Although the story of Palestinian refugees after 1948 is well known and documented, much less is said about the untold narrative of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry. In the years leading up to the declaration of the State of Israel, and immediately following it, many Sephardi Jews were forced to leave their homes, abandon their belongings and leaving behind entire communities they had taken years to build. What follows is their largely untold story.
Until 1948, when the UN endorsed the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews had been living more or less peacefully in the Arab states in the Middle East. When the UN created a partition plan for Palestine, the majority of Israel’s neighboring Arab countries rejected this decision and never recognized Israel’s legitimacy. The story of the Middle East conflict seems to be an everlasting one, overcoming barriers of space and time. There are many possible solutions, yet, to date, none have been successfully implemented. Perhaps a step towards a resolution is seeking to understand the stories of the Palestinian and Jewish refugees. Certainly, the history of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry and its traumatic experiences during the 1940’s has been sorely neglected.
Who are the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews? Most historians and sociologists today agree that it is appropriate to refer to the Jews of Muslim lands as Sephardim despite the fact that this term has been and is still sometimes used to specifically designate the descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. While much has been written about Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern European descent, and especially about the Holocaust, not much is known about the other Jewry – Sephardi Jewry. Its contributions to and historical impact upon civilization has not been properly recorded.
Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews have a long history in countries which are today part of the Muslim-Arab world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, and their presence there long predates the Muslim conquests. As we know, Abraham – the first of three biblical patriarchs – was born in Ur, Babylonia, which we know today as Iraq. Thus it is not Israel, but Iraq, which is the country with the oldest Jewish presence and until quite recently, there were still Jews living in Iraq. Another ancient Middle Eastern Jewish community is that of Egypt. It has been documented that when Moses was born in Egypt, the Jewish community had already been established there for generations (Armstrong, 154).
From the time of the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus in 70 C.E. up until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews have often been defenseless. They have had no country of their own, able to protect them or to flee to. This allowed almost all their host countries, at one point or another, to mistreat them in various types of ways. Yet despite the tragedies which sometimes destroyed entire Sephardi communities, there is much to celebrate and to be proud of in these pre-and post-Islamic communities and it is a pity that the long and rich histories of these communities have largely been ignored. It is our hope that this lacuna will be filled in. Meanwhile, we will try to fill in one particular area, specifically focusing on the fate of these communities in the years leading up to and immediately following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Although millions of Jews lived peacefully in Arab countries before the State of Israel was created, the Arab-Jewish relations have always been strained. During World War II, Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was a key Arab leader. Al-Husseini, who would later become the spiritual leader of the Islamic legions, entertained a close relationship with Adolph Hitler which was strengthened when the Mufti visited the German Consul General in Jerusalem in 1937. Al-Husseini also made a point of visiting the famous Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann when Eichmann visited Palestine. The two sides, together, planned the future annihilation of Jews in Arab lands. In October 5, 1943, Al-Husseini, then in Frankfort, Germany visited the Research Institute on the Jewish Problem where he stated that Arabs and Germans were, “partners and allies in the battle against world Jewry”(Alfassa, 4).
The actions of Al-Husseini prove that Anti-Semitism existed in the Arab world even prior to the founding of the State of Israel. Furthermore, we have well documented persecutions of the Jews in Arab lands throughout the 1940’s during which numerous attacks against the Jews took place. For example, in 1941, one hundred and eighty Jews were brutally murdered in Baghdad by a violent mob numbering over a thousand Iraqi citizens. Another example is that of the Egyptian Jewry that was forced to sign declarations “donating” all Jewish property to Egypt, or later in 1945, when more than one hundred and fifty Jews were murdered in Tripoli. In 1947, in Aleppo, Syria, over two hundred Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues were viciously destroyed. Living as Jewish minorities in Arab lands, these Jews endured discrimination, feared persecution, and found it necessary to hide their identities.
Following the U.N. resolution of 1947 which suggested dividing Palestine into two countries, Palestine and Israel, the situation continued to deteriorate. The Arabs refused to accept the U.N. recommendation, and when Israel declared the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, seven armies from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia attacked Israel, which was to become the first Arab-Israeli war. Moreover, in their native Muslim countries, persecution of Jews became rampant. Muslims around the world directed their hostility to the Jewish State against the Jewish communities living in their midst. In some places, public executions became more and more frequent. As the Arab-Israeli conflict developed, Arab governments also turned on their Jewish populations. These governments often instituted drastically anti-Jewish measures such as confiscation of passports, freezing of bank accounts, arbitrary arrests, and summary executions. These measures made life unbearable for local Jews. As persecution of Jews increased in the years prior to their exodus, as noted above, their material well-being was adversely affected. Jews were excluded from certain educational institutions and professions, and business permits critical to them were not renewed. These restrictions depleted their wealth. Their homes and other properties were more often than not confiscated; when they were not, they still had to be left behind since the Jews were rarely allowed to sell them. When they were allowed to sell, they had no choice but to accept ridiculously low prices offered to them by Muslims who were well aware that the Jews had no other choice but to leave. The necessity of fleeing was made very apparent in 1947 when, during a UN session about the creation of a Jewish State, Egypt’s delegate to the UN openly predicted that the creation of this Jewish state would endanger the lives of the million Jews living in Muslim lands. Add to all of this the fact that upon leaving, the Jews were often allowed to take with them only ludicrously small amounts of money, and very few of their possessions. This necessary flight also led to the abandonment of old, priceless synagogues, homes, community centers, schools, hospitals, businesses, shops and land. Perhaps most painful for the Jews was leaving behind the cemeteries where their ancestors had been buried for thousands of years, and on which parks, roads and highways were now being built. The marble gravestones were vandalized and used to build homes, hotels, or public latrines.
However, now for the first time in 2,000 years, the Jews had a country of their own to flee to. Consequently, when Jews realized that the time had come for them to leave their host countries, the vast majority of them chose to go to Israel. Thus, while many Arabs left Palestine following the declaration of the Jewish state, many Jews left their homes in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bukhara, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia and Yemen. Most if not all these communities were refugees whom suffered a three-fold loss. They lost their identity, their way of life which simply ceased to exist, and their material possessions. Three-thousand-year-old Jewish communities were destroyed. Nearly one million Jews in Arab lands lost their homes and the losses all these Jews sustained have never been addressed by the United Nations or any other world power. These Jews are refugees as surely as the Palestinians are.
It is true that there will be no peace in the Middle East without resolving the refugee problem. However, it must be recognized that the refugee problem is not one sided. The question of the Palestinian refugees is not being debated but the fact that the story of Jewish refugees is being neglected is a big part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While the State of Israel recognizes its refugee counterpart, the Palestinian people do not or for that matter not even aware of Jews from Arab lands status.
In summary, although their plight is often overlooked, many Sephardi Jewish refugees were created during and after Israel’s War of Independence. Jews from Arab lands sustained incredible losses in a single generation. The financial losses were in the billions, but beyond that, irreparable damage was done to an entire civilization. Ancient Jewish communities which could trace their history back for three thousand years were no more.
Not only should we recall the narrative of the Jews from Arab lands on November 30th. Rather every day we should remember the plight of the 850,000+ Jewish refugees from Arab countries and pass on their enriched Judaism and way of life from the past and bring it forward to future. The destruction of their civilization is a story that has yet to be properly told and this article is a step in that direction.
Alfassa, Shelomo (2010). “The Nazi-Muslim Persecutions and the Forced Exodus of Arab Jews”, National Council of Young Israel’s viewpoint fall, 2-8.
Ada, Aharoni (2009). “The Forced Migration of Jews from Arab Countries and Peace.
The Neaman Institute Israel, Institute of Technology- Technion, Haifa, 1-6.
Colin, Shindler (2008). A history of modern Israel. Cambridge University Press. p. 63.
Herf, Jeffrey (2006). “The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust, Harvard Belknap, 390.
Zabludoff, Sidney (2008). “The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Rhetoric vs. Reality”, Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1–2.