Today Israel marks a national day remembering the Jewish departure and expulsion from Arab and Muslim lands.

In a series of events that spanned over three decades (from the 1940s through the 1970s) and have rarely been acknowledged until very recently, nearly one million Jews were expelled from their homes across the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, and Iran.

Thriving Jewish communities—many of them centuries old—were wiped out during these years as Jews were subjected to arrest, properties and assets were seized or set on fire, and draconian anti-Jewish laws were instituted. Violence against Jews was either instigated or tolerated by the authorities. The hostility led to waves of Jews being uprooted from their homes, and sometimes fleeing for their lives—typically with nothing other than the clothes on their backs.

The loss was devastating. In fact, experts believe that the Jewish exodus from Arab/Muslim lands was larger than the Arab refugees of what is referred to as the “Nabka” (catastrophe), both in terms of the numbers of people displaced and the loss of property (approximately $350 billion of Jewish property was destroyed or seized during these years).

[Credit: The Tower]

[Credit: The Tower]

But the paramount loss was to Middle Eastern states and societies. Of the estimated 1 million Jews in Arab countries in 1948, the year Israel was established, today only some 5,000 remain.

November 30: Israel’s National Day Commemorating the Jewish Departure and Expulsion from Muslim Lands

The commemorative day, which was designated by the Knesset three years ago, is a belated recognition of the collective traumas experienced by between 850,000 to 1 million Jews who were expelled or fled from their homes across Arab and Muslim-majority countries from the 1940s until the 1970s.

[Credit: JCPA]

[Credit: JCPA]

The day also provides a way to underscore that any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement must address the Jewish expulsion from Arab and Muslim nations—one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the 20th century.

We’ve covered the story of these Jewish refugees in numerous prior posts (see, for example, here and here). As we discussed, while the world has focused on the Palestinian refugees and there is a widespread view that there can be no Arab-Israeli peace without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, largely unrecognized is that there were two refugee populations created in 1948—not just one.

As we highlighted in our posts, a majority of Palestinians and many of their global supporters tend to consider the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as a national “nakba” (catastrophe) that befell Arabs during the 1947-1948 civil and international war between Jewish Zionist forces and Palestinian militias and Arab state armies.

This violence began after Arabs rejected the U.N. General Assembly November 29, 1947 Partition Plan.

Had the Arabs accepted the plan, there would’ve been a Palestinian state created in 1947. Instead the Arabs declared war with the goal of tossing the Jews into the sea (see our post here).

In the course of the conflict, civilian populations were affected—as they are in all wars.

Controversies still continue today about whether Arabs fled the war zone because Arab leaders called on them to do so, how many left out of fear of the fighting, and how many were forced to leave by Israeli forces (see preeminent historian Benny Morris’s review of the historical evidence and his rejection of the bogus claim that Israel initiated a strategic policy of ethnic cleansing).

But the reality is that tens of thousands of Arabs ended up staying in Israel and became citizens, while the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who fled the war zone were kept in refugee camps by other Arabs where to this day they face astonishing degrees of discrimination as non-citizens.

Stories abound about these Palestinian refugees. Even Israelis learn about the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis in their schools. But few are aware of the forgotten exodus of Jewish refugees or the suffering that Jews in nearly a dozen Arab countries experienced on account of hostility toward Jews, Zionism, and the very creation of the state of Israel.

Not a single Arab state has ever formally acknowledged the Jewish refugees and lost property. Palestinian school children never learn about it either.

And while over a hundred UN resolutions seeking justice for Palestinian refugees have been passed, not a single one exists for Jews who were expelled from communities that they had lived in for centuries.

The Jewish Catastrophe: Jewish Refugees from Arab Nations

From the 1940s and into the 1970s, and especially heightened with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, nearly one million Jews were subjected to pogroms, systematic violence, and persecution.

In countries across the Middle East and North Africa measures were put into place at the direction of the Arab League aimed at eliminating the Jewish presence from these lands.

Jews in none of these states were spared repressive abuse, but some were harder hit than others.

In Egypt, the government applied pressure on Jews to leave by nationalizing Jewish property, accruing assets totaling some $2.5 billion. The government routinely arrested Jews on trumped up charges of being part of Zionist (or Communist) plots. The Jewish Quarters of Cairo and Alexandria were set on fire. Most Jews left in 1948, but the remaining population was expelled in 1956. They left penniless as they weren’t permitted to take with them any currency or property.

In Iraq, the 135,000 strong Jewish community that had lived there for 26 centuries was squeezed out of government employment, subjected to imprisonment and fines. By 1950, citizenship was being revoked, assets were seized and public hangings were taking place at increasing frequency. In an emergency airlift dubbed Operation Ezra and Nehemia most of Iraq’s Jews managed to get out—but they had to leave all their property behind.

[Credit: The Tower]

[Credit: The Tower]

In Libya, the vast majority of the 40,000 Jews left between 1948-1951 following horrible pogroms in the years prior. When Libya became independent in 1951, those Jews who remained were denied the right to vote, obtain Libyan passports, hold public office or purchase new property. After a third pogrom in 1967, Libya’s remaining 4,000 Jews fled, permitted to take with them only one suitcase and the equivalent of $50. Now, not even Jewish cemeteries exist there anymore—all of them were destroyed, with the government using the headstones to pave new roads, part of a calculated effort to erase any vestige of the Jewish historical presence in the country.

Three Reasons to Commemorate the Jewish Departure and Expulson

There are at least three reasons for paying tribute to the Jews from Arab lands and commemorating the Jewish departure and expulsion—a tragic but little-known chapter in Jewish history:

(1) Setting the Historical Record Straight About the Jewish Experience in Muslims Lands

Among the more pernicious misnomers about the history of the Middle East is the claim that Jews lived well under Muslim rule (unlike Jews in Christian Europe). A better understanding of what happened during the Jewish departure and expulsion would help people to better understand the entire experience of Jews in the Muslim and Arab world, rectifying some commonly-held fallacies and misrepresentations.

It’s true that there was no equivalent of the Holocaust of European Jewry. It’s also true that there were time periods and places in which cooperation between the Arab and Muslim majority and the Jewish minority took place. There were Arabs and non-Arab Muslims who saved Jews and their property during the Holocaust.

While these stories deserve to be told, the reality is that Jews never enjoyed full and equal rights in countries under Muslim rule. Jews were treated as second-class citizens (dhimmis) and violence against Jews—horrific pogroms and religious persecution—also occurred.

Indeed, the precarious nature of Jewish life in the Arab/Muslim world is precisely what eventually made possible the horrible Jewish exiles from their homelands in the Middle East and North Africa during the Jewish departure and expulsion.

(2) Securing Justice for Jewish Victims and Palestinian Refugees

No one should deny the Palestinian refugee problem. Palestinians who were placed in refugee camps by the United Nations and deliberately kept there generation after generation have suffered enormously.

They’ve been denied the full rights of citizenship and often even a normality of everyday existence (such as is the case in Lebanon, where Palestinians continue to be shamefully mistreated). Other than Jordan, no Arab country has offered citizenship to Palestinians, despite sharing a common language, religion and ethnic roots.

Acknowledging the Jewish departure and expulsion highlights Israel’s remarkable and unprecedented absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees who desperately flooded into the young state. By contrast, it underscores the extent to which the Arab/Muslim world shamefully neglected their own. Consequently, acknowledging the ‘forgotten Jewish refugees’ would not only be a step toward obtaining proper redress and compensation for the persecution that these Jews suffered—it could also be a way to begin the long-overdue process of securing Palestinian refugees the justice they’ve been denied by other Arabs.

[Credit: The Tower]

[Credit: The Tower]

(3) Achieving a Sustainable Israeli-Palestinian Peace

The one-sided presentation of the refugee problem is in fact part of the reason that an Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive. It has helped to nurture the Palestinian narrative of exclusive victimization which feeds hard-line policies, violence, and the rejection of reasonable compromises.

By increasing awareness of the Jewish refugees from Arab states and Iran, along with their right to compensation, authentic negotiations between the parties cantake place and thus contribute to both the conflict’s lasting resolution and to reconciliation. Acknowledging both the Jewish and Arab Nakbas and the rights of both sides to redress will also expand the number of stakeholders for peace.

Conclusion

In recent years, the silence on the Jewish departure and expulsion has begun to change.

On November 30, 2014 Israel observed its first annual National Day of Commemoration to mark the exile and expulsion of Jews from Arab states and Iran.

To honor those who lost their lives, their property, and their historical communities during this catastrophic time, last year a first-ever panel discussion at the United Nations was dedicated to raising international awareness and recognition of the Jewish refugees and their right to compensation.

[Credit: The Times of Israel]

[Credit: The Times of Israel]

Today, there are multiple videos (see a feature length documentary below) that have been produced, many with original footage. Comprehensive studies and reports which provide detailed background of the Jewish communities that were lost and coverage of how Jews were forced to leave their homes (see, for example, here, here, and here) are now being referenced in the MSM.

Organizations such as Justice to Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) and other groups are also getting the word out.

More countries—at least in the West—are giving proper attention to the plight of the Jewish refugees. In 2008, the U.S. Congress unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing their rights and saying that, if aid is given to Palestinian refugees, there should be similar aid and compensation for Jewish refugees. The Canadian parliament also passed a similar resolution.

The refugees themselves and their descendants are also speaking up more these days, and writing about the traumas that they experienced (read here the harrowing story that Israeli-born international speaker, writer and activist Hen Mazzig relates of his grandmother’s experiences fleeing Baghdad during two day of horror in June 1941, in a pogrom known as the Farhud).

This past week, in a special tribute to Jews from Arab lands, B’nai Brith Canada and other community partners have produced a series of videos chronicling the stories of some who endured the prejudice directed toward Jews in the Middle and who have since settled in Canada:

Bottom line: Remember that there were two tragedies, two Nakbas. Remembering both of them is not only important for historical truth and justice. It’s also a way to incentivize peace.

[Featured Image: YouTube]

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman