Surrounding Cairo’s Tahrir Square, houses confiscated from Jewish families host Egypt’s top foreign embassies. To this day, ambassadors from Germany, Switzerland, and the United States work or live in homes expropriated from Jews after 1948, while other formerly Jewish-owned homes became the Great Library of Cairo and government offices.
The expulsion of 850,000 mostly Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) and Sephardic Jews from Arab and Muslim countries took place before, during, and after the Holocaust. As nationalist Arab leaders aligned with Nazi Germany in the name of oil and expelling the British, Jewish communities were targeted for pauperization, expulsion, and murder.
Despite the region’s centrality to Jewish history, the narratives of Middle Eastern Jews have long been considered “supplemental” in collective Jewish memory, as well as that of the rest of the world. One of several reasons for the marginalization of their accounts is that Mizrahi Jews developed different ways of telling their stories, according to historian and journalist Edwin Black.
“The Sephardic and Mizrahi communities have always been insular,” Black told The Times of Israel. “At the same time, in most major Jewish organizations our collective memory is an Ashkenazic collective memory.”
In 2014, Black worked with Israeli and Diaspora Jewish officials to implement an annual observance on November 30 commemorating the expulsion of Jews from the region. The remembrance is called Yom HaGirush, or Day of the Expulsion, and awareness of the commemoration is slowly spreading.
“I take a more inclusive approach when it comes to looking at what happened to the Jewish people during World War II and after,” said Black, who wrote the book “The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust.” Added Black, “Hitler’s war against the Jews was global.”
Jews were an enduring presence in the Middle East and North Africa before the advent of Islam and Arabian conquests, yet today fewer than 4,000 Jews live in the region. This contrasts with post-Holocaust Europe, where 1.4 million Jews currently reside. So much for the Moroccan proverb, “A market without Jews is like bread without salt.”
By all accounts, the infiltration of Nazi leaders and policies into the Middle East was a tipping point in the history of the region’s Jews. Beginning with Iraq’s notorious Farhud pogrom on June 1–2, 1941, Jews in Iraq and elsewhere faced intensified persecution akin to what took place in pre-Holocaust Nazi Germany as leaders such as Iraqi prime minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani sought to emulate Hitler’s tactics.
During the two-day Farhud in Baghdad and other Jewish population centers in Iraq, Jewish homes were marked so mobs could destroy them. In the process, 180 Jews were recorded as murdered. Similar to Kristallnacht in Germany and Nazi-occupied lands, shops and religious buildings were looted and set ablaze.
The word “Farhud” means “violent dispossession” in Arabic, the prophetic name given to the pogrom by Iraqi citizens. About 135,000 Jews lived in Iraq in 1941, but almost the entire community relocated to Israel within a decade of the pogrom.
“The Farhud was a turning point because it was the first step in this Jewish community’s dispossession,” said Black.
‘Torn brutally from their homes and native lands’
The Holocaust directly reached Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, as well as Lebanon and Syria, through the Vichy France regime. In German and French documents, those lands were considered part of Europe for the purposes of the genocide.
For example, after the Nazis invaded Tunisia, some 5,000 Jewish men were sent to forced labor camps. In France, 160 Tunisian Jews were deported to the death camps. Despite the genocide’s reach into Tunisia, the country was home to the region’s largest Jewish community outside Israel until the 1970s.
After Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945, the persecution of Middle Eastern Jews in no way slowed down. On the contrary, Arab and Muslim governments accelerated the persecution of their ancient Jewish communities, confiscating assets and passing restrictive measures. In Yemen, 82 Jews were murdered and the ancient Jewish quarter of Aden was burned to the ground in 1947.
“This is the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews, torn brutally from their homes and native lands,” wrote historian Nathan Weinstock in the preface to his book, “A Very Long Presence: How the Arab World Lost Its Jews,” originally published in French.
“Yet this [expulsion] remains unknown and it has been denied for a lengthy period,” wrote Weinstock.
At the United Nations in 1947, Arab leaders warned what Jews in their countries would face if a Jewish state were declared in Palestine.
“The proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in Muslim countries,” said Heykal Pasha of Egypt’s delegation. The representative said the creation of a Jewish state would lead to antisemitism in Arab countries “even more difficult to root out than the antisemitism which the Allies were trying to eradicate in Germany.”
‘Jews in grave danger in all Muslim lands’
On the eve of the UN partition plan vote, Iraqi foreign minister Fadil Jamali warned that “masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab countries will greatly deteriorate.”
Throughout 1948, Arab and Muslim leaders openly emulated each other — as well as the defeated Nazi Germany — in their persecution of Jewish communities.
According to a May 1948 front page headline in The New York Times, “Jews in grave danger in all Muslim lands. Nine-hundred thousand in Africa and Asia face wrath of their foes.”
After the establishment of Israel, the bank accounts of Iraqi Jews were frozen so “Zionist ambitions in Palestine” could not be funded, while Jews suspected of Zionist activities were put in prison. In Egypt, hundreds of Jewish families were “banished and dispossessed,” and terrorists murdered 70 Jews in a series of bombings in Cairo.
The specific anti-Jewish measures and decrees varied by country, as was the case in Europe during the Holocaust. But documents prove the campaign was coordinated by the Arab League, which helpfully provided templates for member states to pass new anti-Jewish measures.
In 1948, the UN’s Palestine Commission reported to the Security Council about “powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, [who] are defying the resolution of the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein.”
The amount of land confiscated from Jews forced to flee Arab and Muslim countries amounted to 40,000 square miles, or five times the size of Israel in 1948. Recent estimates value the pan-Arab confiscations as worth $250 billion, while an Israeli law passed in 2010 says any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal must include compensation for those assets.
‘Left in the shadows’
Although the process of liquidating the region’s Jewish communities took three decades, the predictions made by Fadil Jamali and Heykal Pasha in 1947 proved accurate. Through a combination of persecution, pauperization, and periodic mob violence, more than 99% of the region’s Jews fled by the 1970s.
After Israel’s War of Independence, the UN set up a committee — called UNRWA — to “support the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees.” While more than 200 resolutions have been passed regarding Palestinian refugees, the UN has yet to acknowledge the Middle Eastern Jews who fled or were expelled from their homes.
Earlier this year, in Jerusalem, a statue of Yemenite Jews on their way to Israel was unveiled to commemorate the “Departure and Expulsion” of “over 850,000 Jews [who] were forced from Arab Lands and Iran,” as per the small monument’s inscription.
According to Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, the expulsion of Middle Eastern Jews was “a Jewish Nakba,” or catastrophe, similar to how Palestinians describe Israel’s War of Independence.
“During those same years [the 1940s], there was a long line of slaughters, of pogroms, or property confiscation and deportations against Jews in Islamic countries,” wrote Yemini, who was born in Tel Aviv to Yemenite Jewish parents.
“The war against the fledgling Jewish state ended in resounding defeat,” wrote Yemini. “But among those who paid the price were the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Arab countries. Take note, not all were expelled; but those who weren’t knew, too, that their time was up.”
In contrast to the virtual absence of Jews in today’s Arab and Muslim world, the 160,000 Arabs who remained in Palestine after 1948 grew into today’s community of 1,900,000 Arab Israeli citizens of the Jewish state.
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