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The Silent Refugees: Jews from Arab Countries

Roumani, Maurice M.

Mediterranean Quarterly, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 2003, pp.

41-77 (Article)
Published by Duke University Press

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The Silent Refugees: Jews from Arab Countries

Maurice M. Roumani

Before the war on Iraq was launched in April 2003, two developments in the
Middle East seemed to have set the stage for more conflict and bloodshed
that would threaten to engulf the world. The first was the rising tide of terror
against Israel, and more recently against Western targets. The second was
the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority on the repatriation of Palestinian refugees that brought an end to the peace negotiations at Camp David
and Taba, which had held a promise for the settlement of the PalestinianIsraeli conflict.
The Forces behind the Escalation of Violence
If we look closely at both factors, we can see that they are intertwined. The
Palestinian intifadah (uprising), with its terror and suicide bombers, was
used to pressure Israel into evacuating the West Bank and the occupied territories taken in the 1967 war. But whereas the intifadah seemed to have the
limited aim of removing the settlers from the occupied territories, the return
of the Palestinian refugees to what once was their home has broader implications. It is intended to undermine the character of the Israeli state from
within and reduce its Jewish inhabitants to a minority, a status known all too
well to Jews, especially those who hailed from Arab countries.
The expulsion of those Jews from Arab countries and their resettlement in
Maurice M. Roumani, born in Libya, is a senior lecturer on political science and the Middle East
at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, where he is also founder and director of the J. R.
Elyachar Center for the Study of Sephardi Heritage. Roumani was the first secretary-general of the
World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC). He has written extensively on Jews from
Arab countries and their integration into Israel.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

the newly established state of Israel changed their inferior minority status to
that of citizens with equal rights in a democratic nation. Thus, the present
crisis looks like an orchestrated policy, the aim of which is to expel Jews
from the Middle East, as the Europeans had expelled them before. These
two factors are interrelated in another way, in that they assume that Israel, or
more accurately, Jews, through Western ties and interests have robbed the
Arabs of their territory. For the Arabs, this is not a mere loss of territory but
rather an affront to Islam and its teaching. The Arabs experienced similar
feelings when Napoleons army defeated their armies on the shores of
Alexandria in 1798. The trauma was so severe that it prompted deep soulsearching and new reforms within Islam.
In the case of Israel, Arab defeat triggered revolutions in the states of
the Middle East and North Africa, regional instability, anger, and frustration. Recently the Arabs, especially the Palestinians have given the name
of al Naqba (calamity, disaster, or catastrophe) to the Arab defeat at the
hands of the Israelis in 1948. For the Arabs, Jews are considered dhimmi,
namely, protected people under Islam, generally subjected to humiliating and discriminatory laws. Zionism, which liberated the Jewish people
from a minority status, was rejected by most Arabs and was generally seen
as an attack on Arab territorial integrity. The many attempts that have
been made over the past one hundred years to bring about a rapprochement between the parties has had limited success. Al Naqba can be
redressed, according to Arabs, either through a continuous and unabated
military struggle until victory is reached or, alternatively, through a temporary truce, reminiscent of another truce concluded by the Prophet that
allowed the community of believers to gather strength before engaging the
enemy in the final battle.
Although many claim that this religious conviction represents a minority
position in the Arab world, the wars waged against Israel over the past fifty
years and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Arab world underscore the
position that continues to fire Arab nationalism and Islamism. The proponents of the latter, whose voices have grown stronger lately, leading their
camp into military struggle against Israel and the Jews, believe that they are
bearers of the banner that was raised by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century against the Jewish tribes of Arabia and soon after against the

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


Christians in Europe. The march of Islam was halted in France, was rolled
back to Spain, and landed in Morocco, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Over the centuries, the attempts by the Arab world to regain some of its
lost glory vis--vis Europe have failed. It discovered that it was no match for
the powerful Christian states of Europe, and therefore a truce had to be
negotiated in the true spirit of the Quranic tradition. This seemed to hold
until the 11 September 2001 attack on the twin towers in New York City, a
symbol of Christian and Western power where, in the minds of some Arabs,
the battle could be resumed.
A similar case can be made about the Jews. Over the centuries, and especially in the Middle East, Jews remained a minority until the state of Israel
was established in 1948. In their case, although the newly established state
was recognized by the United Nations, the battle directed against them had
just begun. The roots of this unabated campaign of war and lately of terror,
allegedly against Zionism and not against Jews, can be found in the political
culture of Islam over the past fourteen centuries. In identifying all Jews living within their borders prior to 1948 as Zionists, the Arab states committed
the same mistake they did in 1947 with the Palestinians. They systematically planned and executed the expulsion and displacement of about 1 million Jews from homes in which they had lived for centuries, even long before
the arrival of Islam.
The Middle East Refugee Problem
The Arab states are responsible not only for the creation of the Palestinian
refugee problem but also for the problem of Jewish refugees. The birth of the
refugee problem of the Palestinian Arabs is well known. The state of Israel
was established by a UN General Assembly resolution on 29 November
1947. The armies of seven Arab states chose to ignore the resolution and
marched against the new state with the intention of destroying it. In the
process, they called upon the Arab inhabitants of Palestine to leave so that
they could re-enter with triumphant Arab armies. Khaled El-Azm, former
prime minister of Syria, wrote in 1973:
Since 1948, it is we who demanded the return of the refugees to their
country, while it is we who made them leave it. . . . We brought disaster


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

upon 1 million Arab refugees by inviting them and bringing pressure to

bear upon them to leave their land, their homes, their work and their
As early as 1939, Mojli Amin, a member of the Committee of the Arab
Defense for Palestine, proposed to Arab leaders to consider an exchange of
populations between Jews and Palestinians:
All the Arabs of Palestine shall leave and be divided up among the neighboring Arab countries. In exchange for this, all the Jews living in Arab
countries will go to Palestine. . . . The exchange of populations should be
carried out in the same way that Turkey and Greece exchanged their populations. Special committees must be set up to deal with the liquidation
of Jewish and Arab property.2
When the above idea failed, the Arab states, with the exception of Jordan,
placed the fleeing Arabs into refugee camps to fester for the next five
decades and use them on every occasion to revive the dream of regaining
lost territory. Pablo de Azcarate, an official of the UN Palestinian Conciliation Commission, stated in 1966 that the General Assembly resolution of 14
December 1948 on the rights of the refugees to return had given a platform
to Arab political elements who were interested in the struggle against
Israel rather than solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees and
resulted also in paralyzing
any possible initiative . . . to the solution of the refugee problem by means
of reasonable and constructive compromise formula . . . and created a
state of mind among the refugees based on the vain hope of returning to
their homes, which has immobilized their cooperation.3
Little is known about another refugee problem that was also taking place
in the Middle East. There was a massive exodus of entire Jewish communi1. Khaled El-Azm, Memoirs of Khaled El-Azm, 3 vols. (Beirut: Al-Dar Muttahida lil-Nashr, 1973),
386 7. See also the Jordanian daily Falastine, 19 February 1949: The Arab states which had
encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the
Arab invasion armies have failed to keep their promises to help these refugees.
2. Cited by Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 25.
3. Ibid., 24.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


ties that had lived in the Middle East and North Africa under Islam for
almost fourteen hundred years, well before the dawn of Islam, and were
forced to leave and seek refuge in Israel.
Mohammed Hussein Heykal Pasha, an Egyptian delegate to the UN in
1947, made the following statement on how the Arab states planned the systematic expulsion of Jews, turning them into dispossessed and uprooted
The United Nations . . . should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed
solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries.
Partition of Palestine might create anti-Semitism in those countries even
more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies tried to
eradicate in Germany. . . . If the United Nations decides to partition
Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the
massacre of a large number of Jews.4
He added:
A million Jews live in peace in Egypt (and the other Muslim states) and
enjoy all rights of citizenship. They have no desire to emigrate to Palestine. However, if a Jewish state were established, nobody could prevent
disorders. Riots would break out in Palestine, would spread through all
the Arab states and might lead to a war between two races.5
Israel, however, was ready to accept these Jewish refugees and in 1948
opened its doors to any Jew who wanted to come and live in a free and
democratic state. Through the Law of Return, the State of Israel, with the aid
of world Jewry, embarked on a process of absorption and integration, granting the newcomers Israeli citizenship upon arrival.
The recognition of the displacement not only of the Palestinians but also
of Jews was finally enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242, which
stated categorically that there should be a just settlement of the refugee
problem. President Jimmy Carter reiterated the UN resolution in a press
4. Yaakov Meron, The Expulsion of the Jews from the Arab Countries: The Palestinians Attitude
towards It and Their Claims, in The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands,
ed. Malka Hillel Shulewitz (London: Cassell, 1999), 84.
5. Ibid.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

conference on 27 October 1977 when he said, obviously, there are Jewish

refugees. . . . [T]hey have the same rights as others do.6
But before the Jewish refugee problem was recognized by the UN, Sabri
Jiryis, a member of the Palestinian National Council, accused the Arabs of
taking a very active part in the establishment of Israel:
This is hardly the place to describe how the Jews of the Arab states were
driven out of their ancient homes . . . shamefully deported after their
property had been commandeered or taken over at the lowest possible
valuation. . . . Israelis will put these claims forward. . . . It may be . . . that
we Israelis entailed the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians. . . .
However, you Arabs have entailed the expulsion of just as many Jews from
the Arab states. . . . Actually, therefore, what happened was a . . . population and property exchange, and each party must bear the consequences. Israel is absorbing the Jews, . . . the Arab states for their part
must settle the Palestinians in their own midst and solve their problems.7
What could have been a logical exchange of populations, one of many
after World War II, and would have constituted a very small proportion of
world population exchanges, instead turned into a protracted conflict between
two peoples who during previous centuries allegedly lived side-by-side in
relative harmony.8
Over the years, the Palestinian refugee problem was kept alive and
became institutionalized through such UN organizations as UNRWA (United
Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East),
the Arab states, and the communist bloc. From time to time, Palestinian
refugees resorted to violence to attract world attention, culminating in the
6. Ibid., 10. See also Khalil Shqaqi, The Principal Facets of the Refugee Problem, Palestine-Israel
Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 9, no. 3 (2002): 91.
7. Al Nahar (Beirut), 15 May 1975, cited in Peters, 29 30.
8. Julius Stone, Israel and Palestine: Assault on the Law of Nations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 23: Western states admitted, resettled and absorbed as citizens more than 9
million destitute persons displaced in the course and aftermath of World War II. Even greater displacements and exchanges of population have been managed in Asia: for example, between India and
Pakistan. A much greater figure of over 100 million refugees uprooted in the world since 1933 was
given by the World Alliance of YMCAs, World Communiqu, no. 4 (JulyAugust, 1957). For details
see Maurice M. Roumani, The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue (Tel Aviv:
WOJAC, 1983), 47. Also see Stone, 186 7, n. 27, for detailed figures of world population exchange.

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first intifadah and the current al Aqsa intifadah, which generated unprecedented violence and terror against innocent civilians reminiscent of the periodic outbursts against Jews in other parts of the Arab world in the past.
In contrast to the high profile maintained by the Palestinian refugees,
Jewish refugees in Israel began a costly rehabilitation program and played
down their refugee status as much as possible. Their story was little known
until 1976, when a new organization named WOJAC (World Organization of
Jews from Arab Countries) undertook to make their voice heard so that no
Middle East refugee settlement could take place without their claims being
part of the equation. These claims are based on both historical and legal
rights from centuries of continuous living in the Mediterranean region under
Muslim rule.
Who Is a Refugee?
Since the first destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and their exile from
it, Jews everywhere have been known to pray daily for their return to the
land of Israel. When the opportunity presented itself during World War I,
they did not hesitate to turn their dreams, hopes, and aspirations into reality.
The movement they created for this purpose came to be known as Zionism.
When WOJAC was established in the mid-1970s, a debate was waged
with regard to the character of the migration to Israel. Some maintained that
their choice to come to live in Israel was born of Zionist idealism. They
claimed that their migration to Israel was the fulfillment of two millennia of
dreams, hopes, and aspirations, and therefore they did not want to be called
refugees. Others argued that they came as refugees from their countries of
birth. They pointed out that yearning for Israel did not negate their status at
the time of departure from these Arab countries. In the case of the Jews from
Arab lands, two forces of pull and push were at work simultaneously. The
policies pursued by Arab governments did not leave these Jews any choice
but to seek refuge from their persecution elsewhere. Few of those who had
previous connections with colonial powers chose to migrate to European
countries, and the majority who were strongly attached to Jewish tradition
chose Israel as their home. But the condition under which they left Arab
countries fits quite well the definition of a refugee in international law:


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

The essential quality of refugee [is] that he has left his country of regular
residence . . . as a result of political events in that country which render
his continued residence impossible or intolerable and has taken refuge in
another country. . . . In general, the refugee cannot return to his country
of abode without danger to his life or liberty.9
European colonialism, which brought in its wake the modernization of
these communities, also paved the way for the dissemination of European
Zionist ideas among traditional Jewish communities in the Middle East and
North Africa. At the beginning, these ideas were limited to the study of the
modern Hebrew language and the modernizing of Jewish educational institutions. Later it included other cultural activities containing symbols of
romantic nationalism and idealism. These activities intensified in the interwar period, gaining more followers who were attracted to these new ideas
and symbols. During World War II, these activities were slowed. North
Africa and the Middle East turned into a battlefield between the Axis and
Allied powers. As a result, many Jews were deported, others faced famine
and sickness, and communal activities ground to a halt.
Before these communities could recover from wartime damage, they were
dealt another blow by Arab attacks on lives and property, leaving little doubt
in Jews minds that their days in these Arab countries were numbered. They
were forced to leave, dispossessed, stateless, and wounded in body and soul
from persecution and with a changed status as refugees without protection.
As Yehuda Dominitz put it:
If the term refugee is taken to include a person who must surmount obstacles to leave the country where he is persecuted, suffers official or unofficial discrimination or whose religious, political, social or economic rights
are restricted, then the concept of refugee includes all the Jewish immigrants from Arab countries and the majority of those from Eastern
Europe, whose exit entailed both personal risk and the loss of civil rights
and property.10
9. Justice Yaakov Zemah, lecture delivered on behalf of WOJAC before the World Conference of Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, 1 July 1976.
10. Yehuda Dominitz, Immigration and Absorption of Jews from Arab Countries, in The Forgotten
Millions, 156.

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After their initial idealism had worn off and the difficulties of living in
Israel both economically and culturally were clear, one would expect some
of these immigrants to want to return to their country of origin, as others
from the Western world had done. However, no Jew from an Arab country
returned to re-create his life in any of those countries. The main reason lies
in their treatment at the hands of the Arab governments and people over the
past two hundred-plus years.
The Treatment of Jews As a Minority in Arab History
In order to understand the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one needs to trace
both the theoretical and applied aspects of the Arab treatment of minorities in
general and Jews in particular. There is a tendency to play down the ArabIslamic record of persecutions and humiliation of non-Muslim minorities compared with the treatment of non-Christian minorities in Christian Europe.
Some scholars take great pains bordering on apology to prove that medieval
Islam was more tolerant than Christianity.11 Under classical Islam and
throughout the Middle Ages, both Christian and Jewish minority communities enjoyed a degree of tolerance that was lacking in great parts of Christian
Europe. This was particularly true for the Jews. Bernard Lewis summed up
the situation as follows: In the early centuries of the caliphate, we may
speak of a move in the direction of greater tolerance. From the time of the
Prophet to that of the first caliphs and beyond to the universal empire of the
Umayyads and the Abassids, there is an unmistakable increase in tolerance
accorded to non-Muslims. From about the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
onward, there is a noticeable move in the opposite direction.12 The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Holocaust in the twentieth century
have no equivalent under Islam.13
11. See Mark Cohen, Islam and the Jews: Myth, Counter-Myth, History, in Jews among Muslims:
Communities in the Precolonial Middle East, ed. Shlomo Deshen and Walter P. Zenner (New York:
New York University Press, 1996), 60.
12. Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 55 7. He
points out that In the later Middle Ages . . . [t]here is more frequent and greater insistence on the
enforcement of the restrictions of the dhimmi . . . more strictly applied and a relationship of humiliation, sometimes even of degradation became the norm . . . everywhere.
13. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2002), 114 5.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

The Jewish presence in North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in
the areas now called Israel and Jordan, predates Islam by twenty-six hundred years. Even before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and
the exile of the Jews to Babylon in 586 B.C.E., Jews were found in ancient
areas of Leptis Magna (Cyrene, Libya) and in Carthage (Tunis).14 With the
spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean and parts
of Europe, Muslims at the beginning constituted a minority. They soon
became a majority and without delay imposed their new system of government on the local populations. Those who belonged to the monotheistic religions, like Christians and Jews, were spared, but their status was forever
confined to paying the jizya (poll tax), and they were subject to discriminatory laws in order to differentiate them outwardly from the community of
believers. The following two verses of the Quran illustrate this point:
Fight against those to whom the Scriptures were given, who believe neither in Allah nor in the Last Day, who forbid not what Allah and His
apostle have forbidden, and follow not the true faith, until they pay tribute
out of hand, and are humbled. (my emphasis) (Sura 9, verse 29)
O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians as friends. They
are friends to one another. Whoever of you befriends them is one of them.
Allah does not guide the people who do evil. (Sura 5, verse 51)
Since politics and religion in Islam are one, the sanctioned and sustained
discriminatory attitude toward monotheistic minorities has been legislated
throughout the centuries. In the twentieth century, with the intensification of
Arab nationalism, the treatment of minorities took a turn for the worse.15
This attitude toward minorities is intrinsic to Islamic teaching, although
both the Quran and the Hadith reflect an ambivalent position, which at times
spared both Jews and Christian from humiliation, persecution, and death.
14. James Parkes, A History of Palestine from 135 A.D. to Modern Times (New York: Oxford University
Press. 1949), 29 81; G. D. Newby, A History of the Jews in Arabia (Columbia, S.C.: University of
South Carolina Press, 1988), 1422; James Parkes, Whose Land? A History of the Peoples of Palestine
(London: Penguin, 1970), 15 32.
15. See Haim H. Cohn, Discrimination of Jewish Minorities in Arab Countries, in Human Rights in
Peace Times; Hayyim J. Cohen, The Jews of the Middle East 18601972 (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1973).

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On the one hand, the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad acknowledges the
patriarchs and the prophets of ahl-al-Kitab (People of the Book) as being
true and includes part of the holy narrative as shown in the following example when Moses was ordered to take his people to the Holy Land:
And remember when Moses said to his people, O my people, call to mind
Allahs favor upon you when He appointed Prophets among you and made
you kings, and gave you what He gave not to any other among the peoples.
O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has ordained for you and
do not turn back, for then you will turn losers. (Sura 5, verses 19 20)
But in portions of [Islams] religious and secular literature, Islam appears
similar to Christianity in its theological opposition to the Jews and Judaism.
While in Christendom, massacres of the Jews began relatively late in the history of the relationship of the two faiths, in Islam the very first encounter
between Islam and Judaism produced a violent anti-Jewish pogrom.16
The inferior position of the Jews in Islam was reinforced by legislation
enacted as early as the eighth century and codified in the eleventh and
known as the Covenant of Umar. It comprised a series of regulations designed
to separate Muslims from non-Muslims and guard the superiority of the former through the humiliation and suppression of the latter. Observance of
these regulations was the price paid by the non-Muslim People of the Book
for living under Muslim rule.
On pain of death, Jews were forbidden to revile the Quran, Islam, or
Muhammad, to marry Muslim women, to proselytize among Muslims, to
injure Muslims in life or property, to assist the enemy, or to harbor spies. In
addition, they were forbidden to build houses higher than those of Muslims,
to ride horses (and later also mules), to drink wine in public, and to pray,
mourn, or bury their dead with loud voices or in a way that might be offensive to Muslims. Moreover, the dhimmis were forbidden to bear arms, and
their testimony was invalidated and not accepted by Muslim courts.
Some Muslim rulers such as al-Mutawakkil (847 61) ordered Jews to
wear yellow clothing, ropes instead of a belt, colored buttons on their turbans, and patches on the front and back of their outer garments centuries
16. Mark Cohen, 60.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

before this custom was introduced in Europe.17 Al Hakim (1004) initially

compelled Jews to wear a wooden image of the Golden Calf and later sixpound blocks around their necks in the streets of Cairo. Mamluk rulers
decreed in 1301 that Jews wear yellow turbans only and, in 1363, different
color shoes.
Jews were not spared physical assaults, which brought death to many of
the Jewish communities in North Africa. In Morocco during the eighth century entire communities were wiped out by Idris I. In 1033, six thousand
Jews in Fez were murdered by one of the rulers who declared that the persecution of Jews was legal. In 1465, Fez was again the scene of mass murder of
Jews incited by a mob and led by the ulama (clerics), who claimed they had
been appointed to conduct the affairs of the Muslim state and that Jews had
neglected the observance of the terms of the Pact of Umar.18 One of the worst
periods in the annals of Muslim treatment of non-Muslims was the time of the
Almohad dynasty in Morocco, a fanatical sect of the twelfth century that gave
the infidels the choice between converting to Islam or facing death. Their rule
brought about the destruction of Jewish communities in Fez and Tlemcen and
the forcible conversion of Jews in Meknes, Ceuta, and Sijilmassa.
Over the centuries, the destruction and seizure of Jewish property by
Muslims (homes, shops, synagogues, and revered tombs) was even more
common than murder and physical attack. Decrees ordering the destruction
of synagogues were frequently promulgated in countries such as Egypt and
Syria, as well as in Iraq and Yemen. Laws prohibiting the construction of
new synagogues or the repair of old ones were used as a pretext for such
action. A North African scholar summarized the fate of the Jew as follows:
The humiliations that accompanied the status of dhimmi were accepted
by the Jews as inescapable realities of life . . . the customary degradations,
the blows administered in passing, the deliberate jostling, the swallowed
insults.19 Arminius Vambery, a nineteenth-century scholar, was emphatic in
17. Yahudiya Masriya, Les Juifs en Egypt (Geneva: Editions de lAvenire, 1971), 15; Avraham BenYaakov, Abridged Version of the History of Babylonia (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Reuben Mass, 1971),
59 60.
18. H. Z. (J. W.) Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa: From Antiquity to Our Time, vol.
1. (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1965), 291 5.
19. Andre Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa (Philadelphia, PA.:
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968), 50.

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describing the plight of the Jew: I do not know of any more miserable,
helpless, and pitiful individual on Gods earth than the Yahudi in those
countries. The poor Jew is despised, belabored, and tortured by Muslims,
Christians, and Brahmins alike. He is the poorest of the poor.20
Arabs became increasingly intolerant, selectively using Islamic or European anti-Semitism to back up their persecution of Jews. In most cases
Muslim clerics, more than the rulers, favored strict enforcement of the Pact
of Umar. Unlike the rulers, the clerics had direct access to the community
of believers at least once a week at Friday prayers. The weekly sermon fueled
the believers mind with messages both theological and political. Clerics had
more power over the believers than did the ruler of the state. It can be understood why riots against minorities have often followed such prayers.
The Islamic tolerance of the Middle Ages and the golden age in Spain
was short lived. Mistreatment and discrimination against non-Muslim minorities persisted in most of the Ottoman Empire, growing worse in subsequent
centuries.21 Until the midnineteenth century, no change occurred in the
legal position of the non-Muslim subjects of Muslim rulers. The special tax
laws and the restrictions regarding the erection of new synagogues and the
shape of the existing ones remained in force. The Muslim authorities strictly
enforced the ghiyar, the distinctive dress and footwear, and the segregation
in special quarters.22 From the early nineteenth century the personal safety
of non-Muslims grew much worse, especially for Jews, who experienced
waves of pogroms in all Middle Eastern countries starting in 1805. Outbreaks of such savagery were not confined to Jews alone, however, but affected
Christians even more than Jews. In the past two centuries, Muslim power
weakened and failed to rise to the challenge of the West, creating frustration
and resentment.

20. Bernard Lewis, Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East (New York: Library
Press, 1973), 135.
21. H. Z. (J. W.) Hirschberg, The Oriental Jewish Communities, in Religion in the Middle East, vol.
1, ed. A. J. Arberry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 214.
22. Ibid., 150.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

Dwindling Jewish Communities: A Survey

From the nineteenth century onward, Arab countries have undergone change
and turbulence. The impact of the West followed colonialism in the aftermath of the First World War. The rise of conflicting nationalisms in the region
and the rising tensions in the postwar era have changed both the political
and economic landscape of the Middle East. In the twentieth century, discriminatory legislation was enacted, persecution of and death sentences
against Jews were carried out by Arab states, and the remaining Jews in
these countries were expelled through legislation specifically enacted
against Jews who, despite their protests, were forced to leave behind both
communal and private property accumulated over centuries.23
There is increasing evidence that the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries was planned in 1947 at the time of the partition plan and even before
the State of Israel was established in 1948.24 This decision followed the
anti-Jewish riots and pogroms that took place against Jews in most Arab
countries, the most notorious of which occurred in Iraq and Libya.
Well-established Jewish communities had to face displacement and
uprootedness from a milieu that had been familiar to them for many generations. This process was neither peaceful nor easy and was accompanied by
pain, sacrifice, and suffering. In equating all Jews with Zionism, the Arab
states, supported by the Arab League, embarked on a campaign against
their Jewish subjects, which left the Jews no choice but to leave or be expelled.
In either case, Jews were forced to relinquish their rights, their properties,
and their possessions, which were confiscatednationalized by the state or
simply taken by an Arab neighbor or business colleague. They left in most
cases with a suitcase and a meager sum of money.
In Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, laws were enacted depriving Jews of their citizenship.25 Soon after, Jewish property was confiscated by the state without
compensation. No appeals against these measures were allowed. At the
same time, Jewish businesses such as banks, insurance companies, industrial plants and the like were nationalized by the state without any com23. Hayyim J. Cohen, 177 8.
24. See Meron, The Expulsion of the Jews, 85.
25. Cohn, 128.

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pensation.26 In less than a decade after 1948, these communities had no

choice other than to relocate in Israel.
Over the past fifty years, the history of the displacement of these communities, their heroism, and their arrival in Israel have been well documented.
A growing body of literature has emerged describing how and why these
communities were expelled. Norman Stillman writes, In the ten years
between 1929 and 1939, the Jews of Arab lands had witnessed the steady
undermining of their position almost everywhere. During the decade that
followed, the process of erosion would increase in rapidity and intensity,
leading finally to a total collapse.27 Stillman further asserts that what had
befallen the Jews of Arab lands was not much less traumatic than what happened to their brethren in Europe: Indeed, in many Arab countries the
Jews would experience a brief but bitter foretaste of what awaited their
brethren in Europe.28
In addition to the effects on the Jewish community of the rising tide of
Arab nationalism, in the North African countries a blow occurred from the
Nazi and Fascist military presence in the region. Only logistical problems
imposed by geography, their own military weakness and the brevity of their
occupation forestalled the implementation of the Final Solution on the Jews
of Tunisia and, especially, Libya.29
The activities of the anti-Semitic Vichy France government in the
Maghreb, the Italian Fascist government with its German cohorts in Libya,
and Haj Amin al-Hussaini, the mufti of Jerusalem, broadcasting from Berlin,
calling upon the Arabs to kill the Jews wherever you find them, for the love
of God, history, and religion, left the Jewish communities exhausted, destitute, frightened, and apprehensive about their future at the end of the war.
Over a period of almost a millennium, between 1170 and 1950, the number of Sephardi and Oriental Jews had remained constant: 1.4 million and
1.5 million, respectively. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492,
Jews remained primarily in the Mediterranean area and within the Islamic
26. Ibid., 129.
27. Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication
Society, 1991), 112.
28. Ibid., 113. See also New York Times, 16 May 1948.
29. Stillman, 130.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

orbit. In the same period, Ashkenazi Jews who lived in Europe and in the
new world increased their number many fold, from one hundred thousand in
1170 to 10 million in 1950, after the Holocaust.30
The above demographic picture begs the question as to why the Spanish
and Oriental Jews, in contrast to their brethren in Europe, were reduced
from constituting 93.3 percent of world Jewry in the year 1170 to only 13.04
percent in the year 1950.31 At the time of the independence of Israel in
1948, there were approximately 860,000 Jews living in the countries of the
Middle East and North Africa. Between 1948 and 1975, 751,000 Oriental
and Sephardi Jews arrived in Israel.32 If we exclude the Sephardim, about
600,000 out of these 860,000 Jews arrived in Israel between 1948 and 1954.
Another 200,000 Jews found refuge in Europe and the Americas, and by
1976 only about 26,000 Jews were left elsewhere in the Middle East and
North Africa.33 In 1998 it was estimated that only 10,000 Jews still lived
outside Israel in the Middle East and North Africa, mostly in Morocco.34
The Jewish community of Morocco dates back to the destruction of the First
Temple in the year 586 B.C.E. With the advent of Islam, these Jews were
forced to live in separate quarters called the mellah in Morocco or the hara
in Tunisia and Tripolitania. Over the centuries, the Jewish communities in
the urban centers of Morocco, such as Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat,
were subject to intermittent humiliation, repression, and brutality that cost
many Jewish lives. An example of these atrocities was reported to have
occurred in Fez in the year 1033, when six thousand Jews lost their lives
and property and their wives were taken as prisoners.35
30. Salo Wittmayer Baron, Ancient and Medieval Jewish History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972), 70; Raphael Patai, Tents of Jacob: The Diaspora Yesterday and Today (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 79; Sammy Smooha, Israel Pluralism and Conflict (London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 281.
31. Smooha.
32. Ibid., 281.
33. Roumani, The Case of the Jews, 2.
34. Michel Abitbol, Le pass dune discorde Juifs et Arabes du VII sicle nos jours (France: Librairie
Academique Perrin, 1999), 429.
35. Aviva Muller-Lancet, La vie Juive au Maroc (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1985), 9.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


In 1912, Morocco came under French rule. The situation of the Jews,
compared to the past, had improved, although in June 1943, 43 Jews were
murdered and pogroms and other forms of attack persisted until Moroccan
independence in 1956.36 Laws were introduced making emigration illegal,37 but nevertheless, between 1955 and 1957, over seventy thousand
Moroccan Jews arrived in Israel. When in 1959 Zionist activities became
illegal in Morocco, thirty thousand Jews left for France and the Americas. In
1963, the ban on emigration was lifted and more than one hundred thousand
Jews left the country.
As a consequence, the Jewish population of Morocco, which was estimated at 250,000 in 1948, was reduced to a mere 35,000 in 1972. As the
Arab-Israeli conflict intensified, Moroccan Jews felt more insecure, and their
situation became more precarious, despite the protection and tolerance
shown by the monarch toward them. In 1998, it was estimated that only six
thousand Jews remained in Morocco.38
When the French occupied Algeria in 1830, Jews were freed from their
minority status under Muslim rule. This freedom was resented by the local
population, both Muslims and the European political element, who initiated
a smear campaign in the press. Synagogues were desecrated, and Jews were
robbed and murdered when anti-Jewish riots and massacres commenced in
the 1880s and 1890s.39
The rise of Nazi influence in the region gave rise to new anti-Semitism.
In 1934 in Constantine a massacre left twenty-five Jews slain, dozens
wounded, and Jewish property once again pillaged.40 In 1948, there were
140,000 Jews living in Algeria in sixty communities, each maintaining at
least one synagogue, with a rabbi and educational services. During the
36. Tudor Parfitt, The Jews of Arab Countries and Iran: A Survey, manuscript reproduced from
Parfitts report The Jews of Africa and Asia: Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Other Pressures (London: Minority Rights Group of London, 1987).
37. Stillman, 174.
38. Abitbol, 429.
39. Peters, 56.
40. Ibid.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

three months between May and July 1962, almost all the Jews of Algeria
left the country, following the Evian Agreement that granted independence
to Algeria.41
During the struggle for independence, pressure was put on Jews to
endorse the national cause. A spokesman for the Liberation Party indicated
in 1960 that Jews will endure the consequences of their hesitant attitude
when Algeria will come into being. Consequently, 14,000 Jews emigrated
to Israel and another 125,000 to France, leaving behind only a tiny fraction
of what used to be one of North Africas largest Jewish communities.42 In
1972, the Jews that remained in Algeria no longer maintained any independent form of communal organization but were under the supervision of the
French Secretariat of the World Jewish Congress. In Algiers, only one synagogue remained, compared with a community that in 1960 numbered thirty
thousand and had twelve synagogues. Today there are hardly any Jews left
in Algeria.
In Tunisia, on many occasions the authorities showed concern toward their
Jewish minority. Nonetheless, there were occasional attacks on Jews and
Jewish property. The Middle East war of 1967 dealt a final blow to the
apparently tolerable situation in Tunis. On June 5, 1967 widespread antiJewish rioting in Tunis, the capital, where the vast majority of Jews lived,
resulted in the looting of most Jewish shops and businesses and the desecration and burning of the Great Synagogue.43 In 1979, a Djerban synagogue was burnt down, and in 1983 a synagogue was destroyed in Zaris,
close to the Libyan border. In 1985, shortly after the Israeli air force raid on
the PLO quarters in Tunis, two Jewish children and a man were killed and
thirteen people were injured outside a synagogue in Djerba when a police
guard ran amok.44
41. Maariv Publishers and the World Jewish Congress, The Jewish Communities of the World: Demography, Organizational Structure, Religion, Education, and Culture (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Hdkl Publishers, 1973), 12 3.
42. Ibid., 13.
43. Stillman, 174.
44. Parfitt.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


The rise of Tunisian nationalism led to anti-Jewish legislation and in

1961 caused Jews to leave in great numbers. In 1948, the Tunisian Jewish
community had numbered 105,000, with 65,000 living in Tunis alone. By
1961, the total Jewish population had declined to seventy thousand and in
1968 only twelve thousand Jews were left in Tunisia. Heightened antiJewish persecutions during the Six Day War influenced even more to leave.
Soon after 1967, seven thousand Jews emigrated to France.45
The Jews of Tunisia constituted a wealthy and prestigious community.
The change that occurred in government policy generated fear and insecurity for the Jews, which eventually caused most of them to leave. Over fifty
thousand emigrated to Israel. In 1958, the Jewish community council was
abolished. In 1999, about fifteen hundred Jews remained in Tunisia.
The Libyan Jewish community, which numbered between thirty-five thousand and thirty-six thousand in 1948, is yet another example of an ancient
Jewish community that disappeared entirely in less than sixty years.
The Jews of Libya, whose presence in Cyrenaica can be claimed with certainty from not long after the reign of Ptolemy I in the third century B.C.E.,
suffered a fate similar to that of the Jews in Iraq.46 When Libya was under
the British Military Administration between 1943 and 1951, a pogrom broke
out between 4 and 7 November 1945 that left 130 dead, 30 widowed, and
92 orphaned out of the total community of 32,000.47 The renowned Italian
historian Renzo De Felice describes the pogrom as one with unimaginable
cruelty and some even burned alive . . . in some cases whole families were
wiped out. In the town of Qussabat, many women and girls were raped,
and many men and women, in order to save their lives, were compelled to
abjure their faith and embrace Islam.48
The estimated damage claimed for compensation resulting from the 1945
45. American Jewish Congress, 74.
46. Renzo De Felice, Jews in an Arab Land: Libya, 18351970 (Austin: University of Texas Press,
1985), 1.
47. Ibid., 366.
48. Ibid., 194.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

pogrom amounted to MAL (Military Administration Pound) 268,231,752.49

In 1948 another pogrom took place, much less dramatic . . . than that of
1945, since it occurred only in Tripoli and was on a much smaller scale and
with fewer victims and material damage. It was equally devastating, however,
since it caused panic and havoc among the Jewish population who, after the
two pogroms, lost all hope of carrying on a semblance of daily routine.
Between April 1949 and December 1951, on the eve of Libyas independence and while still under British military administration, more than
thirty-one thousand Jews emigrated to Israel. Over the years, other Jews left
for Italy, England, and the United States. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war,
Arab mobs ran through the streets of Tripoli shouting anti-Israeli, antiJewish, and anti-imperialist slogans, hunting down Jews and attacking their
shops and homes.50 On June 7 two whole families, thirteen persons in all,
were taken away from Tripoli by a Libyan official (subsequently sentenced
by the Sanusi authorities, then absolved by the revolutionary government) on
the pretext of leading them to safety in a camp where Jews were being
assembled. He slaughtered them somewhere outside the city.51 On 20 June
1967, Jews in Benghazi were interred in a camp, soon to be airlifted to Italy
as refugees. They left all their possessions behind and were allowed to take
along only one personal suitcase. More than forty-one hundred Jews were
evacuated to Italy with the help of the American Jewish Committee. They
were received as refugees under the aegis of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.52
In Libya, 1967 signaled the end of what was left of its small Jewish community. A few days before the outbreak of the war, the clerics incited mobs
by proclaiming a holy war and gave sermons to this effect on the radio.53
Entire families were taken away from their homes, more than one hundred
shops were looted and thirteen persons were killed, seven from one family.
After the police took control of the situation, the remaining Jews left behind
their homes and possessions; some food was still cooking on the stove when
they were taken away. Although they were penniless, Italy welcomed them as
49. Ibid., 368.
50. De Felice, 274.
51. Ibid., 277.
52. Ibid., 280.
53. Ibid., 274.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


refugees, placing them in camps where they awaited their rehabilitation with
the aid of international and Italian Jewish organizations. After centuries of
Jewish presence in Libya, today Libya is Jude rein.
After the British granted independence to Egypt in 1922, there were sporadic minor outbursts against the Jews, but Jews in Egypt lived relatively
well until the Revolution of the Free Officers in 1952.
In 1948, the number of Jews living in Egypt was estimated at seventy-five
thousand, but by 1956 this figure had declined to forty thousand. Ten years
later, the number had dwindled even further, to twenty-five hundred, and in
1999 there remained only one hundred. As in Libya, riots against Jews took
place in Cairo in 1945. This signaled the beginning of the deterioration of
the status of the Jewish community in Egypt until their almost total evacuation after the 1967 war.
On 2 November 1945, Arabs broke into the Jewish quarter in Cairo and
set fire to a synagogue with its 27 Torah-scrolls; a hospital, an old peoples
home and other Jewish institutions were destroyed. Jewish shops in the city
were also damaged.54 Two years later, a company law was introduced
restricting commercial activities of foreigners, but it affected mostly Jews. In
1948, other measures followed; citizens were not allowed to leave Egypt
without a special permit.55
On 30 May 1948, an order was issued empowering the government to
confiscate the property of persons whose activities . . . were detrimental to
the State56 At the same time, hundreds of Jews accused of Zionism or
communism were arrested or placed in detention camps. On June 20, bombs
were placed in the Jewish quarter in Cairo, demolishing 12 houses in the
explosion, killing 34 Jews and wounding over 80. In July and September of
1948, bombs were placed in the Jewish quarter of Cairo, killing and wounding hundreds of Jews.57 After the Sinai campaign of 1956, a military order
was issued authorizing the Director-General of absentees property to man54. Hayyim J. Cohen, 49.
55. Ibid., 50.
56. Ibid.
57. Ibid.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

age the property of political prisoners and even to sell it. Hundreds of
Jews were arrested, and their property was transferred to the above agency.
Among those detained were some of the wealthiest and most respected
members of the Jewish community.58 In the same month, orders were given
to the Jews to pack a small part of their belongings and leave the country
within a few days. Each was allowed to take with him, out of all his property,
only thirty Egyptian pounds, jewels worth up to 140 Egyptian pounds, and
unlimited Egyptian goods (clothing and shoes). Within three and a half
months, between November and March 1957, 14,012 were expelled from
Egypt, followed by another wave of 7,000 expelled in September 1957.59
During the war of 1967, Jews were arrested and detained in concentration
camps for up to three years, after which most of the Jews of Egypt found
refuge in Europe or in Israel.60
The Jewish community in Iraq, one of the oldest and largest in the Arab
world, numbered 135,000 in 1948. Over 77,000 lived in Baghdad alone,
making up a fourth of the capitals population. The community was wealthy
and prestigious. Before World War II, Jews held a dominant part in the
import trade and occupied high government positions.61
From the First World War until 1932, when Iraq was declared independent, Jews lived as well as if they were living on British soil. Jews rose in
the hierarchy of the British administration, and many of them became well
to do. With the passage of time, other doors were opened to them in the educational and social fields, and they were well integrated in the Iraqi social
and cultural milieux. Jewish literary figures well versed in Arabic Iraqi life
and culture emerged and later continued with their professions in Israel.
However, political events in Palestine overtook events in Iraq. The events
in Palestine in 1936 and 1938 led to assaults on Jews and their synagogues
58. Ibid., 52.
59. Ibid.
60. Ibid.
61. Joseph B. Schechtman, On Wings of Eagles: The Plight, Exodus, and Homecoming of Oriental
Jewry (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961), 104.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


and homes, leaving many dead or wounded and bereft of property.62 This
happened at a time when not all Iraqi Jews identified with Zionism. Some of
the lay leaders and part of the wealthy class, including the chief rabbi,
regarded the anti-Jewish events as passing and hoped for a better future
when they would continue to be a part, even an active one, of the affairs of
Iraq.63 It took less than three years for these leaders to realize how wrong
they were.
Between 31 May and 2 June 1941, Jews were brutally attacked by the
army with the assistance of civilians, leaving more than 180 dead, several
hundred wounded, and much property damaged.64 This pogrom became
known as the Farhud in the annals of Iraqi Jewish history.
At six oclock [in the] evening a brutal massacre took place. Jews traveling by bus were forcibly pulled out, slaughtered on the spot, and run over
by buses. During the evening and night hours, until after midnight, soldiers, policemen and members of the youth squads stormed the Jewish
quartersthey murdered, raped, wounded, plundered, and set houses on
Subsequently, Jews were told to leave the country or await a greater
pogrom than the one of 1941. From then on the situation of the Jews worsened. In 1948, Article 51 of the criminal law established that both communists and anyone accused of Zionism could face imprisonment or death.
Hundreds of Jews were arrested and fined, and one, a rich and well-known
community leader, Shafiq Ades, was publicly hanged.
According to the memoirs of Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British ambassador
to Jordan in 1948, Nuri Said, the former prime minister of Iraq, recommended that the majority of the Jewish community in Iraq should be
expelled in army lorries escorted by armoured cars . . . to the JordanianIsrael Frontier, where they will then be forced to cross the lines.66 Had

62. Hayyim J. Cohen, 26.

63. Stillman, 58.
64. Hayyim J. Cohen, 29 30.
65. Ibid., 30.
66. Sir Alec Kirkbride, From the Wings, Amman Memoirs 19471951 (London: Frank Cass, 1976),


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

the plan of Nuri Said materialized, Kirkbride wrote, either the Iraqi Jews
would have been massacred or their Iraqi guards would have had to shoot
other Arabs to protect the lives of their charge.67 Obviously, Said had this
plan in mind; he wanted to counter the expulsion and the exodus of the
Palestinians in 1948 by de facto declaring an exchange of population.
Stillman, in his book on Jews in Arab lands, sheds some light on this
question of exchange of populations. He reports that the idea of exchanges
of Jewish and Arab minorities following the Greek-Turkish and other procedures was being discussed in diplomatic circles at the time and was favored
by the Israelis, the Great Powers, and even some Arab politicians. . . . When
the Iraqi government itself proposed such a scheme, the Israelis countered
that they would only be prepared to agree if the Iraqi Jews were allowed to
leave with their possessions, but could not in any circumstances agree to
receiving them as penniless, displaced persons.68
The test case failed and with it the idea of exchange of populations. In the
meantime, the Iraqi government continued its harassment, dispossession,
and hanging of Jews in Iraq. Laws were enacted to legalize the governments
action to confiscate Jewish property and provide for the loss of citizenship,
thus paving the way for the eventual eviction of Jews from Iraq.
Between 1950 and 1951, most Iraqi Jews, about 110,000, left for Israel
carrying with them 50 pounds sterling per adult and 20 pounds sterling
per child. Some of them succeeded in selling their property, but because of
the great number doing so and the ruling of the religious law ( fatwa) of
Shaykh Muhammad al-Khalisi prohibiting the purchase of Jewish property,
the prices they received were trifling. Others abandoned their possessions in
Iraq and emigrated penniless. In March 1951, the government froze the
property of those who left or were about to leave the country. The total value
of the property frozen was $150 million to $200 million.69
In 1968 a law was passed in Iraq by which public notaries and registrars
were enjoined from certifying or registering any disposition by a Jew of his
property, and banks were enjoined from paying out to any Jew money

67. Ibid.
68. Stillman, 158 9, n. 42.
69. Hayyim J. Cohen, 35.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


deposited by him in excess of 100 dinars per month.70 Subsequently, Jews

were held on false charges of espionage, and nine were hanged in a public
square before cheering crowds. In 1999, only thirty-five old and ailing Jews
were reported living in Iraq, mostly in Baghdad.
The lot of Syrian Jews was no different from the situation in other Arab
countries. In 1917, the Jewish population in Syria was estimated at thirtyfive thousand and in 1943 about thirty thousand, mainly distributed among
Aleppo, Damascus, and Kamishli.
During the French mandate over Syria in 1920, the Druze revolted against
the French and in the process turned against the Jews, killing and looting.71
However, the most serious problems for the Jews began in the 1930s, when
they were accused of being Zionists.72 Anti-Jewish demonstrations were followed by looting and attacks on Jews.
Between 1945 and 1948, Jewish quarters in Damascus and Aleppo were
ransacked, most synagogues and property, including homes, schools, and an
orphanage, were destroyed, and scores of people were killed and wounded
by bombs.73 By 1948, about fifteen thousand Jews had left Syria, many of
them reaching Israel. In 1949, thirteen Jews were murdered in Damascus,
and the synagogue there was damaged.74
In Syria, as in Libya, Jewish cemeteries were destroyed and public highways were built over them. During the early 1950s, Libya and the Arab
states increasingly tightened their grip on the Jewish communities by closing Jewish schools and synagogues and prohibiting any Jewish education or
public worship.75 In addition, Jews were not allowed to own or drive motor
vehicles. Telephones were forbidden for Jews in homes or businesses.
In reviewing these laws and other measures, Justice Hayyim H. Cohn concluded that the Arab states disclose a conscious or subconscious desire to
70. Cohn, 130.
71. Peters, 62.
72. Ibid.; Hayyim J. Cohen, 45.
73. Peters, 64; Hayyim J. Cohen, 46.
74. Hayyim J. Cohen, 47.
75. Ibid., 132.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

take revenge on Jews for the establishment or survival or prosperity of the

State of Israel for which they themselves are in many ways responsible.76
When, in 1958, Syria and Egypt decided to create the United Arab
Republic, Jewish identity cards were stamped with the word Musawi, meaning of the faith of Moses. In Kamishli, the exteriors of Jewish homes were
marked by this name in red.77 By 1969, the forty-five hundred Jews still left
in Syria were held as hostages. Those who tried to escape were caught and
tortured. The few that were allowed to leave from time to time for medical
care were obliged to deposit large sums of money with the government or to
leave behind one of their family members.
The worst, however, was yet to come. Since Jews were suspected of being
spies for Israel, the authorities forbade them from having contacts with foreigners. Checkpoints were placed by the army in Damascus and in Aleppo
where Jews lived, and the agents who patrol these neighborhoods harass
the Jews and allegedly engaged in extortions, bribery and rape.78 The mistreatment of Jews by the Syrians reached a new height when, in 1984, an
Aleppo Jewish woman named Lily Abadi and her children were brutally
massacred and their bodies mutilated.79 In the face of this kind of atrocity,
Jews tried to escape and paid the price with their lives. One such case was
the capture of four women who, in their attempt to escape Damascus via the
Lebanese border, were betrayed by their smugglers, taken to a cave near the
border, and murdered by them.80
The remaining forty-five hundred Jews in Syria were more clearly in jeopardy. The intervention of international Jewish and non-Jewish organizations
did not yield much result. Only the persistent, clever, and clandestine work
of a Canadian woman, Judy Feld Carr, over a period of almost thirty years
rescued almost all the remaining Jews of Syria. Her fascinating story of contacts with the high echelon of different Syrian governments over the years
and how she planned the exodus of the remaining Syrian Jews has only in
76. Ibid., 133.
77. See Parfitt, n. 38.
78. Ibid.
79. Harold Troper, The Ransomed of God: The Remarkable Story of One Womans Role in the Rescue
of Syrian Jews (Toronto: Malcolm Lester, 1999), 150.
80. Ibid., 80.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


part been recounted and waits to be told in full. In a recent interview, she
noted that there may be thirty-eight Jews left in Syria, old and ailing, irrelevant and insignificant to the Syrian authorities.81
The Absorption and Integration of Jews
from Arab Countries in Israel
It is not the purpose of this section of the essay to dwell on the dysfunctional
effects resulting from immigration to Israel, the clash of cultures between
Western and Eastern Jews, and the struggle that developed over the years in
facing and eventually reducing the social, economic, and political gap
between them. The purpose instead is to illustrate, on one hand, how in 1948
the newly established Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and World
Jewry shouldered the responsibility and the funding for the absorption of
the newcomers and their integration in the new state and society and, on the
other hand, how these newcomers adapted to their new home, despite the
unexpectedly difficult conditions that they found upon their arrival.
Between 1948 and 1954, Israel had to absorb six hundred thousand Jews,
mostly from Arab countries, and the Jewish population of the new state doubled. Since the Law of Return was passed by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on 5 July 1950, Jews from Arab countries have had to carve for themselves a place in the new modern Israeli society. The Jewish society that
they found upon arrival in Israel contrasted sharply with their traditional
and religious backgrounds. It became clear that their brand of Zionism differed from that of Western Jews in that it was based on religious and traditional beliefs, an important factor that escaped the Arabs who had made
them pay dearly for their Zionism. Another factor that escaped the Arab governments is that Israel was established to receive and to serve as a haven for
those Jews who are considered unwelcome, unacceptable, or persecuted in
their countries of birth: Israel will accept every Jew and with the help of
the Jewish people provide for his basic needs.82 Unlike its Arab neighbors,

81. Judy Feld Carr, letter to the author, 15 April 2003.

82. Dominitz, 163.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

who also were faced with an influx of refugees but who chose to entrust their
fate to the hands of the United Nations, Israel, with the help of World Jewry,
did everything possible to offer its Jewish refugees freedom from persecution, opportunity, and the basic resources necessary for resettlement and
integration. However, due to the difficult military, economic, and political
circumstances in which the newly established state found itself, the process
of rehabilitation of the Jews from Arab countries in such a short period of
time was accompanied by hardship and suffering.
In the first place, as Yehuda Dominitz, former director-general of the Imigration and Absorption Department of the Jewish Agency, put it:
The absorption and integration of the newcomer caused a demographic,
social, cultural and economic upheavalboth in the existing population
and among the immigrants themselves. The fact that the population was
prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to absorb the huge number of
new arrivals, half of them from Asia and Africa, testified to the strength of
contemporary commitment to Jewish solidarity.83
The absorption and integration of six hundred thousand Jews from Arab
countries who arrived en masse after 1948 entailed an enormous effort to
create an integrated and pluralistic Jewish society in Israel. Jews from Arab
countries did not have it easy with their brethren from Europe, and the first
encounter with these Jews often produced shock and alienation that brought
about social, economic, and political differentiation based on ethnic identification. Mistakes were made that might have been avoided, and their consequences were manifested over the following decades.84
However, in the early period, the Israeli government was under a very
tight schedule to provide important and urgent services to the newcomers,
including housing, education, jobs, training, and health care. These services
were costly, and funds had to be raised and austerity measures introduced
to cope with the new situation.
The most challenging and immediate task was to find housing for all newcomers, including the survivors from the Holocaust. The housing that the
83. Ibid., 156.
84. See Roumani, The Case of the Jews, on the role of the army in national integration; and Smooha.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


government could provide at the time was immigrant camps and maabarot
(transit camps) as temporary means, while more permanent housing was
being built. By the end of 1951, 90 percent of the 256,000 immigrants who
reached Israel were Jews from Arab countries and were living in temporary
housing:85 Immigrant camps were planned for 6,500 newcomers a month
but from July 1949 onwards the number of new arrivals was higher.86
In the meantime, extensive construction projects were undertaken by the
government to transfer those immigrants from transit camps to permanent
housing. By March 1955, sixty-one thousand housing units had been completed.87 Immigrants were encouraged to relocate to what became known as
developing towns on the periphery of Israel. This policy had a double purpose:
first, to disperse Israels population and avoid concentration in the center
and, second, to settle remote areas. But at the same time, this policy had a
negative effect on those Jews from Arab countries who were sent to towns far
away from the center with a low level of public and private services.
As housing expanded into the construction of larger dwellings and subsidized mortgages, the last maabarot were finally dismantled in 1962. In 1999
about 160,000 families still lived in public owned apartments for which
they paid only a nominal rent for many years.88 The estimated cost of housing these Jews from Arab countries over the years is calculated at over $3
Other challenges that the State of Israel had to face as part of absorbing
the new immigrants from Arab countries included training and changing the
occupational status and vocations of these newcomers. In their countries of
origin, these immigrants had worked mainly in commerce, particularly as
small shopkeepers. There were hardly any farmers. By 1954, 60 percent of
all immigrants had changed their vocations, and about ten thousand families were working in rural settlements. Jews from Arab countries had to
85. Dominitz, 166. In the first year, 1948 to 1949, 205,000 immigrants arrived. By the end of 1949,
150,000 had found accommodation throughout the country and 54,000 remained in camps. According to Dominitz, Jews from Arab countries constituted less than half of all immigrants but accounted
for some 90 percent of the maabarot dwellers.
86. Ibid., 165.
87. Ibid., 167.
88. Ibid., 168.
89. Ibid., 170.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

undergo a change in their vocations and adjust to a new environment. From

the 282 moshavim (cooperative villages) that were established, more than
half (145) were inhabited by Jews from Arab countries. According to Dominitz,
The Israeli economy provided 200,000 jobs for approximately one-third of
the new arrivals from Arab countries, and some $2.5 billion was invested for
this purpose.90
In the education field, the arrival of Jews from Arab countries posed several challenges to Israeli policy makers. The relatively young age of the population of new arrivals in the 1950s led to a threefold increase in the number
of children in schools. Special education was needed for those who had been
unable to attend school in their country of origin in order to bring them up to
the level of the existing population.91
As early as 1949, reforms were introduced to accelerate the integration of
the newcomers and to reduce the differences and gaps between them and
the existing population. Such reforms included the extension of compulsory
education to the age of fourteen and later to eighteen. When Jews from Arab
countries were unable to utilize these reforms because of economic hardships, the army introduced compensatory programs so that no young person
would enter the labor force after finishing his compulsory army service of
three years without a certificate of elementary education or two years of high
Education expenditures over the years proved to be second only to the
military budget. The amount expended on education for Jews from Arab
countries alone was estimated at $4.5 billion. The gap that existed from the
1950s has been narrowing, and in 2001 more than 48 percent of Jews living
in developing towns have obtained their matriculation certificate.93
The arrival of newcomers also necessitated an expansion of health services, since many of these immigrants suffered from trachoma, tuberculosis,
and other diseases. The improvement in health service practically wiped out
some of the diseases brought from North Africa. Thousands of hospital beds
90. Ibid., 173.
91. Ibid., 176.
92. See Maurice M. Roumani, From Immigrant to Citizen: The Contribution of the Army to National
Integration in Israel (The Hague: Foundation for the Study of Plural Societies, 1979).
93. Statistics from the Adva Center, available at

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


were added to cope with the doubling of the population. By 1962, public
health was provided to all the transit camps. In 2001, life expectancy for
males ranked among the top five countries in the world, and for females it
was not too far behind. In contrast to other industrialized countries, life
expectancy of males in Israel ranks relatively high (76.2 years), just below
that of Australia (76.8 years), Sweden (77.1 years) and Japan (77.6 years).
The womens situation is different. Israeli females are ranked relatively low,
with a life expectancy of 79.9 years. Japan, France, and Switzerland are at
the top of the ranking, with life expectancies of 84.3 years, 83.6 and 83.0
years, respectively. Germany, United States and United Kingdom are close
to Israel at the ranking.94 The absorption and integration of Jews from
Arab countries was reported to have cost Israel and World Jewry about $11
Israel can look at its record of integrating such a large number of immigrants from Third World countries in less than two generations with a great
sense of satisfaction and achievement. Not without a struggle in some fields,
the gaps among the different ethnic groups has been reduced. Representation in the Knesset in the 1990s of Jews from Arab countries and their
descendants was 30.8 percent.96
A Solution to the Middle East Conflict:
Compensation and Curriculum
Since the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their claims
was raised in an organized form by WOJAC in 1976, there has been little
success in achieving redress, and their claims have remained largely on
In contrast, the United Nations Refugee Welfare Agency (UNRWA, established by UN General Assembly resolution 302, December 1949) has sup-

94. Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Complete Life Tables of Israel, 19951999 (Jerusalem: CBS,
2000), available at www,
95. Dominitz, 183.
96. See the number of those originating from Arab countries who have been members of the Knesset
and the government ministries since 1977, in CBS.
97 See WOJACs Voice 1, no. 1 (1978): 16 7, and 1, no. 2 (1979): 14 7.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

ported the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees with billions of U.S. dollars.98

The Arab states, with the exception of Jordan, have refused to absorb or
integrate the Arabs of Palestine and instead have kept them for decades to
fester in refugee camps and to live with the hope that one day they would
return to their homes, as has been promised to them since 1949 by Arab
states. Over the years, the number of refugees became a controversial issue.
Many reports from different sources, including the UN, point to contradictory numbers that can range from 3.8 million, according to UNRWA, to a
mere forty thousand surviving refugees directly displaced in 1948 who
meet UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner) criteria.99
Contrary to the stand taken by the Arab states vis--vis their brethren,
Israel absorbed more than six hundred thousand Jewish refugees from Arab
countries in a short period following independence in 1948. Two generations
later they are not only integrated but they constitute a sizeable proportion of
the states leadership. However, the process of their absorption and integration was costly and accompanied by great suffering and struggle. The passage from the traditional societies from which they came to a competitive
modern society cost these Jews a change in family structure resulting in
social anomie and economic hardship. Special programs like Project
Renewal had to be introduced with the aid of World Jewry to raise the standards of these immigrant-refugees in the fields of housing, education, and
job training. By 1986, the amount expended for the resettling and rehabilitation of the new arrivals reached a figure of over $12 billion.100 No UN
agency came to the aid of these refugees, even after the peace agreement
between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979. That agreement specifically
stipulated a mutual settlement of financial claims, but Egypt has refused
to deal with claims of its former Jews.101
Over the years, Jews from Arab countries have demanded that they be
compensated for communal and private property that was stolen, frozen, or
expropriated, as well as for injuries suffered by these Jews as a result of discrimination or persecution by the Arab states. They also have demanded
that Arab states restore all assets of spiritual, cultural, and religious signifi98. Shulewitz, The Forgotten Millions, app. 1, 209.
99. The Jerusalem Report, 28 January 2002, 27.
100. Dominitz, 183.
101. Yaakov Meron, interview with the author.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


cance to their Jewish owners. The value of public and private property that
these Jews left in their countries of birth amounts to tens of billions of U.S.
One can also add the territorial rights that the Arabs have claimed for
their brethren, the Palestinians. Already in July 1949, the Arab states
demanded territorial rights for the Arab refugees who refused to return to
Palestine to live under Israeli control. In April 1966, the Arab governments
still held the idea that Arab refugees have these territorial rights. Yaakov
Meron found no difficulty in applying the argument used by Arab states in
demanding territorial compensation for the Palestinian refugees to the Jews
from Arab countries.103 The Arab argument dates back to the Lausanne conference of 1949, when the Arab refugees refused the offer of Israel to accept
one hundred thousand of them back. They argued instead that the territory
that they had left for the Jews under the Partition Plan should be compensated
in the form of territory and not money. This was reiterated by Syrian president
Hafiz al-Assad when he was quoted as saying: I also have in mind that the
total area of the West Bank is 5,000 square kilometers, which cannot absorb
three million people [i.e., Palestinian Arabs], but the area of Israel is 20,000
kilometers, and it can.104 Meron argues that if we were to apply this method to
Jews from Arab countries, then we would discover that Jews will own a greater
area than allotted to them under the partition plan. He uses the case of Libyan
Jewry as an example. In 1948, Libyan Jews numbered thirty-five thousand.
Upon their arrival in Israel, Libyan Jews would have brought with them the
territorial rights of thirty-five thousand square kilometers, seven times the
combined areas of the territories occupied during the 1967 war. Meron further
argues that if we add to this the territorial rights of Jews from Iraq, Yemen
and other Arab countries we will reach an astronomical figure.105
When the Arab states present the Palestinian refugee problem in territorial terms, one does not need to wonder much about what is behind their
claims. In the first place, Palestinian refugees and their descendants are
located in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. By moving to

102. Oved Ben-Ozer, chairman of WOJAC, interview with the author.

103. Meron, The Expulsion of the Jews, 97.
104. Ibid.
105. Ibid.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

these areas, the Palestinians have in fact moved only a few miles away from
where they once lived, in a society that shares ethnic, religious, cultural,
political, and social norms and even an identical climatic environment. Some
estimates show that more than 60 percent of the Jordanian population is
Palestinian. Crown Prince Hassan once told the national assembly that
Palestine is Jordan and Jordan is Palestine.106 The fact that Palestinian
refugees or guerillas moved easily among the above states only proves the
strength of Arab nationalism and the tenuous character of the Palestinian
attachment except as a political tactic against Israel.107
This is confirmed also by PLO leaders such as Zuhair Muhsin, who is
reported to have made these remarks to the Netherlands paper Trouw on 3
March 1977:
There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and
Lebanese. . . . We are one people. Only for political reasons do we carefully underline our Palestinian identity. For it is of national interest for the
Arabs to encourage the existence of the Palestinians against Zionism. Yet,
the existence of a separate Palestinian identity is there only for tactical
reasons. The establishment of a Palestinian state is a new expedient to
continue the fight against Zionism and for Arab unity.108
This argument rests well with the case made by Julius Stone that in 1917
only two nations were allocated the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab
nation and the Jewish nation, both inhabitants of the region for over a
millennium and, in case of the Jews, even longer. This territorial allocation
resulted in nineteen Arab-Muslim states in the Middle East and North
Africa, encompassing over 5,632,910 square miles.109 The same principle
was also applied to the Jewish people in 1917 by allocating them 46,000
106. This statement was made on 2 February 1970, as reported in Stone, 24. There are many other
references to this effect by others, including the PLO, over the years.
107. Marie Syrkin, Who Are the Palestinians? Midstream (January 1970): 12.
108. Stone, 11.
109. Philip Steele, The Kingfisher Atlas of the World (New York: Kingfisher, 1997). The states
included Iraq with 169,234 square miles, Jordan with 35,478, Kuwait with 6,880, Lebanon with
4,016, Oman with 119,500, Qatar with 4,416, Syria with 71,504, United Arab Emirates with 32,302,
Yemen with 205,000, Egypt with 386,690, Libya with 679,359, Morocco with 177,116, Algeria with
919,591, Tunisia with 63,383, Saudi Arabia with 849,400, Bahrain with 266, Iran with 636,293,
Turkey with 301,380, and Sudan with 971,102.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


square miles. In 1922, this portion was subsequently reduced to create the
Kingdom of Jordan, leaving the Jewish people with only 10,871 square
miles, about one two-hundredth of the entire territory distributed.110
It cannot be said that an additional ten thousand square miles will make
much difference to the almost 6 million square miles of territory now in
Arab possession. So it is obvious that the problem is not one of territory but
rather a matter inherent in the political culture of Arab history, namely, Arab
intolerance toward non-Muslim minorities, especially those who escaped
Arab rule and became independent in a region that Arabs claim is exclusively theirs.
Therefore, Jews from Arab countries argue that what happened in 1947
and 1948 was de facto an exchange of population, whereby Jews from these
countries were resettled in Israel and Arab refugees from Palestine should
be resettled in the neighboring Arab countries. This would not be the first
such population exchange in history: The number of Greek Orthodox who
left the Turkish Republic for Greece after the First World War was twice as
great as that of the Jews who left Muslim countries from 1948 onwards and
partly settled in Israel, or of the Palestinian Arabs who left for the neighboring Arab countries in 1948.111
Therefore, after fifty years of conflict, it should be recognized that the
problem in the Middle East is not an exchange of territories but rather the
exchange of populations. The heart of the conflict revolves around the refusal
of Arab states and the Palestinians, in particular, to reconcile themselves to
Israels legitimate and permanent right to nationhood. However, it seems that
before this change of heart can occur, the Arabs will have to undertake
reforms of their educational system so that the Jew, the Israeli, and the nonMuslim will not be seen in the negative light shown in their textbooks over
the past fifty years.112
Research institutes at several universities in Israel and abroad have been
monitoring the deterioration in the Arab perception of the Israeli or Zionist, when in fact they refer to the Jew. Friday sermons by Muslim clerics
110. Ibid., 17.
111. Hirschberg, 211.
112. See Bernard Lewis, Antisemitism in the Arabic and Islamic World, in Present Day AntiSemitism, ed. Yehuda Bauer (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1988), 61 6.


Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2003

continue to incite people against the Jews. Recently the Protocols of Zion,
an anti-Semitic forgery produced in Russia, has been turned into a television series on Egyptian screens. These Protocols are sold by the hundreds
of thousands in Saudi Arabia. The al-Aqsa intifadah has generated another
wave of anti-Semitism, as reflected in schoolchildren from the age of six and
older. Their textbooks do not refer to the Israeli but to the Jew as an enemy
of Allah and of Islam. It is the use of religion that is most disturbing, since it
reminds all of those who lived under Islam that basically nothing has
changed. Although no one would like to see a clash of civilization in this
region, and major efforts are being invested in interfaith dialogue, Arab
leaders and state agencies have shown no sign of discouraging this campaign against Israel and the Jews.113
The Oslo peace agreements have failed in part because from the start
they addressed the conflict through the territorial dimension, which is of
secondary importance. This is a conflict that has been raging for over a
hundred years, in addition to the previous thirteen hundred years of ArabMuslim treatment of minorities in the Middle East, so the Oslo architects
should have approached the solution to the conflict by changing school curricula of both rivaling parties. Only a well-planned and monitored program
of educational reform by an international agency like the UN can produce
the climate for a peaceful modus vivendi in the Middle East and elsewhere.
In an age of globalization when large numbers of Muslims are making their
homes outside the Middle East, in Europe and other Western countries,
Arab states are faced with a new phenomenon in which their coreligionists
are a minority in their host countries. For the Arabs, the next challenge is
the European arena and perhaps even beyond, where Arabs and Muslims
will start demanding equality and respect, democratic values that for centuries they themselves were reluctant to grant to others. This may convince
the Arab states that territorial boundaries are less important than these
values guaranteeing mutual respect and understanding among different
Similarly, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be looked upon not so
113. Itamar Rabinovitch, Anti-Semitism in the Muslim and Arab World, in Present Day AntiSemitism, 257 64.

Roumani: The Silent Refugees


much from the territorial dimension but more from the plight of humans who
seek to lead a normal life in a peaceful environment. The sooner the refugee
problem, both Arab and Jewish, is settled through compensation and acceptance of a de facto exchange of populations, the sooner the suffering and the
frustrations of both groups will end.
A step in that direction was taken by a tribunal held in Washington, D.C.,
on 27 October 1987 and chaired by the late Justice Arthur J. Goldberg, at
which both verbal and documentary evidence was submitted by WOJACs
representatives. Among the tribunals recommendations were the following:
The just claims of Jewish refugees from Arab lands for violation of
their personal and property rights should be acknowledged by the
Arab states responsible and just compensation rendered.
The international community, which has granted substantial monetary
compensation to Palestinian Arab refugees, should join in providing
redress to Jewish refugees from Arab lands and to assist in rectifying
this manifest injustice by diplomatic and other peaceful means.
Further, and, without prejudice to the foregoing, in any comprehensive peace settlement, a claims committee for the mutual settlement
of the financial claims of all refugees Jews and Arabs should be
These recommendations were also reflected in the U.S. House of Representatives on 17 November 1987 by Gary L. Ackerman of New York and on
27 January 1988 by Barney Frank of Massachusetts and included in the
International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1987 dated 16
December 1987 (legislative day, December 15) under Section 620.114 The
Jews from Arab countries are ready to consider a fair settlement of their
claims and recognition of their legitimate rights to live as free people and no
longer as dhimmis in the Middle East.

114. See Proceedings and Debates of the 100th Congress, H.R. 3100, 132 3; Congressional Record
House, H 9976-7, E 4470, 1987 8.