“The Fate Of Jews In Arab Lands” by Bennett Muraskin
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, a massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands took place, extending into the mid-1960s. Whether Jews were driven out in reprisal for the Israeli victory in its War of Independence, which resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians or left voluntarily, encouraged or even prodded by Zionist organizations seeking immigrants to increase the Jewish population of Israel, is in dispute. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But was it only the success of the Zionist project that accounted for this exodus, or were other factors at work?
Arab spokespersons often claim that Jews lived in peace and security under Arab rule and that it was only the anti-Arab nature of Zionism that provoked Arab hostility toward Jews in their midst. This claim is untrue. When European countries colonized the Middle East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these societies were dominated by clerics who harbored anti-Jewish attitudes based on the Koran as well as by reactionary rulers who occasionally made scapegoats of Jews to divert popular unrest, tolerating or permitting anti-Jewish violence and looting.
Maxine Rodinson, a Marxist intellectual who became a scholar of the Islamic world, confirms the harsh treatment visited on Jews by pre-colonial elites and the existence of popular anti-Jewish sentiment. Arab clerics were known to accuse Jews of ritual murder. Sunni Muslims held Jews responsible for inventing Shi’ism, which they considered a heresy.
“In various Muslim countries,” writes Rodinson, “public signs of contempt were attached to Jews and the most difficult and repugnant jobs were reserved for them.” See Cult, Ghetto an State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1981), p. 186. Morocco, with by far the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, was the worst case. Jews were forced to live in ghettos, suffered public humiliation, and were conscripted for forced labor, even on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. British scholar, Edward Lane, living in Egypt in the mid 19th century, wrote “many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Koran or the Prophet.”
It is absolutely true that Jews fared better in Arab/Muslim lands than in Christian ones for many centuries. The most notorious pogroms, massacres and genocides all occurred in Europe. Yet the status of Jews in Arab lands was “second class” at best, whereas, by the 19th century, Jews attained legal equality and greater freedoms in the West.
Modernity came to the Middle East and North Africa in the form of European colonialism. Whereas most Jews welcomed Western influence as a liberating force, most Arabs feared it as a foreign imposition, a threat to their religious traditions and political independence. Jews (and Christians) in the region were more sympathetic to European intervention than Arabs or Muslims for two reasons: (1) they were already alienated from their Arab homelands due to official discrimination and popular prejudice, and (2) they looked to their coreligionists in Western Europe for protection. For Jews in Arab lands, French Jews assumed this role, advocating for greater rights; and European powers also pressed Arab rulers to lift restrictions on Jews.
Beginning in 1860, French Jews spread Enlightenment ideas among Jews in the Arab Middle East through the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an organization that established hundreds of schools promoting French language and culture. French influence was most pronounced in Algeria, which became a French colony in the 1830s.
In 1870, due to the efforts of the prominent French Jewish statesman and Minister of Justice, Isaac-Adolphe Cremieux, Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship. Many Jews in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, which also came under French control, sought and managed to obtain French citizenship as well. In Egypt, which became a British colony in 1882, Jews eagerly acquired citizenship from a range of European powers. In Iraq, which became a British mandate after World War I, Jews unsuccessfully petitioned the British government to become British subjects. Throughout the Middle East, Jews profited from their European orientation by acquiring a Western education and developing business ties with the West. Some Arabs took a similar route, but the majority suffered under colonialism and resented Jews for their success.
Arab nationalists who opposed both the traditional Arab elites and their European patrons sometimes appealed for Jewish support in their struggle against colonialism, but for the most part, they chose to emphasize their Arab and Muslim credentials in order to appeal to the Arab masses. Lucette Valensi, a Tunisian Jew who immigrated to France and became a scholar of the Islamic world, observes that Arab secular nationalism had no appeal for the minority of Jews who were committed to overthrowing colonial rule. The memoirs of Tunisian-born novelist Albert Memmi’s give the same impression. If anti-colonialist Jews were alienated by Arab nationalism, how much the more so for the overwhelming majority of Jews, who sought the protection of the colonial powers or of powerful Arab rulers promising to protect them from mob violence?
As Arab regimes began to win independence from the colonial powers, beginning in the 1930s, Jews were gradually squeezed out of the government jobs and contracts they had won under colonial rule and were forced to learn Arabic in place of Hebrew and French, in which they were fluent. Their outsider status became painfully obvious. To escape discriminatory treatment and in search of better economic opportunities, they began to emigrate to France and other European countries. Algerian independence in 1962, for example, was a great victory for the Arab Algerians and the world wide struggle against European colonialism, but it spelled the end of the Jewish community there. Within a few years nearly all of Algeria’s Jews departed for France.
These trends were well under way before Jewish settlement in Palestine under the 1917 British mandate became a major issue and well before the Zionist movement gained a foothold among Jews in Arab lands. With the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Arab attitudes toward Jews worsened as German anti-Semitic propaganda flooded the Arab world. It is perhaps understandable that many Arab nationalists, suffering under the British and French colonial yoke, looked to Germany as an ally, but their adoption of Nazi-style anti-Semitism made it impossible for Jews to cooperate with Arab nationalists against colonialism.
Between 1937 and 1939, a rash of bombings against Jewish targets occurred in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. These acts of violence were not the doing of the Arab governments, but neither were the perpetrators caught and punished. In 1941, in Iraq, the most prosperous Jewish community in the Middle East, a massive pogrom broke out during an anti-British, pro-German coup. Arab soldiers, paramilitary groups, and urban mobs killed 180 Jews, destroyed many homes and businesses, and left twelve thousand homeless. When order was restored, the pro-British Iraqi government condemned the violence, but Iraqi Jews had good reason to fear for their future. During the German occupation of Tunisia during World War Two, five thousand Jews were sent to labor camps, where half died. Jewish property was confiscated and Jews were subjected to periodic mob attacks. Many Arabs served the Germans as prison guards and police, informed on Jews to Nazi officials, and participated in pogroms. There were righteous Arabs as well who protected and saved Jews, but most Arabs were indifferent to their fate.
After World War Two, but before the United Nations resolution for the partitioning of Palestine in November 1947, riots broke out in Egypt against Jews, Christians, and foreigners. The government apologized but took no steps to curb antisemitic propaganda emanating from Muslim clerics and Egyptian nationalists. In Libya, massive rioting killed 130 Jews, injured hundreds more, destroyed synagogues, and left four thousand Jews homeless. Opposition to the Jewish presence in Palestine was not the root cause of these outbursts.
Jews in Arab lands who survived these persecutions lost faith in Europe and became ardent Zionists. When Israel was created, the long-suffering 44,000 Jews of Yemen departed for the new Jewish state en masse between 1948 and 1950, and 31,000 out of 36,000 Libyan Jews left in a stampede between 1949 and 1951. No amount of Zionist propaganda could have caused such a sudden evacuation.
The situation in Iraq was more complicated. There, Zionist emissaries worked feverishly to speed the departure of the Jewish population, and the Iraqi government did little to reassure Jews that they could safely remain. By this time, Jews in North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) were better treated, yet they departed nonetheless during the 1950s and early ‘60s due both to their fear of Arab nationalism and the encouragement of Israeli agents. Many chose France or Canada over Israel as their destination, so it could not have been Israeli propaganda alone that caused them to emigrate. There was no ambiguity in Egypt, however, when in 1956, it expelled its entire Jewish population.
In sum, the Arab-Israeli conflict was but one cause of the disappearance of Jews from Arab lands. Jews and Arabs experienced European colonialism differently – the former, as an opportunity to improve their status; the latter, as a threat to theirs. Jewish foreign ties and economic success angered the Arab Muslim majority, and this anger reinforced the tendency among Jews to seek the protection of the colonial power or the patronage of friendly but corrupt pro-colonial Arab leaders. Arab nationalists correctly perceived Jews as pro-European but failed to launch any serious effort to win them over. Instead some adopted anti-Semitic rhetoric imported from Nazi Germany. After the creation of Israel, Arab hostility to Jews in their midst increased. Jews in Arab lands, whether pushed out by Arab pressure or pulled in by the lure of Israel or the West, left their ancestral homelands forever.
Is it fair, however, to equate the exodus of Jews from Arab lands with that of Palestinians from Israel in 1947-1949? If “they” did it to “us” does that justify what “we” did to “them?” Two wrongs never made a right, but beyond that basic moral principle, the circumstances were different. Palestinians did not want to leave. Jews did. Outright expulsion, as suffered by the Palestinians, was the exception rather than the rule. Israel and the Zionist movement encouraged the “ingathering of exiles.” Nothing justifies the harsh treatment meted out to Jews in Arab lands, but most left voluntarily.
To this day, anti-Semitic propaganda is rife in the Arab world and within Palestine itself, especially in areas under the rule of Hamas. The harshness and duration of the Israeli occupation and Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish state does not help Palestinians or other Arabs distinguish between opposing Israel and hating Jews. Yet a mature national liberation movement has the duty to make these distinctions and to differentiate between Jews who seek to oppress Palestinians and those who seek to work with them toward achieving justice for both peoples. The failure of Palestinian and Arab leaders to repudiate anti-Semitism decisively and emphatically does not inspire confidence among Israeli Jews and plays into the hands of those who wish to prevent a just peace that recognizes Palestinian national rights.
Bennett Muraskin is a union official in New Jersey and a writer active in Jewish secularist circles. His writings are occasionally published in Meretz USA’s ISRAEL HORIZONS magazine. This is adapted, with minor modification, from the article published in the summer 2008 issue of Humanistic Judaism.