The Inconvenient Truth About Jews From Arab Lands: They Were Expelled

Onetime Anti-Israel Radical Comes To Terms With Truth

Seeking Refuge: Yemenis gather around the ruins of buildings in the Jewish quarter after riots broke out.
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Seeking Refuge: Yemenis gather around the ruins of buildings in the Jewish quarter after riots broke out.

By Adi Schwartz

Published June 01, 2014.
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In 1945, Weinstock notes, almost one million Jews lived in the Arab world, whereas today there are about 4,500, the great majority of them in Morocco. According to Weinstock, there is no precedent for such a dramatic termination of Jewish communities anywhere in the world, including during the Holocaust. What, then, brought about the massive departure of Jews from the Arab countries? It was not Zionism that disconnected the Jews from their surroundings, he says. On the contrary: In most cases, the Zionist movement had a hard time mustering supporters. Jews also tried to become part of the Arab national-liberation movements. For example, the chief rabbi of Egypt during the mid-20th century, Chaim Nahum, often spoke out against Zionism; in Iraq, Jewish communists founded the Anti-Zionist League. Activist Jewish communists in North Africa expressed solidarity with the Maghreb peoples and were in the forefront of the demand for national liberation.

Weinstock cites a large number of attacks and pogroms against Jewish communities that are rarely mentioned in history curricula in Israel. In 1912, 12 Jews were killed in Shiraz, Iran, and 51 were killed that year in Fez, Morocco. In 1934, 25 Jews were killed in the Algerian city of Constantine.

In Iraq, 150 Jews were murdered in the Farhud of 1941, a three-day pogrom. Seven years later, upon Israel’s establishment, Iraq declared martial law and launched a wave of anti-Jewish persecutions. Many Jews were arrested, tried and convicted, some were sentenced to death, others were given jail terms or slapped with large fines. At this stage, the Jews were forbidden to leave the country, but in March 1950 Iraq allowed the Jews to emigrate, provided they gave up their citizenship and their property.

“The ongoing deterioration in the Jews’ situation and the atmosphere of hate surrounding them led to a mass flight from the country,” Weinstock writes.

The majority of the Jewish population (90 percent of the community of 150,000) left that year, amid a massive plundering of their property by the authorities.

In Egypt, anti-Jewish disturbances broke out in November 1945, on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but the declaration of the State of Israel three years later triggered serious persecution. Hundreds of Jews were arrested, accused of involvement in Zionist or communist plots and had their property confiscated. Continuous attacks on Jews began that June. Bombs were planted in the Jewish quarter of Cairo, and it and the Jewish section of Alexandria were set ablaze. Half the country’s Jewish community left at that time, with the remainder being expelled during the Sinai War of 1956. The Jews who were driven out were not allowed to take with or sell their property.

“The police arrived and pulled grocers, carpenters, woodworkers and glaziers – but also well-known lawyers – from their beds,” Weinstock writes.

Is there anything in common among the different communities?

“Yes, in terms of the legal and social status that the Jews shared under Islamic rule. They possessed dhimmi status, meaning ‘protected person.’ It afforded the Jews the authorities’ protection, but at the same time placed them in an inferior position, humiliated and scorned. Jews were not allowed to bear arms in these countries, in which carrying a weapon was considered a salient sign of manhood. In some cases, as in early-19th-century Morocco, Jews were made to go about barefoot, or to wear humiliating clothes.”

In return for protection by the government, the Jews had to pay a special tax. “Nothing better describes the contempt entailed in the status of dhimmitude,” Weinstock writes, “than the ritual of humiliation that accompanied the annual payment of the subjugation tax in Morocco, as recently as the end of the 19th century. Every year, on a fixed date, the head of each Jewish community had to turn over the money to the sultan’s representative, who for his part had to slap [the Jew] or hit him with a stick in order to hammer home the inequality between giver and recipient, by nature of their birth.”

In Yemen, the “Latrines Ordinance,” introduced in the same spirit, obliged the Jewish community periodically to clean out cesspools and clear away animal carcasses that blocked public roads. (The law remained in force until 1950.)

Weinstock describes a very different state of affairs from the oft-voiced myth about the harmonious relations between Jews and Arabs under Islamic rule. Less than 100 years after the Ottoman sultan invited the exiles from Spain to settle throughout his empire, for example, one of his descendants, Murat III, ordered “the liquidation of all the Jews.” The sultan’s Jewish physician persuaded his mother to intercede, and the order was rescinded.

Over the years, numerous laws were enacted that discriminated against the Jews – from a prohibition against horseback riding to the necessity of wearing particular clothing, and from a ban on giving testimony in court to a prohibition against building homes over a certain height.

At the same time, Weinstock notes, the laws were not enforced identically in every place and in every period. For example, a study of the Cairo Geniza documents, which date back to the ninth century, shows that the clothing regulations were not observed at all.

“There were periods in which the Jews succeeded very well in the Muslim world,” Weinstock says. “At times they were part of the elite. The dhimmi regulations and the scale of humiliation also differed from place to place and from one period to another. But the central axis that dictated the attitude toward the Jews was their dhimmi status, which meant subjugation to the ruling Muslim group.”


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