Why Jews Left Arab Lands: Final from Mendes

Why Jews Left Arab Lands: Final from Mendes

The First Wave of Persecution: the 1948 Arab-Israeli War

During the 1948 War, the [Egyptian] government imposed martial law, and approximately 800 Jews were placed in internment camps. Most were alleged to be either Zionists or Communists reflecting the government’s apparent belief that the two groups were acting in collusion. In addition, Zionism was declared illegal, Jewish organizations were required to provide the names and addresses of their members, and a significant number of Jewish families were expelled from their homes.

The property of about 70 Jewish individuals and firms was placed under state administration. This included a number of major Jewish-owned department stores, and other well-known businesses. But the anti-Jewish measures were characterized both by their excessiveness, and by their inconsistency. Some of the owners of these corporations were known to be Zionists, but others were not. Some leading Zionists were not affected at all.

Government actions were accompanied by a press campaign against local Jews. For example, a Wafdist newspaper published blacklists of Jewish businessmen. There were also a number of examples of popular violence directed against Jews. In June 1948, a bomb killed 22 Jews and wounded 41 in the Karaite section of Cairo. The Egyptian Government absurdly blamed the explosion on fireworks stored in Jewish homes, and conflict between Karaite and Rabbanite Jews. Later following an Israeli air attack on Cairo in July 1948, a number of Jewish-owned department stores and cinemas were bombed. A further explosion in the Rabbanite Jewish section of Cairo in September 1948 killed 19 Jews and wounded 62. A subsequent bomb in November 1948 destroyed a prominent Jewish publishing house.

The government was relatively inactive in protecting the Jewish community from these attacks which appear to have mainly been perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the factors which may have contributed to government policy included their fear of the political strength of the Brotherhood, the Prime Minister’s personal anti-Semitism, and a general incompetence. However, no specifically anti-Jewish legislation was passed, and there is little evidence that the above events were linked to a deep-seated anti-Jewish campaign or public ferment.

The key question that remains to be answered is whether the Arab-Israeli War necessarily precluded a continuing role for Jews either in Egypt or the Arab world in general. On the one hand, a state based on genuinely secular liberal principles could reasonably be expected to maintain the rights of a minority population even whilst being in a state of war with that population’s neighbouring nation state. This was particularly the case given that the leaders of the Egyptian Jewish community persistently affirmed their loyalty to Egypt, and made significant (albeit almost certainly coerced) donations to the Palestine War fund.

On the other hand, the increasing threats towards Jews in Egypt and other Arab countries suggested that the distinction between Jews and Zionists was no longer maintained. The Jewish minority would inevitably be regarded as a potential fifth column, and hence excluded from the Arab nation. From 1944 to 1947, a number of threats were made by Arab leaders concerning the likely fate of Arab Jews as a result of events in Palestine.

In November 1947, for example, the Egyptian Delegate to the United Nations Muhammad Husayn Haykal (known to be a relative liberal in Egyptian politics) warned that the Palestine Partition Resolution could lead to reprisals against Jews in Arab countries. According to Haykal: “Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies were trying 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.”

Haykal’s warning was followed by specific resolutions of the Arab League in February 1948 dealing with the Jews of Arab countries. The resolutions implied concern for “the welfare and property of Jewish citizens”, and urged Jews to maintain their loyalty to their homelands, and to eschew any involvement in Zionist activity. But they also threatened that “any act of Zionist terrorism is liable to bring a holocaust upon the entire Jewish community”. It was unclear whether this clause referred to terrorist activities by Palestinian Jews, or alternatively by local Jews sympathetic to Zionism.

1949-1954: a Temporary Respite

Between 1948 and 1950 about 20,000 Jews left Egypt including over 14,000 who migrated to Israel. Many were lower middle-class Jews who found their economic prospects destroyed by widespread unemployment, and the ongoing campaign to Egyptianize business ownership and administration. Much of this exodus was openly organized by emissaries of the Mossad l’Aliya, the Israeli Institute for Immigration, which established a number of travel agencies inside Egypt in order to coordinate the process.

Nevertheless for those Jews who remained there was some evidence that life was returning to normal. Between July 1949 and February 1950, most of the Jews who had been interned were released, and their property restored by the government. Many Jews continued to practice their professions in areas such as journalism, publishing, law, medicine and finance. Jewish sporting teams continued to operate as did communal institutions such as hospitals and schools although most Jewish newspapers ceased publication. In addition, King Faruq resumed his traditionally friendly relations with the Jewish community including the awarding of royal decorations to leading Jews.

Following the 1952 Free Officers Revolution, the new Prime Minister General Muhammad Naguib worked particularly hard to establish good relations with the Jewish community, and publicly assured Jews that they continued to be part of the Egyptian nation. Naguib visited a number of Jewish institutions including the Cairo synagogue on Yom Kippur, and the Egyptian Chief Rabbi was invited to attend national celebrations.

Naguib’s replacement by General Gamal Abdel Nasser in March 1954 seems to have halted this trend towards better relations, and was followed by the unfortunate Operation Susannah episode. In July 1954, Egyptian authorities arrested an Israeli spy ring consisting of 13 operatives including an Israeli officer and a dozen local Jews. They had carried out a number of acts of sabotage including setting fire to the United States Information Service Library in Cairo, the Alexandria Post Office, and a number of cinemas. Little damage was done, and no fatalities had occurred. The two leaders of the group were sentenced to death, and the other defendants were sentenced to long prison terms.

The espionage operation – which later became known in Israel as the Lavon Affair due to a political scandal over who was responsible for ordering the bungled action – seems to have been intended to undermine western confidence in the stability of the Egyptian regime. In particular, it was hoped to prevent the planned withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal.
During the trial period, the Egyptian authorities and media were careful to distinguish between the minority of Zionist spies and Egyptian Jews, and emphasized that the majority of Egyptian Jews were loyal citizens. However, Operation Susannah does appear to have further undermined the rights and standing of Egyptian Jews.

The Second Wave of Repression: the 1956 and 1967 Wars

The second Arab-Israeli war was accompanied by harsh government measures against the Egyptian Jewish community. About 1,000 Jews – both Zionist and non-Zionist – were detained, most Jews were placed under surveillance, many Jews were directly expelled from the country, and over 500 Jewish businesses were placed under state control. Significant measures were taken to exclude Jews from economic life. In addition, Zionism was declared a criminal offence, and Zionists were deprived of the right to hold citizenship. However, in contrast to 1948 there were few instances of popular violence directed against Jews.

Following the conclusion of the war, Jews were directly pressured to leave Egypt either by formal deportation orders, or via more covert methods of intimidation and harassment. Between November 1956 and March 1957 over 14,000 Jews departed Egypt mainly for Israel, including most of the key community leaders.

From mid-1957 to mid-1967, a further 17-19,000 Jews departed Egypt. Most of the key Jewish institutions including the school system were taken over by the Egyptian Government. In addition, the nationalization decrees of 1960-62 destroyed the livelihood of many Jews.
At the time of the Six Day War about 7,000 Jews remained in Egypt. These Jews appear to have experienced a final wave of persecution including mass arrests and subsequent expulsion. The organized Egyptian Jewish community had come to an end.

Summary and Conclusion

The Egyptian body politic appears to have been relatively more liberal and tolerant towards Jews than other Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria. Until the 1956 Suez War a sizeable Jewish community remained in Egypt, and active government or popular violence against Jews had been relatively restrained. Nevertheless by 1967 the formal existence of Egyptian Jewry had also come to an end.

The factors which led to the demise of Egyptian Jewry are complex, but nonetheless closely related to the onset of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Most Jews did not leave Egypt voluntarily, although it is true that some were active Zionists and positively attracted to the idea of living in Israel. However, more often than not support for Zionism seems to have been a defensive response to perceived insecurity and/or active persecution.

Another factor was the general post-colonialist resentment of foreigners which led to their gradual exclusion from Egyptian social and economic life. Hence many Jews appear to have left Egypt because of economic factors such as loss of jobs and livelihood, rather than specific anti-Jewish persecution. Similarly a number of authors have noted that other foreign minorities such as the Italians and Greeks also experienced hostility, and left Egypt in significant numbers. But it was arguably the conflict over Palestine which specifically motivated ethnocentric groups and the government to target and scapegoat Jews.

A considerable number of Jews – perhaps the majority – seem to have departed as a result of systematic harassment or direct expulsion. It was perhaps inevitable that the Jews would experience some backlash as a result of being seen as holding potential dual loyalties to both their homeland, and the nation with whom that country was at war. But their wholesale departure suggests that the threats first uttered by Arab leaders in the mid-late 1940s ultimately came to fruition: that Jews in the Arab world were driven out as a direct and unapologetic retaliation for Jewish actions in Israel/Palestine.


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By | 2008-10-22T13:08:00-04:00 October 22nd, 2008|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Anonymous October 23, 2008 at 12:19 am - Reply

    ARABISM = RACISM! link…

    ‘Arabism Equals Racism’, in an elaborated article, Gerald A. Honigman writes on the “acceptance of anyone else’s political rights in a multi-ethnic region that most Arabs see exclusively as “purely Arab patrimony.” That’s the Arab-Israel conflict in a nutshell; but it is also the core of the Arab-Berber, Arab-Kurd, Arab-Black African, Arab-Copt, Arab-Assyrian, Arab-non-Arab Lebanese conflicts, as well, among others. The Arabs’ Anfal Campaign against the Kurds and their actions in Darfur and the rest of the southern Sudan are just a few of many examples of Arab genocidal actions against all who might disagree.”

  2. Matt October 27, 2008 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    Though Mendes insists on claiming a balanced case, there seems to be little that actually calls for balance. If this is “relatively more liberal and tolerant towards Jews than other Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria” it’s quite damning.

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