Suzan Quitaz
Former Field Producer at Alaraby Television Network

How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight

It is hard to believe that just until seven decades ago, Baghdad was amongst the most Jewish cities in the world and that by early 20th century 40% of Baghdad’s population were Jews. Today the numbers of Jews in Iraq is counted on the fingers of one hand.

Iraq, the biblical Mesopotamia, is almost as rich in Jewish history and landmarks as the Land of Israel and once a home of a vibrant Jewish community. Here in the land of Tigris and Euphrates Abraham first discovered the one God, and the Babylonian Talmud was written and its home to the Biblical prophet Ezekeil’s Tomb.

I ask Lyn Julius, the author of “Uprooted” what left of Jewish history and heritage in Iraq, she replies “very little is left. Jewish shrines have been converted to mosques, cemeteries built over and Jewish property has been taken over or has crumbled to dust”.

Jews continuously lived in Middle East and Norther Africa for almost 3,000 years. By 1948, more than 140,000 Jews lived in Algeria and in neighboring Libya 38,000, today there are none. Morocco, once the home to more than 265,000 Jews, today the number is less than 2,000.

By 1945, 856,000 Jews lived in the Arab world, today more than 95% of them no longer live there, and the few thousands who remained almost all of them live in Morocco, 2,000, Tunisia about 1,000 and, in Iran, less than 8,000 and most of them are prevented to leave.  As the historian Nathan Weinstock has observed, not even the Jews of 1939 Germany had been so thoroughly “ethnically cleansed” as the Jews of the Arab-Muslim world.

Who are the Jews from the Arab world? What were their relations with Arab Muslims like? What made them leave countries where they had lived in for three millenniums? Why reams have been written about the plight of Palestinian refugees and the Arab-Israeli conflict but almost nothing about the Jews who fled their homes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria and the rest of the Arab-Muslim world?

Today, as Israel celebrates its 75 anniversary, more than half of its Jewish population is descended from Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim land. Their plight and suffering is totally excluded in Arab and international media. When and if they are mentioned, they are either portrayed as victims of Zionism or they left of their own free will.

Lyn Julius in her well-written detailed book “Uprooted”says “Jews escaped the gallows of Iraq, the torture of Egyptian prisons, violence and political and economic strangulation (…) Jews were stripped of their citizenship in Iraq and permitted to leave with 50 dinnars ($80 today), one suit, a wedding ring, cherished bracelet or a watch and one suitcase (…) and a stamp on their passports marked with the words: ‘one way – no return’”.

“Uprooted” undertakes to answer all these questions and provide the reader with knowledge about Jewish life and history in the Arab world. The book exposes the myth of ‘they had it good’ and lived in a peaceful coexistence. It highlights on the lower status of Jews as dhimmis and focuses on abuse by authorities and the Arab society.  Though it equally acknowledges there were times when Jews flourished and were appointed to governmental posts, however, they were not allowed to have political power or carry arms. Regard­ing mod­ern times, Julius highlights the impact of Nazi Germany on the Arab world; the rise of Arab nationalism in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon and the Jew­ish suf­fer­ing. She also deals with Arab anti­semitism and the impact of Arab nation­al­ism on the Jews which was the driving factor of their mass exodus. In the case of Iraq, the most lethal nationalism took place, driving by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, and Palestinians who immigrated to Iraq in early 1930s.

“Uprooted” is a culmination of 10 years of research. The text is rich in details providing the readers with in-depth details and insights of Jewish life in the region long before Islam and its conquest and expansion. It uncover painful memories of 3000 years of Jewish heritage facing erasure: destruction of ancient synagogues in Libya in 1860s; the falsifying of Jewish religious history and converting Jewish shrines into mosques, e.g. the Tomb of Ezekiel at Kifl, in Iraq, now under Shia religious control. Now embellished with Quranic inscriptions and its unique Hebrew inscriptions are in serious danger.

“Uprooted” also details horrendous atrocities and massacres committed by Arab Muslims towards their Jewish neighbors and this long before the birth of the Zionist movement or a single Palestinian fled due to the creation of Israel. Damascus Blood-Libel 1840 and the false accusation that Jews murdered non-Jewish children in order to use their blood to bake Matzah bread. The Casablanca massacre of 1907; the 1912 Fez pogrom; the anti-Jewish riots in Tunisia in 1917; the Algeria pogrom of 1934; violence and disturbances in Rabat and Oujda in Morocco in 1933, 1934 and 1938. The pro-Nazi Farhud in Iraq in 1941 and the 1945 street riots in Egypt and Libya that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Jews.

Julius tells me that her main motivation is to tell the truth about the plight of Jews from the Arab countries and debunk the myths that have been allowed to take during decades of silence, denial, lies and omissions. She continue saying its pitifully little is known about the subject of Jews from Arab countries and her own family background, both her parents were Jews from Iraq inspired her to revive the past. “Many deny that Jews ever existed in Arab countries, or they distort their history to make it seem that Jews left of their own free will, or were made to leave by ‘the Zionists’ (…) The Jewish community were deeply rooted and predated the Islamic conquest and the Arab invasion by 1,000 years. The word ‘uprooted’ conveys the impression that they were displaced suddenly and forcibly”.

“Uprooted” attempts to give the key facts and causes of the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries in the 20th century and the destruction of their communities. The ethnic cleansing was almost total. The book also tries to situate the exodus in the context of the oppression and expulsion of all minorities – anyone who is perceived as different.

Julius hopes everybody will read, adding many Jews are ignorant of the issue. Many Arabs are in denial, and western media, public opinion and politicians have a lopsided view of the history. To my question about ‘what’s the difference between 1940s and today’s antisemitic discourse in the Arab street’, she replies “The anti-Semitic discourse and state-sanctioned persecution was promoted by Arab League states in the 1940s. There was also a Nazi-inspired nationalism which defined the Jews as outsiders who deserved no place in independent Arab states. While some Arab governments have signed the Abraham Accords and chosen the path of normalization with Jews and Israel, others remain staunchly hostile: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority/Hamas. Today’s anti-Semitic discourse in the Arab street is the product of decades of incitement; but nowadays the antisemitism also has a religious dimension, promoted by Islamists and Iran”.

Is there a connection between being an Anti-Israel and Antisemitism?. Julius says “I find it ironic that it was Arab states who conflated Jews and Zionists in the first place. If there was no evidence that a Jew was a Zionist they fabricated it, even executing Jews on trumped -up charges in Iraq. The intellectuals make a false distinction – nobody has ever asked a Jew his political opinions before attacking him. Today the vast majority of Jews today support Israel as a Jewish state, so anti-Zionism is antisemitism. There is certainly a link between anti-Israel incitement and anti-Semitic attacks”

About the Author
Suzan Quitaz, a Kurdish-Swedish journalist and researcher on Middle Eastern affairs. Have undertaken freelance research and writing assignments for several media outlets, including Al Majalla a Saudi current affairs magazine, The New Arab, The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Worked as a freelance producer on a number of documentaries for Al Jazeera Channel and previously worked as a producer & researcher at Alaraby Television Network (2014 to 2020)
Related Topics
Related Posts