[nakba: Arabic for “catastrophe”]
On November 29, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status to non-member observer status. This is exactly 65 years after the same body recommended the adoption and implementation of “British Palestine.” It is also exactly 65 years since the start of one of history’s most dramatic but forgotten refugee emergencies: the Jewish nakba.
In the days, weeks, months and years following the historic decision on November 29, 1947, between 850,000 and 1,000,000 Jews were uprooted from Arab (and other Muslim) countries. Many Jews were killed and/or raped, and their property and money confiscated. Many of the expelled Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East dated back 2,500 years (two millennia before the rise of Islam). The violence against Arab Jews was deliberate and vicious. Massacres, mutilations, rape, property confiscation and deportations were commonplace. Millions of Jews had no choice but to seek shelter in Israel or elsewhere.
The Jewish nakba has been largely forgotten, partly because most refugees were absorbed by Israel and partly because Arab states have chosen to ignore it. Today, about 50% of Jews in Israel have Arabic ancestry because of the exodus. Not surprisingly, Jews who have experienced Arab violence and Muslim anti-Semitism are hostile to the idea of a Palestinian state. As such, they tend to vote for Likud, the major right-wing party in Israel.
Today, there are fewer than 9,000 Jews in the Arab and Muslim world. In Libya, for example, the Jewish community no longer exists.
There is evidence that shows the Jewish nakba was a deliberate and planned act of ethnic cleansing. According to the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, the Jewish exodus was a policy decision taken by the Arab League. This view has been endorsed by the Jewish advocacy group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
Even before the UN vote in 1947, the Arab League had endorsed the persecution of Jews. The fact that riots and massacres broke out across the Arab world on the same day (30th November 1947) also suggests a degree of planning. Indeed, the Arab League met in Syria in 1946 and Lebanon in 1947, and agreed a draft plan to rob their Jews of their property, threaten them with imprisonment and expel the impoverished Jews.
In May 1948, the Arab League drafted a series of recommendations for all Arab and Muslim countries on how to take action against their Jewish populations. The New York Times of 16th May 1948 contained details of an Arab plan based on Nuremberg laws to ‘ethnically cleanse’ their Jews.
Above: The New York Times reveals danger facing Jews in Muslim lands
Above: Arab League’s version of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws
The Arab armies in the 1948-49 war also encouraged the Palestinian to evacuate while they fought their war of extermination against the Israelis. The refugee crisis was not engineered by Israel, nor did Israel systematically expel the Palestinians.
At least 120 UN resolutions deal with the 600,000 Palestinian refugees. But not one resolution refers to the Jewish nakba.
Jewish nakba: individual countries
Iraq: Iraqi and Kurdish Jews were encouraged to leave in 1950 by the Iraqi Government. A year later, Iraq ordered “the expulsion of Jews who refused to sign a statement of anti-Zionism.” By 1949 Jews were escaping Iraq at a rate of 1,000 a month. Between 1950 and 1952, 130,000 were airlifted from Iraq. In 1969, the remaining 50 Iraqi Jews were executed.
Egypt: In July 1948, Jewish shops and the Cairo Synagogue were attacked, killing 19 Jews. Hundreds of Jews were arrested and had their property confiscated. By 1950, 40% of the Jewish population of Egypt had fled the country. In October 1956, 1,000 Jews were arrested, 500 Jewish businesses were seized by the government, Jewish bank accounts were confiscated, Jews were barred from their professions, and thousands were ordered to leave the country. They were allowed to take only one suitcase and a small sum of cash, and forced to sign declarations “donating” their property to the Egyptian government. In 1967, Jews were detained and tortured, and Jewish homes were confiscated.
Bahrain: In November 1947, Arab mobs in the capital of Manama attacked Jews, looted homes and shops, and destroyed the synagogue. Over the next few decades, most Jews left for other countries, especially England.
Algeria: In the early 1960s, Algerian Jews were declared non-citizens. Many left the country in 1962-63.
Morocco: After the pogroms of 1948, 18,000 Moroccan Jews left for Israel. This continued until the 1960s.
Yemen: In 1947, rioters killed more than 80 Jews in Aden. The Israeli government evacuated 44,000 Yemeni Jews in 1949 and 1950. Emigration continued until 1962, when the civil war in Yemen broke out.
Judea and Samaria / “the West Bank”: In May 1948, the residents of Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz located outside the borders of Israel, were massacred. Despite surrendering to the Arab army, 129 Palestinian Jews were murdered and the kibbutz destroyed.
Following Jordan’s annexation of Judea and Samaria in 1948, all but one of the thirty-five synagogues in East Jerusalem were destroyed. Israelis were forbidden to pray at the Western Wall. The ancient Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives was desecrated and tombstones used for construction, paving roads and lining latrines. Palestinian Jews were exiled. This was the only time in over 1,000 years that Palestinian Jews were forbidden to live in Judea and Samaria.
Tunisia: From 1956, Tunisian Jews emigrated because of anti-Jewish policies. Half fled to Israel and the rest went to France. More attacks in 1967 accelerated Jewish emigration.
Libya: In June 1948, rioters in Libya killed 12 Jews and destroyed 280 Jewish homes. Between 1949 and 1951, almost 31,000 Jews fled Libya and headed for Israel. During the 1950s and 1960s, the remaining Jews were put under numerous restrictions, including laws which curtailed freedom of movement. A further 18 Jews were killed in 1967. Following this, 7,000 Jews were evacuated to Italy. In 1970 the Libyan government confiscated all the assets of Libya’s Jews and refused to compensate them. In 2003, the last remaining Jew in Libya was finally allowed to leave to Italy. Israel is now home to about 40,000 Jews of Libyan descent
Syria: In November 1947, the Jews of Aleppo were attacked, leaving 75 dead. Some 300 houses, 50 shops and many synagogues were destroyed. The violence prompted half of the Aleppo Jewish community to flee. However, the Syrian government imposed severe restrictions on Jewish emigration. In the early 1990s, the USA pressured the Syrian government to ease the restrictions. In 1992, the Syrians began granting exit visas to Jews but prohibited them from emigrating to Israel.
In August 1948, rioters in Damascus killed 13 Jews, including eight children.
Non-Arab Muslim countries
Turkey: In September 1955, Greeks, Jews and Armenians were attacked, resulting in the exodus of 10,000 Jews.
Iran: Between 1948 and 1953, over 30% of Persian Jews emigrated from Iran to Israel. Another 15% of the Persian Jewish community fled to Israel between 1975 and 1991 because of religious persecution. The exodus of Iranian Jews peaked following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
In the years and the decades before the UN partition vote in November 1947, Arab violence against Jews was widespread in British-ruled Palestine and across the Middle East/North Africa. A lot of the violence was the direct consequence of an informal alliance between pro-fascist Arabs and the Nazis. Both parties were motivated by extreme anti-Semitism and a desire to terminate British influence in the Middle East.
Tunisia: In 1942, the Tunisian Arabs Army assisted the Nazis in the genocide of 2,500 Jews in North Africa.
British Palestine: On 24th August 1929, 67 Palestinian Jews were massacred in Hebron. Dozens were wounded. Some of the victims were raped, tortured or mutilated. Jewish homes and synagogues, as well as a hospital, were ransacked. Sir John Chancellor, the British High Commissioner, wrote: “The horror of it is beyond words. In one house I visited not less than twenty-five Jews men and women were murdered in cold blood.” The survivors were evacuated by the British authorities. Many returned in 1931, but almost all left again between 1936 and 1939.
Despite having been the home to a Jewish community since 1000 BCE, Safed was the scene of a pogrom that took place on 29th August 1929. The main Jewish street was looted and burned. 20 Palestinian Jews were killed and 80 wounded. Some of the victims were hacked and stabbed to death. Witnesses say that children in a local orphanage had their heads smashed in and their hands cut off.
In April 1936, riots broke out in Jaffa, the start of a three-year period of violence known as the Arab Revolt. The leader of the Palestinian Arabs and notorious Nazi collaborator, Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, led a campaign of terror against Jewish and British targets.
The Tiberias pogrom took place in October 1938 during the 1936–1939 Arab revolt. Dozens of armed Arabs set fire to home and killed 19 Jews in Tiberias, 11 of whom were children. More than 415 Palestinian Jews were killed by Arabs over the three-year period.
During the 1920 Jerusalem riots, an Arab mob ransacked the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, attacking pedestrians and looting shops and homes. About 160 Jews were wounded and five killed. Hundreds of Jews were evacuated.
Egypt: Jews began leaving Egypt after the Cairo pogrom in 1945.
Iraq: At the behest of Husseini, the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, pro-Nazi Arabs slaughtered 180 Jews in Baghdad in 1941. 240 were wounded. Hundreds of Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed. The Farhud or “violent dispossession” was the beginning of the end of the Jewish community in Iraq, a community that had existed for 2,600 years.
Libya: In November 1945, an outbreak of what has been described as “bestial violence” took place in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. During a 50-hour rampage, Jews were tortured and dismembered. More than 140 Jews (including 36 children) were killed and hundreds injured. Synagogues, homes and businesses were looted and/or destroyed. In the aftermath, 4,000 Jews were homeless. The pogrom, which was the culmination of anti-Semitic legislation, resulted in an exodus of Libyan Jews.
Muslim abuse of Jews before the 20th century
Since the Muslim conquest of Spain and the Middle East, Jews were dhimmis or second-class citizens. Depending on the time and the place, Jews were barred from public office and made to wear distinctive clothing, both of which foreshadow Nazi legislation. And like the Nazis, Muslims had the option of simply killing the Jews en masse, which is exactly what happened in Granada in 1066, when 4,000 Jews were massacred.
Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish scholar, was shocked by the level of violence and discrimination meted out by Muslims. Islam, he said, had done the most harm to the children of Israel. “None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us,” he wrote in an epistle to the Jews of Yemen. His letter cites the “imposed degradation,” “the lies” and “their absurdities,” which are “beyond human power to bear.” He continues:
“We are not spared from the ferocity of their wickedness and their outbursts at any time. On the contrary, the more we suffer and choose to conciliate them, the more they choose to act belligerently toward us.”
Fast-forward to the 18th and 19th centuries when Jews were systematically expelled and/or massacred by Muslims. Between 1770 and 1786, Jews were expelled from Jedda in Saudi Arabia. Massacres took place in Morocco (1790), Baghdad (1928), Iran (1839, 1867), Syria (1840, 1848, 1850, 1875, 1890), Lebanon (1847, 1862, 1874), Jerusalem (1847), Egypt (1844, 1870, 1871, 1873, 1877, 1882, 1890, 1891, 1901–08), and Turkey (1864, 1866, 1868, 1870, 1872, 1874).
There were also innocuous – but still shocking – incidents that deprived the Jewish people of dignity. One symbol of Jewish degradation was the phenomenon of spitting and stone-throwing at Jews by Muslim children. The victims of these abuses were in no position to retaliate.
An enlightening passage about Muslim attitudes towards Jews before the creation of the State of Israel can be found in George Orwell’s 1939 essay “Marrakech”:
When you go through the Jewish quarters [of Marrakech] you gather some idea of what the medieval ghettoes were probably like. Under their Moorish rulers the Jews were only allowed to own land in certain restricted areas, and after centuries of this kind of treatment they have ceased to bother about overcrowding.
You hear the usual dark rumours about the Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans.
‘Yes, mon vieux, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew. The Jews! They’re the real rulers of this country, you know. They’ve got all the money. They control the banks, finance — everything.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?’
‘Ah, that’s only for show! They’re all money-lenders really. They’re cunning, the Jews.’
Return to the 20th century and conclusion
There is a long history of Arab and Muslim violence against Jewish communities. Before the 20th century, the treatment of Jews was the consequence of anti-Semitic statements in the Quran and other Islamic literature. From the 1920s, Arab Muslims became increasingly enthralled by Hitler’s lust for power and his anti-Semitic ideology. Many Arab leaders and regimes actively collaborated with the Nazis and sought to enact his vision of a world without Jews.
In the 1940s, the Arab League conspired to rob and harass their Jewish populations. This soon turned into a wholesale act of ethnic cleansing, peaking between 1947 and 1949. The multi-pronged military attack on the nascent State of Israel should be seen in this context. Ironically, the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands actually strengthened Israel’s hand. Not only did the new arrivals boost Israel’s population, it gradually pushed Israeli politics towards the right, making it less likely that there will ever be a rapprochement between Jews and Palestinian Arabs.