Peace with Realism

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The Establishment of the State of Israel

The experience of World War II left Jews in Arab lands disillusioned. They had looked up to European culture and education and had counted on those countries to protect them against Arab discrimination. Now, Zionism became more popular, especially among the younger generation, and illegal immigration via underground movements in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon grew. Still, the majority of Jews hoped that life would go back to normal in their homelands.

Arabs, too, were disillusioned, in their case by the failure of the Axis powers to deliver them from British and French colonialism and from growing Zionism. In Egypt, the militant Islamist organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood gained popularity, and anti-Jewish riots broke out there and spread throughout the Arab world, also targeting other dhimmi minorities (Copts, Orthodox, Catholics, and foreigners). During the United Nations debate on the partition of Palestine in 1947, Arab delegates threatened repercussions against the Jews living in their countries, with statements such as "the lives of 1,000,000 Jews in Moslem countries would be jeopardized by partition" and "there are as many Jews in the Arab world as there are in Palestine whose positions, under such conditions, will become very precarious" (Stillman, 1991, p. 147). After the vote in favor of partition, rioting against Jews increased.

Arab regimes frequently arrested Jews and non-Jewish minorities and confiscated their property, releasing most of them if they paid fines. The most notorious case concerned a wealthy Iraqi Jewish dealer in car parts named Shafiq Adas, whom the Iraqi authorities falsely charged with supplying scrap metal to Israel during the 1948 war. The government tried Adas by a military court in a show trial and hanged him in front of his home in Basra before jubilant crowds, afterwards confiscating all his property estimated at $5 million. Two prominent Muslim lawyers protested, comparing Adas to the infamous Dreyfus case; one was arrested but was set free by the intervention of one of the Ministers of Justice. Said the President of the military court: "I have sentenced Adas to death because I was aware that the Iraqi people were seeking a sacrifice. If Adas were not hanged, they would have made pogroms against the Jews in Iraq, in revenge for the many Iraqi soldiers who died in the war. By hanging Adas, I have saved the Jews from massacres" (Bekhor, 1990, p. 100).

A letter written by Sion, an Iraqi Jew living in Baghdad and a member of my family, captured the despair and fatalism many Jews must have felt at seeing the final disintegration of their relations with the Arabs. In 1948, he wrote in Judeo-Arabic to his son who had immigrated to the United States: "Things were never so bad between the Muslims and the Jews as they are now. There is no peace between Muslim and Jew, between Sunni and Shia. There is no love in their hearts, each one has his own idea, there is no understanding. This is from Godů"

By 1949, many Jews recognized that there was no future for them in the Arab countries. In Libya between 1949 and 1951, over 31,000 out of 36,000 Jews left the country for Italy and Israel. Yemeni Jews (of whom several thousand had already gone to Israel before 1948) developed a messianic fervor after Israel's independence, and the vast majority, 44,000, left for Israel through the British protectorate of Aden via Operation Magic Carpet.

Iraqi Jews were more divided as to their Zionist aspirations. They already had a small underground movement smuggling Jews into Iran prior to 1948. However, one of the leading rabbis of Baghdad opposed Zionism and hoped tolerable conditions would return. Meanwhile, Arab leaders were calling for the expulsion of Jews in retaliation for the Palestinian Arab refugees. As harassment increased, illegal emigration through Iran eventually grew to 20,000. Finally, the Iraqi government announced that it would permit Jews to leave if they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. The government thought that at most 10,000 Jews would apply, but by the deadline of March 1951 over 113,000 people, over three quarters of the Iraqi Jewish population, had registered for emigration to Israel through Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. The day after the application deadline, once the Jewish applicants were committed to leaving, the Iraqi government announced that it would confiscate all their assets on departure. An estimated $200 million was seized (Stillman, 1991). Said Mordechai Ben-Porat, an Iraqi Jew who emigrated to Israel illegally in the 1940's and later presided over Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, "Such an ancient community could uproot itself so completely in so short a time only because it could not go on living there.... The atmosphere was permeated with the feeling that a total Jewish exodus was inevitable" (Honig, 1978, p. 5).

The majority of Syrian Jews also left, mostly illegally during the late 1940's and early 1950's. Many settled in Lebanon, which was a more tolerant multi-ethnic state, and in Israel. About 30,000 Egyptian Jews left by 1952; the same number left several years later, after the Sinai war, when President Nasser persecuted them to avenge his losses. Some 46,000 North African Jews went to Israel at this time; many remained for several more years, owing to less immediately oppressive conditions in their countries as well as to Israeli immigration restrictions on those who could not afford to pay their own way. The fledgling state was already overwhelmed by the expense of absorbing so many new immigrants. By the 1960's, 70,000 more Moroccan Jews, as well as many others, had left (Stillman, 1991).

Arab regimes stepped up their persecution of their remaining Jewish minorities after the Six Day War in 1967. They froze Jews' property, seized their assets, and subjected them to harassment, accusations of spying, arrests, and tortures. In 1969, the Iraqi government publicly hanged nine Jews in Baghdad on false charges of spying for Israel. Anti-Jewish riots were common, and more Jews left Arab countries whenever they could. A Libyan Jewish woman told of events at the time of the Six-Day War that led to her family's departure and eventual immigration to the United States:

Thousands of people had taken to the streets, rioting and burning Jewish properties. The authorities didn't pursue the rioters vigorously, ostensibly because they condoned the violence. They finally brought some order and imposed a curfew after several days of rampaging, burning, and demonstrating. Three weeks after the war broke out, the government expropriated several billion dollars worth of assets: the homes, property, and bank accounts of the entire Jewish community. With very little money and only a few suitcases, all 6,000 Libyan Jews were expelled from the country. (Waldman, 2003, p. 25)

In 1945, over 870,000 Jews were living in Arab lands. Between 1948 and 1972, about 600,000 had immigrated to Israel, as follows (with more trickling out afterward):

  • Morocco
  •      260,000
  • Iraq
  •      129,000
  • Tunisia
  •      56,000
  • Yemen and Aden
  •      50,552
  • Libya
  •      35,666
  • Egypt
  •      29,525
  • Algeria
  •      14,000
  • Lebanon
  •      6,000
  • Syria
  •      4,500

    An additional 260,000 emigrated to Europe and the Americas. In other words, almost all the Jews of Arab lands left their native countries (Gilbert, 1975, p. 13). The descendants of Oriental Jews who fled to Israel make up the majority of the population there today.

    Today, only very small numbers of Jews remain in Arab lands. None are left in Aden or Libya, about thirty in Iraq, about sixty in Lebanon, and under 200 in Egypt. A few thousand each live in Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria. North African Jews live a tolerable life, but young people often study abroad and do not return. The Jews of Yemen live an isolated existence, and those in Syria live under constant threat. In no case do they live as full citizens (Lewis, 1984; Stillman, 1991). (go back)(continue)

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    Peace with Realism