This is part two of a three-part series on Israel's forgotten Jewish refugees. If you have not done so already, we recommend starting with Part I.
The Muslim world’s attitude towards Jews has not always been hostile. After the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh century, Jews were tolerated and even permitted limited religious, educational, professional and business opportunities. At the same time, they were considered second-class citizens or the so-called dhimmis (protected minorities), with various restrictions in both legal and societal arenas.
In Yemen, for example, a Jew was not permitted to walk on the pavement or ride a horse; while in the courts, his evidence was not accepted against that of a Muslim. Other restrictions were manifested in expressions of contempt, denial of dignity and even incidents of recurring violence targeting Jewish individuals and their communities.
The establishment of colonial regimes in the 19th century by France, Great Britain and Italy allowed Jews to enhance their everyday lives and improve their status in society. But that didn’t last long. The eruption of WWII and the subsequent occupation of North Africa by the “Axis” forces led to the persecution of Jews, many of whom were deported to work or extermination camps.
But apart from facing eradication by the Nazis and their allies, Jews also suffered at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. The most shocking event, called the Farhud, occurred in Iraq in 1941, when Arab anti-British mobs attacked Jews, whom they identified as collaborators with the British. The three-day long massacre left some 182 Baghdadi Jews dead and one thousand others injured.
“The event came as a surprise to many Jews. For years, Iraqi Jewry sought to assimilate in the Muslim society (unlike their brethren in other Arab states); they considered themselves Iraqis and felt extremely connected to the country’s heritage. They had immense influence on the shaping of the language and the music, the education system and economy. Farhud scrapped all that,” explained Dr. Haim Saadoun, Dean of Students at the Open University of Israel and Director of the Documentation Center for North African Jewry during World War II (WWII) at the Ben Zvi Institute, adding that the end of the war didn’t ease Jewish suffering.
“Tensions escalated following the UN decision to partition Palestine into two states. The Arab League used the move to promote anti-Jewish sentiment [felt especially in Egypt], charging that Jews were funding the creation of Israel, something that fueled the Arab masses,” Saadoun told Israel Today, stressing that the situation was further aggravated by the rise of pan-Arabism and religious zeal.
In fact, threats against Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa were voiced from the tribune of the UN’s General Assembly, when, amid the Palestine partition debate of 1947, Heykal Pasha, an Egyptian delegate, suddenly declared:
“The United Nations . . . should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim [states]. Partition of Palestine might create in those countries [the feeling of] anti-Semitism [that would be] more difficult to root out than [that…] the Allies were trying to eradicate in Germany. . . If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for the massacre of a large number of Jews”.
Pasha’s ideas quickly became reality as the Arab governments began launching campaigns against Jews. Those included discriminatory legislation, confiscation of citizenship, random arrests and forced imprisonment, exclusion from practice in the civil service and quotas in certain fields of employment (not to mention numerous cases of government-funded violence).
According to the estimates of Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank specializing in public diplomacy and foreign policy, Jews lost some $6.7 billion worth of property and assets (in current prices), with other calculations suggesting the number totaled no less than $30 billion.
This is part two of a three-part series on Israel's forgotten Jewish refugees. Check back next week for the conclusion.
Read the continuation:
Israel's Forgotten Jewish Refugees - Part III