with their Jewish former citizens. Rather than demonize all Arabs and Muslims as irredeemable anti-Semites, it is critical that Mizrahi Jews explore these opportunities and rekindle relations with their former compatriots. It will go a long way to helping Israel eventually find its place within the Arab Middle East. A region in which it is alien and which it treats as uniformly hostile territory.
What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of the history of Jews in Arab lands. It’s meant to be a brief survey of some of the main issues as I see them.
Let’s begin with some history: Jews lived in MENA for millennia. Historical sources trace the earliest presence to the Babylonian exile going back 26 centuries. Similarly, Jordan’s connection to Jewish life is ancient. Several of the Israelite tribes lived in what is now Jordan. The first Jews came to Spain after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. Over the centuries, despite restrictions imposed on them by Muslim rulers, Jews generally flourished in a period called La Convicencia. They became doctors, poets, bankers and senior advisors to the ruling caliphs. From Maimonides to Judah Halevi to Solomon ibn Gabirol, Jews made enormous contributions to the arts and economic well-being of Spanish society. It’s important not to mythologize or romanticize this period. Most Jews, except perhaps for the elites, were clearly second-class citizens. But compared to the fate of Jews in Christian Europe, Jewish life in Arab lands was largely stable and secure.
When Catholic kings wrested control of Spain from the Moors, they instituted a series of anti-Semitic decrees which culminated in the 1492 expulsion of Jews from the country. Those who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism or become secret Jews. Many of those who fled, traveled to other Arab/Muslim countries in North Africa, and even as far as Portuguese Brazil, New Amsterdam, and Holland.
With the advent of Zionism in the late 19th century, Arab attitudes began to change. European Jewry began to see itself not only as a religious community, but as a nation-in-waiting. Prof. Ella Shohat explains this in the context of the Iraqi Jewish community:
The Zionist redefinition of Jewishness as an ethno-nationality, which was in discord with its traditional status as a religion, brought about new dilemmas and tensions, irrespective of how the Arab Jews may have viewed their Jewish affiliation…
Arab Jews had to pledge allegiance to one identity articulated by two clashing movements— either “Jewish” or “Arab” —both newly defined under a novel historical banner of ethno-national affiliation. In dissonance with the traditional view of Judaism as a religion, the Zionist ethno-nationalist redefinition generated new predicaments for the community itself.
Jewish nationalism began to compete with Arab nationalism, which was ignited in part by the rise of the Ottoman Empire and its decentralized governance, which offered autonomy and rights to its Arab provinces. During this period in Palestine, there were stirrings of resentment from the Arab majority. But the two communities observed a relatively peaceful co-existence. By the 1920s, with the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of European colonialism, the two groups began to be pitted against each other. They competed for favor with their British masters, who maintained control by showing favor first to one group and then to the other (i.e. the Balfour Declaration). Eventually, this broke out into sectarian violence in which scores of Palestinian Arabs and Jews were killed in spasms of inter-communal violence.
In the period leading up to the 1948 declaration of the State, Jews remained a minority. But the Yishuv leader, David Ben Gurion realized that the Zionist claim to Palestine would only be as strong as the Jewish presence there. For this reason, he took in hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors. Similarly, he saw the Jews in Arab lands as another reservoir of demographic potential. There were nearly 1-million Jews living throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Their immigration to the fledging state would further enhance the Jewish presence and legitimize its claims to territory in negotiations with Israel’s neighbors. All this would immeasurably strengthen the new state.
The Yishuv sent emissaries to each of these countries whose mission was to inculcate Zionist values within the communities; and especially to recruit young people, the generation of the future, to emigrate. These efforts took on a force of their own after Israel declared independence in 1948. As the war progressed and Israel won victories against Arab armies and assumed control of added territory, Jews in MENA faced increasing anger from their non-Jewish neighbors. They were seen as allies of the Zionists, rather than as loyal fellow citizens.
Libya had been occupied by the Nazis during WWII and sent thousands of Jews to death camps. During and after the war, remnants of anti-Semitism remained among the Arab population. In 1945, there were riots during which scores of Jews were killed. Because the Jewish Brigade had been stationed in the country after the defeat of the Nazis, the tenets of Zionism took root in the community. Israeli shlihim not only urged aliyah; Libyan Jews accused them of fomenting the riots in order to further their goal. In his book, Jewish Life in Muslim Libya, Harvey Goldberg writes:
“Immigration began when the British authorities granted permission to the Jewish Agency to set up an office in Tripoli and organize the operation. As an indication of how the causes of events can be reinterpreted in terms of their results, a number of Libyan Jews have told me that their guess is that the Jewish Agency was behind the riots, for they clearly had the effect of bringing the Jews to Israel.”
Though this is suggestive, rather than definitive evidence, it accords with the known tactics of Zionist militants in other Arab countries. 30,000 of Libya’s 38,000 Jews answered the call of aliyah and left for Palestine. Others emigrated to Italy, where they now form a significant portion of the Italian Jewish community.
There was almost no emigration of the Jewish population from Algeria, though the 1950s civil war and its ensuing violence and instability, encouraged many (including Jews) to leave. In 1962, when the country gained independence, it denied citizenship to non-Muslims and most of the 130,000 Jews left. But they were not driven out by violence or virulent anti-Semitism as in other Arab lands. They also had a choice to remain if they chose. Most of them also did not go to Israel, but chose to settle in France.
Iraq is one of the most complicated stories of Jewish exodus from their Arab homelands. In the 1930s, Arab nationalism swept the country, led by the new King Ghazi, who fostered strong anti-British/anti-colonial sentiment (the country had just won its independence from Britain). With the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, Iraqi sympathy for the Palestinian cause was further strengthened. By the late 1930s, the nationalists developed sympathy for the Nazi cause as an opponent of British imperialism.
It should be remembered that during this period of political uncertainty, even the Yishuv Avodah and rightist Lehi factions negotiated with the Nazis, seeing them as a useful as a counterweight to the British Mandate.
In 1941, anti-Jewish sentiment peaked and there were riots, known as the Farhud, in which nearly 200 Jews lost their lives, along with looting of businesses and homes. But the Farhud was not the decisive incident that caused Jews to flee the country. After the violence subsided, young Iraqi Jews decided that if they wished to remain in the country, they had to adopt a more militant political approach, and they joined the Iraqi Communist Party. The new government which came to power after the Farhud also guaranteed the safety of the Jewish community.
The Farhud also marked a turning point in the Zionist approach to Iraqi Jewry. The Jewish Agency began sending shlihim, seeing a golden opportunity to bring the substantial portions of one of the oldest Arab Jewish communities to Israel. Those representatives likened their work to a movement for religious “conversion.” Among its efforts was the infiltration of Palestinian Jewish spies into the country to report back to Palestine on conditions in the country. But despite tensions within Iraqi society, Jews did not begin to leave in substantial numbers till 1948, when Iraqi sympathy for the Palestinian cause during the Nakba, made ongoing Jewish life untenable. Iraqi diplomats at the time warned against the Yishuv declaring independence saying it would destroy the relative harmony among ethnic communities inside the country. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. And an outcome which suited Ben Gurion and his government well as it meant that the Jewish population of Palestine would be augmented by many of the 150,000 Jews who lived in Iraq.Conditions progressively worsened as the government imposed anti-Semitic edicts on the country’s Jews. Despite a law forbidding emigration, ten thousand Jews escaped in 1949 alone. The following year, Iraq offered Jews a one-year period in which they could legally emigrate. During this period there were repeated bombings of Jewish sites, which many historians, including Iraqi Jews like Naim Giladi, believe were perpetrated as Black Flag attacks which could be blamed on anti-Semitic Iraqi nationalists. A senior CIA officer in Bagdhad relayed his own judgment:
In attempts to portray the Iraqis as anti-American and to terrorize the Jews, the Zionists planted bombs in the U.S. Information Service library and in synagogues. Soon leaflets began to appear urging Jews to flee to Israel. . . .The Iraqi police later provided our embassy with evidence to show that the synagogue and library bombings, as well as the anti-Jewish and anti-American leaflet campaigns, had been the work of
an underground Zionist organization, most of the world believed reports that Arab terrorism had motivated the flight of the Iraqi Jews whom the Zionists had “rescued” really just in order to increase Israel’s Jewish population.”
The intent was to drive any Iraqi Jews who were vacillating about leaving by, in effect, making the choice for them. The Iraqi government blamed Zionist militants for the attacks and arrested three Iraqi Jews for the crimes. By 1951, most had left, with their property reverting to the State. Still, 30,000 Jews determined they would remain in their homeland despite Zionist efforts.
Prof. Shohat, herself a descendant of Iraqi Jews, decries the mythologizing of the Iraqi exodus. Contrary to the Zionist narrative that the country’s Jews were miraculously fulfilling the Biblical prophecy of a return of the original Babylonian exiles to Israel and the final redemption of the vision of Ezra, Nehemiah and Ezechiel, who brought the first Babylonian Jews back to Zion:
What is often recounted as the “ingathering of the exiles” and the restoration of “the Diaspora” to Jerusalem, was in fact a painfully complicated experience, an ongoing intergenerational trauma which engendered an ambivalent sense of belonging for dislocated Middle Eastern Jews. This return, within a longer historical perspective, could also be viewed as a new modality of exile, hence my inversion [of the traditional Biblical passage: “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept when we remembered Zion”]: “By the waters of Zion we laid down and wept, when we remembered Babylon.”
The situation for Egyptian Jews was somewhat similar to that of those in Iraq. Over time, as various crises erupted during the 1948, 1956 and 1967 Wars, the government increasingly restricted Jewish rights and made life miserable for those who chose to remain. By 1967, almost all the community had left. But it’s important to note that there was no major outbreak of violence, no pogroms, and no forced expulsions as the Zionist narrative often claims. In fact, the US embassy there cabled Washington:
“There is definitely a strong desire among most Jews to emigrate, but this is prompted by the feeling that they have limited opportunity, or from fear for the future, rather than by any direct or present tangible mistreatment at the hands of the government.”
Bizawe takes special exception to the phrase employed by the Israeli education ministry in describing this exodus: “the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry” from their homeland. He acknowledges that while some Jews were indeed expelled (especially those with known Zionist sympathies), the majority were not. The decision of leave was based on numerous criteria, some of which involved voluntary choices, others less so. His final conclusion is:
But it’s indisputable that most of Egypt’s Jews were not expelled. In addition, with all my deep identification with members of my people, they were also not the only ones expelled. Unlike in 1948, in 1956 it was not only Jews who were evicted from the country but also members of other communities.
..This case involves…a persecution obsession, which in fact many people believe is the foundation of our existence as a people. After all, when we say “the expulsion of Egyptian Jewry,” it resonates in our mind and in the collective memory that includes a central traumatic event in the history of the Jewish people, “the expulsion of Spanish Jewry.” We can imagine rows of hooded soldiers gathering Egyptian Jews in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and giving them two options: convert to Islam or be expelled. Or even not giving them the choice but expelling them all. But such an event simply never occurred.
An important event which mirrored Zionist covert acts of violence in Arab countries was the Lavon Affair, known in Hebrew as Eysek Bish. No less a Zionist figure than Moshe Sharett, an Israeli prime minister, writing about the Egyptian bombings, related in his diary his own suspicions that the Mossad was involved in the Bagdhad attacks as well.
In 1954, Britain maintained a strong presence in Egypt to protect its interests in the Suez Canal. There was increasing political conflict and the rise of militant nationalists who demanded the nationalization of the Canal. While the Eisenhower administration encouraged the British to leave and supported the anti-colonial movement led by young officers under the leadership of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Israel saw this as a threat to its own economic interests. Realizing that Britain was increasingly divesting its former colonies due to extreme financial distress, the IDF developed a Black Flag campaign called Operation Susannah. Israeli military intelligence operatives who infiltrated the country, recruited and trained local Egyptian Jews to plant bombs at sites associated with foreign governments. It was made to appear that the nationalists were fomenting unrest in order to further their plot to take over the Canal from Britain. Israel’s role was to be concealed at all costs. However, one of the Israeli agents had become a double agent working for Egyptian intelligence. He exposed the plot and four of the suspects were captured and all lost their lives either by suicide (to avoid prosecution) or execution. Exposure of the affair created a furor inside Israel and cost the defense minister, Pinchas Lavon, his cabinet post, destroying his political career.
Though Operation Susannah’s purpose was not to stampede Jews from Egypt, it is similar to other Israeli Black Flag operations using stealth and violence against Arab governments or to promote Jewish immigration.
The Jews of Iran enjoyed excellent relations with the Shah during his 40-year reign. Many of them were merchants who enjoyed a comfortable middle-class existence. Because Iran also had a close relationship with Israel, Iran’s Jews could rest comfortably, as their fellow Arab Jews in other countries faced a perilous existence. All that changed with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which toppled the Shah. Not only did the Jews feel threatened by the rise of an Islamist state, Ayatollah Khomeini, who aligned himself solidly with the Palestinian cause, himself suspected their allegiance. Tens of thousands of Jews left the country for Israel, America and other destinations. Now living in an Iranian Diaspora, many of them have aligned themselves with the monarchal cause, though it retains little to no support among Muslim Iranians.
However, unlike in Arab countries, 25,000 Jews remain today in Iran, making it far the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. They are recognized by the State as a legitimate religious minority and have representation guaranteed in the Majlis.
The history of the exodus of Yemeni Jews is quite different than other Arab countries. During the Ottoman period, Jews could travel freely throughout the empire and several thousand emigrated to Palestine as early as 1880. They left both for religious and economic reasons. During WWII, Ben Gurion viewed the country’s 60,000 Jews as fertile ground for aliyah efforts. But he was stymied by the fact that the Jews themselves did not wish to leave:
“It is a mark of great failure by Zionism that we have not yet eliminated the Yemen exile [diaspora].”
Anger and tension resulting from the 1948 War caused most of the Jewish community to flee, with the permission of the government. Once again, war promoted the interests of the Zionist state.
If we take away anything from the survey above it is that there is no broad generalization we can make about the attitudes of the Arab/Muslim world to Jews living in their midst. Some countries responded to conflict between the minority Jews and majority Muslims better than others. Claiming there is an inherent hatred against Jews that is embedded either within the countries themselves or within Islam is not only wrong-headed, but perilous in terms of ongoing relations between Israel and the Arab world. If Israel is ever to find a place within the Middle East it will have to create an accommodation with its Arab neighbors, as they will with Israel. That cannot happen if pro-Israel Jews advance the notion that there is an existential battle between the two entities that is irresolvable.
I’ve offered these accounts of the status of Jews among some of the major Arab lands to rebut the notion that there was a carefully executed plan by all these states to rid themselves of Jews by violent means or physical expulsion. It was more complicated than that. Of course, there was anti-Semitism that drove Jews out. But in many if not most cases, the hostility toward local Jewish populations was driven as much by the actions of the newly independent Zionist state, as by local anti-Semites themselves. Rachel Shabi writes:
Jewish Agency officials knew that their activities in Palestine could imperil Jews in the Middle East (see the work of Israeli historian Esther Meir-Glitzenste). They chose to carry on with those actions and committed to “rescuing” those Jews if things did take a turn for the worse. If Zionist officials themselves worried about a backlash in the Arab world, how can Israel then be absolved of responsibility for the Jewish exodus from those countries?
She reminds us that despite the negative characterization of life in Arab lands by Zionists, in reality it was quite rich and full:
Middle Eastern Jewry comprises many threads and, compared with European Jewry, has a distinct history, heritage and culture. This legacy, in all its dimensions, should not be hijacked to fuel further rage and acrimony in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Prof. Shenhav says in his Haaretz article about the Iraqi exile, most Jews did not leave due to force. They made the choice themselves. They certainly had good reason to leave, and actions of Arab governments encouraged these decisions. But there was no conspiracy, no “Nakba” as many claim.
Noted Israeli historian, Tom Segev, warns that the decision to leave their homeland had myriad motivations. Simplifying the issue by declaring there was only a single reason is a falsification of the historical record:
“Deciding to emigrate to Israel was often a very personal decision. It was based on the particular circumstances of the individual’s life. They were not all poor, or ‘dwellers in dark caves and smoking pits’. Nor were they always subject to persecution, repression or discrimination in their native lands. They emigrated for a variety of reasons, depending on the country, the time, the community, and the person.”
In contrast to the false claim of an Arab Jewish “Nakba,” Ben Gurion did order such a campaign of forced expulsion before, during, and after the 1948 War. Palmach and rightist militias like Lehi, drove entire villages out of their homes by military force. There were wholesale massacres like Deir Yassin which drove indigenous Palestinians out via mass panic. These massacres were not one-off events like those against Jews in the countries mentioned above. They were planned, coordinated and orchestrated as part of a strategy of driving Palestinians out and bringing foreign Jews in, in order to provide for a majority Jewish state. This they accomplished with a vengeance.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.