Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2003 / 1 Adar I, 5763

The forgotten expulsion

By Debbie Maimon

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Some of today's popular buzzwords and catchphrases about Middle East issues have succeeded in turning history on his head.

"Right of return;" "the rights of Palestinian refugees;" "Israel is in violation of Security Council Resolution 242;" "International law is on the side of the Palestinians." These are just a few examples of propaganda tricks that have succeeded in twisting around historical truths in the public mind, even among multitudes of Jews.

A new coalition, "Justice For Jews From Arab Countries" may be instrumental in exposing these popular misconceptions and outright lies.

Launched by a coalition of Jewish organizations a few months ago, and chaired by former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the organization has been quietly chipping away at the layers of ignorance surrounding contemporary Jewish History in the Middle East.

Established by the Conference of Presidents, the American Sefardi Organization and the World Jewish Congress, the overall aim of the new coalition is to bring justice to the nearly 1 million Jews expelled from Arab countries in 1948 following Israel's formation, and to insure that the rights of these Jewish refugees be recognized on the international agenda.

"At present, the world agenda is concerned, one-sidedly, with accommodating Palestinian demands for compensation from Israel for its refugee problem, and with the so-called Palestinian right of return," said Holbrooke. "The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has been swept under the rug --- or you might say the 'Persian carpet.'"

One of the aims of the group, Holbrooke said, was to influence future peace talks in the Mideast by publicizing little known -- or deliberately ignored -- historical truths.

"These truths must be taken into consideration in any internationally- sponsored settlement involving compensation to Palestinian refugees," he said.

Although the major news media has given this group scant attention, its very creation has opened a window of opportunity for illuminating little known Middle East History in this country, at both the grassroots and the academic level.


A plethora of news and magazine articles, workshops and a program of lectures offered by Jewish refugees from Arab countries (now authors, historians and academics) under the new group's sponsorship, have impacted thousands of people who were stunned to learn of the other side of the refugee coin --- the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in 1948.

All over the Arab world Jews faced persecution, anti-Semitic attacks and expulsion-in some cases, years before the UN partition plan that led to the first Arab war of aggression- and it is finally coming to light.

In Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunis, the story was the same: Arab-incited pogroms, lynchings and massacres forced the Jews to flee for their lives. Communities that were more than 2,000 years old were uprooted, most of them airlifted or moved to Israel. Numerous Arab governments evicted their Jewish populations as part of a campaign of expulsion that was explicitly advocated by the political leadership of the Palestinian Arabs starting in the early 1940s.

"This leadership, led by Hajj Amin el-Hussayni, met and conspired with Adolf Hitler to annihilate the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa," reported the Jerusalem Post in a special report on the history of the "forgotten exodus." During the Palestine Partition debate at the United Nations in November 1947, a number of Arab delegates (Egyptian, Iraqi and Palestinian) issued violent threats against the indigenous Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on November 14, 1947, just five days before that body voted on the Partition Plan for Palestine, Heykal Pasha, the Egyptian delegate, warned that:

"The proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries. Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more diffi-cult to root out than that of Nazism. If the UN decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for the massacre of a large number of Jews.

"If a Jewish state were established ... riots would break out in Palestine, [and] would spread through all the Arab states, [leading] to a war between two races."

Later, Iraq's foreign minister Fadil Jamali declared at the UN that Heykal Pasha had been speaking not just on behalf of Egypt, but for all the Arab states.

The Partition Plan was accepted by the Jews, but the Arabs states rejected it. Keeping their word, as Heykal Pasha predicted, a coordinated attack against Israel was launched on May 15, 1948. The crushing defeat of the Arab armies stoked the fires of hatred throughout the Arab world. This hastened the final liquidation of the Arab Jewish communities, be it through economic strangulation, pogroms or political persecution. The Arab leaders' threats were carried out in the weeks and months after the 1947 Partition vote, as hundreds of Jews in Arab lands were massacred in government-organized rioting, leaving thousands injured and millions of dollars in Jewish property destroyed. During the expulsions of the Jews, the Arab governments-most notably Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria- confiscated property from the fleeing Jews worth tens of billions in today's dollars.

Today, 99% of these ancient Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa no longer exist. Arab states destroyed ancient Jewish communities that had existed for 2,700 years- predating the 7th century advent of Islam by over a thousand years- and created a refugee population of almost one million people.

A land-by-land description of what actually happened to the Jews explains why they fled:


The Iraqi regime in those days mirrored the policies of today's regime in its vicious anti-Semitism. Jews were publicly hanged in the streets of Baghdad on the charge of "Zionist" activities.

The persecution of the Jewish community began with the Farhud, a pogrom which took place seven years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The timing of the Farhud, in which mobs killed 150 Jews, injured nearly 1,000 and caused $3 million damage, is of particular significance to historians. It indicates that anti-Jewish measures were the result of pro-Nazi sentiment and not, as Arab leaders have subsequently claimed, the fallout from Israel's establishment or actions.

The Farhud was followed by outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting from 1946-49, and following Israel's War of Independence, Jews were barred altogether from leaving the country.

In 1950, the government voted to permit Jews to resume emigration, then passed a law revoking the citizenship of any Jew who chose to do so. In March 1951, Jewish assets were frozen; by May, more than 110,000 Jews had been ferried out by Israel in Operation Ezra and Nechemiah.

Emigrants were permitted to take with them only $140 per adult; all of their enormous remaining assets and property were confiscated. Iraq's Jewish community currently numbers fewer than 100 persons, less than 0.1 percent of the community's 1948 population.


The Syrian Jewish community dates back to Biblical times. Anti-Jewish pogroms erupted in Aleppo in 1947. All local synagogues were destroyed, and 7,000 of the town's 10,000 Jews fled in terror.

The government then enacted legislation to freeze Jewish bank accounts and confiscate property. By the 1950s, just 5,000 remained in the country, subjected to harsh decrees: They were banned from emigrating, selling their property, or working in government offices, and were compelled to carry special identification cards.


In Egypt, too, Jews were expelled and their property taken. Physical and economic pressure - highlighted by the nationalization of Jewish property in the Generals' coup in 1956-57 - encouraged them to flee. From 75,000 the community now numbers only 200 - and some estimate the government's plunder of their assets totals $2.5 billion.


Attacking Jews, looting their property, and limiting them to the most demeaning of positions were commonplace. But after Israel's successful defense in the 1948 war, mobs ram-paged, sending the Jews fleeing for survival and forfeiting their property to the state. Israel's Operation Magic Carpet, in 1949, brought some 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.


The 2,000-year-old Jewish community of Libya, which numbered almost 60,000 by the 1940s, was the target of mass anti-Jewish violence in November, 1945. In Tripoli alone, 120 Jews were massacred and over 500 wounded, while 2,000 more were made homeless, and synagogues were torched. By the early 1950s, more than 40,000 Libyan Jews had emigrated.

The persecutions and massacres in Libya that drove out the Jewish population were brought to life last month before a Yale University audience by Gina Waldman, as she told how she and her family, along with about 40,000 other Jews, were forced to flee their homes in Libya, where many had roots going back thousands of years. In 1948, just three years after the massacre of 120 Jews in Tripoli, she recount-ed, 280 Jewish houses were destroyed in a mass riot. In 1963, Jews were forbidden to hold public office or vote in elections. By 1967, only 6,000 Jews remained.

Riots broke out in reaction to the 1967 war between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Synagogues, shops and homes were looted and burned. Hundreds of Jews were killed. Waldman recalled how her father's friendship with a government official allowed for her family to receive travel documents permitting them to emigrate. Leaving every-thing behind, including their home, their clothes, and all of their possessions besides $20, they boarded a bus to the Tripoli airport - only to be sabotaged by the terrorist bus driver intent on blowing up the bus and all of the Jews with-in. "Waldman choked up and lost her voice, remembering the terror of being chased from her home to an almost certain death," the Yale Daily News reported. "The audience listened to her story, stunned. She and her family were finally saved by a friend who rescued the passengers of the bus and safely transported them to the airport, where they boarded planes for Israel."


After the French left Algeria, the authorities issued a host of anti-Jewish decrees. Nearly all of Algeria's 160,000 Jews fled the country. All but one of its synagogues were seized and turned into mosques.


After massacres in 1948, more than one-seventh of the 350,000 Jews of Morocco fled in terror. During the 1950s, there was violence against the remaining communities in Casablanca, Rabat and Oujda. The majority of Moroccan Jewry emigrated during the years to follow.


A thriving community of more than 100,000 Jews in Tunisia has dwindled to about 2,000 - about half of them on the island of Djerba.

Arab hatred of Israel and of Jews thus produced not one, but two refugee populations: Arabs from Palestine and Jews indigenous to countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

What transpired in effect, was an exchange of populations. But, while the Jewish refugees were integrated into Israel, the Palestinians were forced into perpetual refugee status by the Arab countries to be used as political pawns against Israel.

Although Israel absorbed the masses of Jews fleeing their Arab homelands, these Jews faced discrimination from the European elite in Israel and lived in rough camps of tents and tin shacks. The towns that grew around those camps remain Israel's poorest neighborhoods.

"We have struggled to convince the world that there is another side to the refugee coin in this region," says Oved Ben-Ozair, chairman of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a group based in Tel Aviv. "But the world has turned a deaf ear to us."

The world did such a good job of ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Jewish victims of Arab persecution, that a majority of American and European Jews today are them-selves poorly informed about the history of these lost communities. Ben-Ozair's request that the international community recognize their plight, and integrate full compensation of their lost property as part of a final Middle East peace agreement, has been met with astonishment, disbelief and denial.


Ironically, it was President Clinton, who, in an interview with Israeli television a few months before leaving office, lent White House legitimacy to these claims. Clinton said the failed Camp David summit at least brought good news for the 600,000 Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries to escape Arab hostility.

Palestinian negotiators agreed that these Jewish refugees should be compensated (by an international fund) for the property they were forced to leave behind, he said.

In an address marking the formation of the new Justice For Jews group, Ambassador Holbrooke read quotes by both Presidents Carter and Clinton, both acknowledging the rights of Jewish refugees on an equal standing with Arabs. "There is some interest ... on both sides in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel," Clinton said in a July 2000 statement. "Israel is full of Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries, who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own homelands."


One basis for the group's diplomatic efforts will be the much-quoted UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in 1967, which proposed to settle the refugee problem -without specifying which refugees. Holbrooke alluded to this resolution in his address, reminding his listeners that then-Secretary General U Thant noted that the refugee problem referred to in Resolution 242 was inclusive of all refugees, be they Arabs or Jews.

The resolution called upon the government of Israel "to facilitate the return of those inhabitants [of the areas where military operations have taken place] who have fled the areas since the outbreak of hostilities."

The Resolution does not speak of a "right" of return and, like most Security Council resolutions, it is in the nature of a recommendation.

There is no basis for the Arab claim that Resolution 242 incorporates the solution recommended by General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, which "recommends" that the refugees be permitted to return.

More to the point, that recommendation is subject to a key condition- that the refugee wishes to live at peace with his neighbors. The violence that erupted in September 2000, steadily escalating in volume and barbarity until it has claimed over 700 Israeli lives, demolished any hope for a peaceful co-existence between Israelis and masses of returning Palestinian refugees.

According to international law expert Stig Jagerskiold, quoted by Prof. Ruth Lapidoth, "There was no intention here to address the claims of masses of people who have been displaced as a by-product of war or by political transfers of territory or population, such as the relocation of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe during and after the Second World War, the flight of the Palestinians from what became Israel, or the movement of Jews from the Arab countries."

One should also take note that under the UN Charter the provision concerning the refugees is but one element of the Resolution that urged "a final settlement of all questions outstanding between the parties."

The Arab states, however, like to insist on the resolution of the refugee issue independently of all other provisions. "Leaders of Arab and European governments, banging their spoons on their highchairs," writes the National Review, "mindlessly echo this demand, although it makes a mockery of the resolution's intent, and negates all logic and fairness."

"We want to make sure that every time the issue of refugees is discussed within the context of the Middle East peace process, the rights of former Jewish refugees will also be addressed," said Stanley Urman, coordinator of Jews For Justice From Arab Countries.

"We're saying this issue must be dealt with appropriately, both as a matter of law and a matter of equity."

Former ambassador Holbrooke emphasized the importance of keeping the issue on the front burner. Without educating the public, he said, the scope of the Jewish expulsion from Arab states might be lost to posterity- or fall victim to historical revisionism.

"Anyone who knows history knows there were great Jewish communities in Arab countries," he said. "What people don't know is that these people were driven out, and communities were lost forever."

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Debbie Maimon is a reporter for Yated Ne'eman. Comment by clicking here.

© 2003, Yated Ne'eman