Why Jews Left Arab Lands: More from Mendes

Why Jews Left Arab Lands: More from Mendes

Voluntary Departure or Expulsion: The Jewish Exodus from Modern Egypt, 1948-1967 by Dr. Philip Mendes, in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol.19, 2005, pp.134-146:

In 1945, there were approximately 900,000 Jews living in Arab countries. But by the time of the 1967 Six Day War only a small number remained.

Two dichotomous perspectives – both linked to contemporary political agendas and propaganda – have traditionally been used to explain this modern Jewish exodus.

On the one hand, there is what has been termed the pro-Zionist or alternatively “neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history” which interprets the exodus as a response to a long history of Arab persecution. This perspective tends to assume that all Arabs at all times persecuted Jews in a manner commensurate to the persecution of Jews under Christian regimes, and that this vicarious persecution culminated in the widespread and uniform expulsion of Jews following the establishment of the State of Israel. The political purpose of this agenda is at least in part to counter contemporary Palestinian refugee demands, and also to reinforce the claims of Oriental or Mizrahi Jews within an Israeli society founded primarily around a narrative of European Jewish suffering and persecution.

The “neo-lachrymose conception” has its obvious historical and political limitations. Any evidence-based analysis would confirm that Jews generally enjoyed greater tolerance under Islamic rule than that of Christianity. Equally, the modern Jewish exodus from the Arab world followed different paths in different countries. Whilst the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Jews were expelled in 1951, a sizeable number of Jews remained in Egypt till and beyond the 1956 Suez War. And the Lebanese Jewish community remained relatively secure until the 1975 civil war.

On the other hand, the anti-Zionist perspective portrays a harmonious historical relationship between Jews and Muslims that was destroyed only by modern Zionist intervention. According to this perspective, the Jewish exodus was mainly voluntary. Jews were manipulated and persuaded to leave by a combination of Zionist and colonialist conspiracies. Anti-Jewish feeling played little or no part. The political purpose of this perspective is to contest the legitimacy of the State of Israel which is based at least in part on its self-defined role as a refuge for all Jewish victims of persecution, whether from Europe or the Middle East.

This perspective also has obvious limitations. The historical relationship between Jews and Islam was often marred by institutional anti-Jewish oppression and discrimination including examples of violent persecution. There is also little doubt that exclusivist Arab nationalism played a key role in defining the limits of modern Arab citizenship. In most cases Jews were excluded irrespective of their attitude to Zionism and Israel.

This paper aims to move beyond these polarized and inadequate perspectives to identify the complex push and pull factors that contributed to the Jewish exodus from modern Egypt. In particular, attention is drawn to the key historical events: the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the 1956 Suez War, and the 1967 Six Day War that shaped the context which determined the nature of the exodus. It is argued that the exodus was a direct (and perhaps inevitable) by-product of the Arab-Israeli conflict given the progressive targeting of Jews as the enemy of Arab nationalism.

The Jews of Modern Egypt prior to 1948

During the inter-war years, it has been estimated that 75-80,000 Jews resided in Egypt. They were a culturally heterogeneous community including about 20,000 indigenous Jews, and immigrants from Italy, Greece, North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. There was a significant gulf between the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazic Jews, and also between the Rabbanite Jews [the main current of Jewish continuity, which followed the rabbinical (Talmudic) tradition–ed.] and the smaller community of Karaite Jews [who only followed laws laid down in the Hebrew Bible–ed.]. About 30% of the community held Egyptian citizenship, but the rest were either foreign nationals or stateless.

Economically, most Egyptian Jews belonged to the middle, lower middle, and lower classes with at least 25% living in significant poverty and dependent on charity. However, about 5 to 10% of the community formed an affluent upper middle class. This group included professionals such as lawyers and doctors, bankers, owners of a number of large department stores such as the Cicurel family, and a high proportion of registered stockbrokers. As late as 1954, Jews still comprised about 15% of the Egyptian economic elite. Most Jews spoke European languages, and few (except for the poorer communities) conversed in street Arabic.

Many Egyptian Jews (as per most Jews in the Arab world) identified with and benefited from ties with European culture and values. This identification reflected not only self-interest, but in many cases a genuine fear of the ethnocentric intolerance of the indigenous population. Conversely, many Muslims resented this Jewish link with what they saw as colonialist interference in their traditions and culture. The gradual introduction of decolonisation undermined Jewish well-being and prosperity.

Nevertheless, some Jews found acceptance within what was primarily a liberal and secular Egyptian nationalist movement. A number of Jews were active in the anti-British independence movement, and some were elected to Parliament. Jews were also prominent in the emerging Communist movement which would follow the Soviet Union in supporting the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As a result, some conservative Egyptian leaders sought to link Zionism and Communism in an attempt to discredit both movements.

Zionism attracted little interest from Jews in the Arab world, and was actively opposed by the communal leadership in Egypt. Only about 4000 Jews – many of whom were recent immigrants to Egypt – departed for Palestine. There was some revival of the Zionist movement during World War Two, and Egyptian delegates even participated in the World Zionist Congresses of 1946 and 1947 although only 10 % of Egyptian Jews bought shekels. The movement then was suppressed as a result of the 1948 war, but continued to operate underground.

Anti-Semitism does not appear to have been a major factor in Egypt prior to 1948. To be sure, Egyptian ultra-nationalist and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in the late 1930s, and began to target Jews and Jewish institutions. But these early attacks were condemned by the Wafd Party and other influential liberal and secular groups which actively distinguished between Jews and Zionists.

However, the 1945 Balfour Day riots provided a sign of things to come. Massive anti-Zionist demonstrations led by Islamic and nationalist groups resulted in the destruction of the Ashkenazic synagogue in Cairo, and attacks upon nearby Jewish shops and private homes. The Egyptian Prime Minister placed joint blame on the “mob,” and the Zionists who had allegedly provoked the attacks. Nevertheless, King Faruq and the Secretary General of the Arab League publicly regretted the incidents, most of the media condemned the riots, and the Egyptian Government offered to pay compensation for the destroyed synagogue.

A further source of concern was the passing of the 1947 Company Law which required the majority of Board members of Egyptian joint stock companies to be Egyptian nationals. Although the law was not specifically directed against Jews it did result in many Jews losing their jobs, and there was widespread concern that minority groups were being removed from public economic life. There were also some media campaigns against Jews, and significant anti-Jewish riots associated with the passage of the 1947 United Nations Partition resolution. However, in general, the government continued to defend Jewish life and property. To be continued…

By | 2008-10-20T15:03:00-04:00 October 20th, 2008|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Aimée Kligman, née Dassa October 20, 2008 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    I am one of those Jews who had to leave Egypt and did in 1962. I now reside in New York. I have no desire to relocate anywhere else.
    It is fascinating that I have just reviewed another book called “Under Crescent & Cross, The Jews in the Middle Ages” by Mark Cohen. This is a new edition with a new intro from the author and more notes. This review will appear in the Sephardic Newsletter, which is published by scholar David Shasha. I think you might be interested in seeing it, and if you are, please let me know and I will ask David to put you on the mailing list.
    Jews that were in Arab lands would have never left; they were too comfortable, and their relationship with Muslims were amicable by comparison to the Jews of Europe (Ashkenazic). The lachrymose narrative is one that was developed by the Ashenazim, and was only adopted recently by the Sephardim who felt they wanted to “share” in the zionist dream. Not all of us are in agreement. The current anti-jewish sentiment demonstrated in Islam finds its source with the creation of the State of Israel.
    I’m looking forward to the rest of your review
    Aimee Kligman

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