Why Jews Left Arab Lands: Another Look

Why Jews Left Arab Lands: Another Look

THE FORGOTTEN REFUGEES: the causes of the post-1948 Jewish Exodus from Arab Countries by Philip Mendes, published in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 16, 2002, pp.120-134.

This paper explores the question of the other Middle Eastern refugees – the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries between 1948 and the mid 1950s. Specific attention is drawn to the experience of Iraq.

Using relevant literature, the author analyses the two principal and polarised versions of the exodus: the Zionist position which attributes the Jewish exodus almost solely to Arab violence or threats of violence; and the Arab or anti-Zionist position which assigns responsibility to a malicious Zionist conspiracy. This paper suggests a middle-ground or less polarised version which acknowledges the role of both anti-Jewish hostility, and the attraction of Zionism and the newly-created State of Israel.

Some comparison is also made between the Jewish exodus, and the slightly earlier Palestinian exodus. Whilst acknowledging certain similarities, the author rejects as overly simplistic the specific equation of the two exoduses, or the notion that they constituted a legitimate exchange of populations. — Philip Mendes [Dr. Mendes is on the faculty of Monash University, located near Melbourne, Australia]

The Case of Iraq

The Jewish departure from Iraq arguably provides the best case example of the Jewish exodus from the Arab world.

The Jews of Iraq constituted one of the oldest communities of the Jewish Diaspora, dating back over 2500 years to the time of the Babylonian exile. They were well integrated into Iraqi society, and generally prosperous. Yet during 1950 and 1951, more than 120,000 Jews (95% of the Jewish population) left Iraq for Israel via the airlift known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. How and why did this mass evacuation occur?

The traditional Zionist view views the exodus as a response to a long history of Arab persecution. This history of persecution culminated in an official policy of oppression and discrimination following the creation of the State of Israel. According to this perspective, the Iraqi Jews were also specifically attracted to Israel by the emotional power of the Zionist idea (Schechtman 1961:8-9; Katz 1973:32-37; Peters 1984:43-46 & 99-104; Yonah 1990:38; Cohen 1991:55; Meron 1995; Gat 1997:1; Meron 1999; Mandel 2001).

The alternative anti-Zionist view highlights the positives of Arab-Jewish history. The Jews of Iraq are depicted as an overwhelmingly prosperous and integrated community. Their exodus is attributed not to anti-Semitism, but rather to a malicious Zionist conspiracy including instances of bomb-throwing aimed at achieving mass Jewish emigration to Israel (Hirst 1977; Wolfsohn 1980; Shiblak 1986; Alcalay 1993:45-51; Bahry 1996:111; Gat 1997:2; Abu Shakrah 2001).

Both these perspectives are overly simplistic, and arguably intended to bolster contemporary political claims and agendas. Following the general argument of the Israeli historian Moshe Gat, I will contend that the Jewish exodus from Iraq can be attributed to both push and pull factors. While some of these factors were paralleled in other Arab countries, others were arguably unique to Iraq such as the prominent and popular identification of Jews with Communism.
Iraqi Jews in the pre-1948 period. Most of the literature agrees that Iraqi Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century was a relatively prosperous and well-integrated community.

Jews were particularly prominent in trade utilising both their knowledge of European languages, and contacts with expatriate Iraqi Jews in the countries with which they traded. They also dominated the professions of banking and money-lending known locally as the sairafah business. For example, a large proportion of members of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce were Jewish. On the other hand, the majority of Jews were poor, and some were destitute (Batatu 1978:244-254; Shiblak 1986:30-32; Gat 1997:9-10).

Following the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1920, Jews contributed prominently to local arts and literature. They were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy, Overall, Jews viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality. Only a minority of Jews were sympathetic to Zionism, although over 5,000 Iraqi Jews migrated to Palestine between 1924 and 1944 (Landshut 1950:42-45; Kedourie 1970:309; Luks 1977:37; Haim 1978:188-191; Hillel 1987:11; Gat 1997:5-16 & 74).

Nevertheless, during the 1930s, there was increasing evidence of a decline in Iraqi tolerance for minority groups. The massacre of Christian Assyrians seeking autonomy in August 1933 was widely viewed as an ominous signal (Landshut 1950:52; Schechtman 1961:91; Gat 1997:17). In addition, European anti-Jewish propaganda began to impact on Iraq. Numerous Palestinian exiles headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, spent time in Iraq. The German Ambassador to Iraq, Dr Fritz Grobba, was also a malevolent influence.

Anti-Jewish feeling was soon reflected in both official and popular actions. For example, large numbers of Jewish clerks were dismissed from government positions, and restrictive quotas were placed on Jewish access to higher education. In addition, following the outbreak of the Arab revolt in Palestine, public attacks including bombings took place against Jews and Jewish institutions. Considerable pressure was also placed on Jews to publicly dissociate themselves from Zionist activities. However, there was no official government policy of discrimination, and the authorities took action to protect Jews from extremist attacks (Hourani 1947:104; Cohen 1966:5-7; Cohen 1973:26-28; Luks 1977:32-33; Rejwan 1985:217-220; Kedourie 1989:28-31; Gat 1997:17-19).

The security and confidence of Iraqi Jews was shattered by the pro-German military coup of April 1941. The coup leaders were quickly defeated and exiled by a British army occupation, but their departure was followed by a large-scale farhud or pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad. The farhud was perpetrated by Iraqi officers, police, and gangs of young people influenced by Nazi ideology, and the popular perception of a Jewish alignment with Britain. Over 180 Jews were murdered, several hundred injured, and numerous Jewish properties and religious institutions damaged and looted (Cohen 1966; Cohen 1973:28-32; Kedourie 1974:306-309; Woolfson 1980:156-163; Shiblak 1986:50-53; Eppel 1994:115-117).

However, the new Iraqi Government soon took steps to restore law and order. The leaders of the farhud were jailed or exiled, and some were even executed. An offical committee of enquiry attributed the farhud to a number of factors including German propaganda, and the influence of Palestinian and Syrian exiles led by the Mufti of Jerusalem (Stillman 1991:405-417). The Jewish community was also awarded financial compensation.

Consequently, the traditional leadership of the community was able to retain its commitment to Jewish integration into Iraqi society. However, an increasing number of younger Jews began to turn to either Communist or Zionist solutions. Younger Jews established a Zionist underground movement dedicated to Zionist education, the defence of Jews from further violence, and the organisation of emigration to Palestine (Hillel 1987:11-12; Gat 1997:20-28).

The outbreak of the 1948 Israeli-Arab War crystallised the “precarious” position of Iraqi Jewry. The war coincided with considerable political agitation around the signing of the British-Iraqi Portsmouth Treaty. Both extreme right nationalists and communists campaigned against the continuation of the British presence. The Communist Party had a significant Jewish membership particularly in Baghdad including two key leaders, Yehudah Abraham Zaddiq and Sason Shlomo Dallal. Both would later be hanged by the authorities (Cohen 1973:41-42; Batatu 1978:650-651; Rejwan 1985:230; Shiblak 1986:59-61; Hillel 1987:106-107; Gat 1997:32-33 & 54).

The government took two principal measures to restore political calm. On the one hand, martial law was imposed in order to maintain internal stability including the protection of Jewish life and property from extremists. On the other hand, the government implemented an official anti-Jewish policy of controlled oppression and discrimination.

Jewish freedom of movement was limited, and Jews were forbidden to leave the country. Jews were forced to donate money to assist the Iraqi forces serving in Palestine. Import licences were restricted, Jewish doctors were refused registration, and Jewish banks were forbidden to engage in currency transfers. Wealthy Jews were detained and fined. A law was passed defining Zionism as a criminal offence attracting severe penalties, and all Jews who had departed for Palestine in the last 10 years were declared to be criminals. In addition, government bodies were ordered to dismiss all Jewish employees consisting of approximately 1500 people.

The anti-Jewish policy came to a head in August 1948 with the arrest and execution of the millionaire businessman, Shafiq Ades, chief agent of the Ford company in Iraq. Ades was charged with purchasing surplus military equipment, and allegedly supplying them to Israel. Many Moslem businessmen including Ades’s business partners were involved in similar activities, but none of them were charged. The show trial was presided over by Judge Abdullah al-Naasni, a veteran Nazi sympathizer.

The public hanging of Ades shocked the Jewish community. Ades was an assimilated Jew unsympathetic to Zionism who had been on close terms with leading government officials. His fate appeared to indicate the end of hopes for Jewish integration into Iraqi society (Schechtman 1961:101-105; Cohen 1973:33-35; Shiblak 1986:68-70; Gat 1987:394; Hillel 1987:113-114 & 163-165; Kedouri 1989:39-43; Gat 1997:32-40; Tripp 2001:141-142).

Following the Middle East armistice in January 1949, anti-Jewish pressure temporarily eased. However, arrests and discriminatory practices continued. In addition, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri as-Said tentatively canvassed and then shelved the possibility of expelling the Iraqi Jews, and exchanging them for an equal number of Palestinian Arabs (Hillel 1987:210-213; Gat 1997:46-50).

Subsequently, the government succeeded in locating the key leaders of the Zionist underground movement. Brutal measures including widespread arrests and torture were used to suppress the movement. However, these actions created an internal crisis in the Jewish community which led to the downfall of the traditional leadership, and its replacement by leaders sympathetic to the Zionist agenda. Increasingly, Iraqi Jews considered immigration, rather than integration, as the solution to their problems (Hillel 1987:214-217; Gat 1997:51-67; Tripp 2001:142).

In March 1950, the Iraqis passed a Denaturalization Bill which gave Jews the legal right to immigrate. The Bill recognized an existing reality whereby approximately one thousand Jews were illegally departing each month via the Iranian border. The Bill also reflected a desire to be rid of disloyal elements – whether Zionist or Communist.

The authorities ironically saw the two groups as closely connected despite their inherent political enmity. This seemingly illogical view reflected two factors: the significant number of Jews in the Communist Party, and the Party’s support (following the Soviet Union) for the establishment of the State of Israel (Cohen 1973:42; Haim 1978:202; Shiblak 1986:79). The authorities also believed that the departure of Zionist elements would marginalise anti-Jewish extremists. They anticipated that only about 10,000 mainly poorer Jews would elect to depart, and that most Jews (particularly those involved in commerce and finance) would remain (Gat 1997:68-78).
Contrary to claims of a Zionist conspiracy to evacuate Arab Jewish communities, the Israeli Government was initially highly reluctant to absorb a large number of Iraqi Jews.

This perspective partly reflected economic and budgetary realities. For example, Israel was already experiencing severe housing and employment problems in meeting the needs of existing immigrants from post-Holocaust Europe (Hillel 1987:228-231).

In addition, some Zionist leaders openly favoured European Jews ahead of the Iraqi Jews who were regarded as culturally inferior. For example, some Jewish Agency representatives argued that European Jews constituted “better human material” than the Jews of North Africa and the Arab countries (Gat 1997:101-133 & 194).

However, pressure was placed on the Israelis by a number of sources. In particular, the passage of the Property Freezing Law in March 1951 rendered the denaturalized Jews not only stateless, but also penniless. There was also evidence of increasing threats to the safety and lives of remaining Jews (Gat 1997:135-151). Eventually after a number of months of hesitation, the Israeli Government agreed to accelerate the pace of immigration, and transport the entire Jewish community out of Iraq to Israel (Gat 1997:151-159).

The Bombings and the Jewish Exodus

The Jewish exodus from Iraq was influenced by, and coincided with, a wave of bombings which took place between April 1950 and June 1951. These bombings damaged both Jewish and American targets, produced a number of serious injuries, and caused the deaths of six Iraqi Jews.

The motivation behind and responsibility for these bombings remains a contentious issue. According to a number of anti-Zionist authors, the bombings were perpetrated by Zionist agents in order to cause fear amongst the Jews, and so promote their exodus to Israel (Black Panthers 1975:128-132; Hirst 1977:155-164; Eveland 1980:47-49; Wolfsohn 1980:186-201; Shapiro 1984:37-38; Avnery 1986:135-136; Shiblak 1986:119-127; Shohat 1988:12; Giladi 1993; Cohen 1998:111).

Some evidence for this argument is provided by the fact that the Iraqi authorities charged three members of the Zionist underground with perpetrating the explosions. Two Jews were subsequently found guilty and executed, whilst a third was sentenced to a lengthy jail term (Gat 1997:173-175).

In addition, many of the Iraqi Jewish immigrants shared the belief that the bombs had been thrown by the Zionist underground to persuade them to move to Israel (Gat 1997:177). Many years later, Uri Avnery’s muckraking newspaper, Haolam Hazeh, would popularise this claim. Avnery’s argument was then repeated by numerous anti-Zionist commentators.
Attention has also been drawn to the similarity between this incident, and the 1954 bomb attacks by Zionist agents on American institutions in Egypt. These attacks would be featured in what became known as the Lavon Affair (Melman & Raviv 1989:64-68; Gat 1997:61 & 186-187). However, the later attacks were arguably different in content and motivation in that they did not target or injure Jews, but rather damaged British and American institutions in an attempt to tarnish Egypt’s reputation in the West.

In contrast, the historian Moshe Gat argues convincingly (in my opinion) that there was little direct connection between the bombings and exodus. He demonstrates that the frantic and massive Jewish registration for denaturalisation and departure was driven by knowledge that the denaturalisation law was due to expire in March 1951.

He also notes the influence of further pressures including the property-freezing law, and continued anti-Jewish disturbances which raised the fear of large-scale pogroms. In addition, it is highly unlikely the Israelis would have taken such measures to accelerate the Jewish evacuation given that they were already struggling to cope with the existing level of Jewish immigration (Gat 1987:395; Gat 1997:182-187; also Meir-Galitzenstein 1988:235).

Gat also raises serious doubts about the guilt of the alleged Jewish bombthrowers. Firstly, a Christian officer in the Iraqi army known for his anti-Jewish views, was arrested, but apparently not charged, with the offences. A number of explosive devices similar to those used in the attack on the Jewish synagogue were found in his home. In addition, there was a long history of anti-Jewish bomb-throwing incidents in Iraq.

Secondly, the prosecution was not able to produce even one eyewitness who had seen the bombs thrown. Thirdly, the Jewish defendant Shalom Salah indicated in court that he had been severely tortured in order to procure a confession (Gat 1997:180-181 & 187-188; Gat 2000:11-13; also Hillel 1987:277-282; Meron 1995:51).

It therefore remains an open question as to who was responsible for the bombings, although Gat suggests that the most likely perpetrators were members of the anti-Jewish Istiqlal Party (Gat 1997:187; Gat 2000:20). Certainly memories and intepretations of the events have further been influenced and distorted by the unfortunate discrimination which many Iraqi Jews experienced on their arrival in Israel (Black Panthers 1975:132-133; Shohat 1988; Swirski 1989; Massad 1996).

Why did the Jews Leave?

To summarize, the massive and rapid Jewish exodus from Iraq arguably reflected a combination of push and pull factors. The key push factor was the strength of popular anti-Jewish feeling which was heightened by the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Increasingly, Jews were viewed as a potential fifth column whose real sympathies lay with the enemies of Iraq.

These feelings were intentionally exploited and strengthened by deliberate government policies which deprived Jews of their civil and economic rights (Kedourie 1989:49-50). On the one hand, the authorities cynically scapegoated Iraqi Jews in order to deflect attention from their military failures in Palestine. On the other hand, they appear to have held a genuine belief that the departure of a significant number of Jews would both contribute to a lowering of the communist threat, and undermine one of the key propaganda themes of the extreme right.

The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said describes this “wholesale persecution of communities, preeminently but not exclusively the Jewish ones” as reflecting a “xenophobic enthusiasm officially decreeing that these and other designated alien communities had to be extracted by force from our midst” (Said 2001:208-209).

An important role was also played by the Zionist underground movement which increasingly succeeded in convincing the Jewish community that emigration offered the best solution to their problems (Kedourie 1970:311-312). In doing so, they openly encouraged and arguably aggravated the existing tensions in the relationship between Jews and the wider Iraqi society (Gat 1997:193). However, the Zionist agenda only moved from the margins to the centre of Jewish life precisely because of the push factors described above (Hillel 1987:110-111).

The existence of the State of Israel as a potential place of refuge also provided the Iraqi Jews with a new and attractive option which they had not enjoyed at the time of the 1941 pogrom or during earlier periods of persecution (Cohen 1973:35).

Comparing the Jewish Exodus and the Palestinian Exodus

The Israelis and their supporters have often argued that the experience of the Jewish refugees can be equated with that of the Palestinian refugees. Both left their countries due to violence or threats of violence. Unlike the Palestinians, however, who remained in refugee camps rather than being offered homes elsewhere, the Jewish refugees were welcomed and resettled in the Jewish State of Israel. Their settlement inside Israel constitutes (so the argument goes) a direct and legitimate exchange of populations.

The Arab view is almost dichotomous. The Jewish refugees were respected and equal citizens of Arab countries, but were persuaded to leave by malicious Zionist propaganda. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, they left voluntarily and are welcome to return at any time.

As the above discussion has demonstrated, neither of these perspectives reflects the complexity of the Jewish exodus. To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the two exoduses. However, the differences between the two exoduses are arguably far more significant.
Firstly, the Palestinian expulsion occurred under conditions of external war and conflict, whereas the Jewish departure from Iraq primarily reflected internal political developments. In addition, the Jewish departure reflected far more diverse factors. As already noted, many Jews were strongly motivated by Zionist beliefs, and voluntarily left Iraq for Israel (Tessler 1994:309).
Secondly, the two exoduses did not concur chronologically. The Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries took place a number of years after the Palestinian exodus. There is no evidence that the Israeli leadership anticipated a so-called population exchange when they made their arguably harsh decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees (Morris 1987:254-255).

Thirdly, it is important to remember that the Arab States, not the Palestinians, were responsible for the Jewish exodus.

Finally, Israel agreed to accept the Jewish refugees who subsequently integrated with varying degrees of success into Israeli society, and looked towards the future. Unlike the Palestinians, most of the Jewish refugees had little or no desire to return to their former homes in Baghdad or elsewhere. In contrast, the Arab states refused to facilitate an organized resettlement of Palestinian refugees. Consequently, most looked backwards, and held onto hopes of a return to Palestine (Segre 1971:126). This analysis demonstrates that the two exoduses are not identical in motivation and cause, and should be considered separately.

On the one hand, Arab denial of the contribution made by anti-Jewish hostility to the Jewish exodus from Iraq and elsewhere is insensitive and ahistorical. Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be entitled to some form of compensation for abandoned lands and property. There is no reason why organisations such as the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) should not be formally represented in negotiations between Israel and the Arab states (Goldberg 1999; Khalidi 1999:235).

On the other hand, it is equally insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees. The latter group also have a justifiable claim for financial compensation (Mendes 1996:96; Mendes 1997:208).

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By | 2008-10-17T12:52:00-04:00 October 17th, 2008|Blog|3 Comments


  1. bataween October 20, 2008 at 3:28 pm - Reply
  2. mkwrk2 March 19, 2009 at 1:55 am - Reply

    So “Why Jews left Arab lands”?

    Because those capable to escape were not so stupid as a very title of an article supposed your reader to be.

    Michael Kerjman

  3. […] Why Jews Left Arab Lands: Another Look […]

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