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Op-Ed: Commemorating the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries

In honor of Jewish Refugee Day, Rachel Avraham recalled the tragic plight experienced by the approximately one million Jews who were either expelled or compelled to leave the Arab countries following a wave of persecutions, pogroms, massacres, rapes, and lootings of Jewish property.
Yemenite Jewish refugees Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Today, the State of Israel is commemorating Jewish Refugee Day, where we remember the sad plight of Jews that were expelled and/or compelled to leave the Arab countries following a wave of pogroms, massacres, lootings and rapes.  This is the second year that the State of Israel has commemorated a special day in honor of the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries.  In 2014, the Knesset passed a law designating November 30 as Jewish Refugee Day and the law was implemented starting in June 2014.  

According to I24 News, November 30 was designed to be Jewish Refugee Day since the UN Partition Plan was approved on November 29, 1947, which is an act that prompted the Arab states to begin a wave of oppression against their Jewish citizens that forced them to live behind lands that they have been living in since antiquity.  In 1945, around one million Jews lived in Jewish communities residing in countries like Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen.  Many of these communities predated Islam.

Jews in Arab states greatly contributed towards their societies. Sasson Heskel, a Baghdadi Jew, was an Iraqi Finance Minister in the 19th century.  The Iraqi Jewish community helped to develop Iraq’s postal and judicial system in addition to introducing the olive tree into the country.  An Egyptian Jew named Murad Bey helped draft the Egyptian Constitution in the 1930’s.  Layla Murad, also an Egyptian Jew, was the great diva of Arabic music during the mid-1900’s. She was a household name within Egypt.   Furthermore, nearly everyone in the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra was Jewish.   Yemenite Jews are also noted for their musical abilities; a fact demonstrated by the fact that numerous Yemenite Jewish musicians have been successful on Eurovision and played a major role in contemporary Israeli music.  

However, in the days leading up to Israel’s independence in 1948, many Arab states behaved oppressive towards their Jewish citizens, who had lived beside Arabs since antiquity. From 1947 through 1948, Jews in the Arab Middle East were systematically persecuted with anti-Jewish pogroms erupting, Jewish people being massacred and raped, and Jewish property being confiscated. The Iraqi government declared that Zionism was a capital offense; the Syrian government froze Jewish bank accounts; a bomb was set off in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo resulted in the death of 70 Jews; and a pogrom in Aden led to the death of 80 Jews as well as the destruction of countless Jewish homes. 

Mazal Elijah, a Jewish refugee from Iraq, told the Jewish Press: “Right around Israel’s declaration of independence, continuous massacres against Jews occurred in Iraq and during these massacres, Arabs broke into Jews homes, stole whatever they wanted, and then they flooded the homes, so that Jews would not be able to live there anymore.  Furthermore, Iraqi Jewish women used to make preserved foods so that certain types of vegetables would be available in the winter months.  The Arab thieves would eat up all of the preserves that the Iraqi Jewish women worked very hard to prepare, thus leaving Iraqi Jewish families with nothing.  Rapes occurred all the time and if an Arab barged into your home and demanded to marry your daughter, it was impossible to refuse them.”   

Levana Zamir, a Jewish refugee from Egypt, reported that 10 Egyptian Army officers came to her family home the day that Israel was declared to be a state.  Her uncle was arrested and taken to prison under the charge of being a Zionist and was forced to remain there a year and a half: “They confiscated our businesses. After three months, they had an auction.  My family had one of the biggest printing businesses in Cairo.   And suddenly, we had nothing. They came one day and did an auction of my house.  I started to cry when I saw them selling my piano. They told us that if we want to be free, we have to leave Egypt.   We left our home in the middle of the night like thieves.”  

Flora Cohen, a Jewish refugee from Morocco, told the Jewish Press: “It was a common practice in Morocco for some Muslims to abduct young virgin Jewish girls, forcefully convert them to Islam and to make them marry Muslims.”  She stated that one of her relatives suffered this fate.  In addition, both her grandfather and his brother were murdered by Arabs, leaving her grandmother a widow with two children: “In June 1948, bloody riots erupted in Oujda and Djerada, resulting in the death of 44 Moroccan Jews while many more were wounded. An unofficial boycott was initiated against the Moroccan Jewish community that same year.”

Nevertheless, despite all of this, Cohen insisted that the situation was still tolerable as long as the French were still controlling Morocco.  However, Cohen stressed that once the Moroccan people rose up against the French, the situation dramatically deteriorated for the Jews: “Terrorism was widespread within the country and Jews were also the victims of such violence not just the French since the Jews supported the French.” She professed that her brother was almost murdered by Arabs and it was soon after this incident that her entire family moved to Israel.  

JIMENA founder Joseph Abdel Wahed asserted that across the Arab world, “Hundreds were killed, maimed, women were raped and Jewish property was looted and burned.  In Cairo and other Arab capital cities, crowds chanted ‘Al yehud Kelab el Arab/the Jews are the dogs of the Arabs’ and ‘Ebdah el Yehud/Slaughter the Jews.’  It was like hell in Dante’s inferno.”  However, after the dust of Israel’s 1948 war had settled, the situation did not improve.    In 1956, the Egyptian government used the Sinai Campaign as a pretext to expel and confiscate the property of 25,000 Jews while an additional 1,000 were held in detention camps.  In November 1956, the Egyptian government declared “all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state,” promising to expel them.  In the end, the Jews of Libya, Iraq, Egypt and a number of other countries were formerly expelled while many others were compelled to leave due to the wave of pogroms their communities suffered from. 

As Edy Cohen wrote in Yedioth Achronot, "Most of you will be surprised by this but we Jews have a Nakba too and it's a major Nakba. It's a Nakba which is marked on November 30, when we commemorate the expulsion and uprooting of about one million Jews during the 20th century from their homeland in the Arab and Muslim world.”  Finally, the UN is also commemorating the plight of Jews from Arab countries and it is time for the international community to consider their fate whenever they make demands from the State of Israel.   As Ben Gad noted, there are more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than Palestinian refugees and the property that they left behind is worth five times more than the property the Palestinians possessed.   


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