On November 30th, the State of Israel commemorates Jewish refugees from Arab Countries and Iran. The date is symbolic in itself, as the previous day, November 29th, marks the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly vote of 1947 that called for the creation of two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, in the territory of British-ruled Mandatory Palestine. The UN vote, rejected by Arab leaders but accepted by Jewish leaders, led, in May of 1948, to the declaration of independence of the new State of Israel.
As of 1948, close to a million Jews lived in Arab and Muslim lands in the Middle East and North Africa, the largest communities in Morocco (over 250,000 people), in Iraq (140,000), and in Egypt and Tunisia (approximately 75,000 in each). Non-Arab Muslim countries also had large Jewish communities: over 65,000 Jews lived in Iran and 80,000 in Turkey.
Some of these communities had existed since the 6th century BCE, the time known as the Babylonian captivity of Jews from the ancient Kingdom of Judah; some formed as a result of the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492 CE.
In many cases, these Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa prospered, were better integrated, and suffered less discrimination than the Jewish communities in Europe. Each community had a rich tradition of religious customs, language, food, and music.
The situation changed dramatically in 1947–48. After the UN vote, and even more after the declaration of independence of the State of Israel, Arab governments initiated overt policies of discrimination that, combined with episodes of outright violence, led in the years to follow to the expulsion or fleeing of entire Jewish communities, mostly towards Israel, but also towards North and South America. Later, following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, over 60,000 Persian Jews also left the country in fear of religious persecution. Indeed, as of today only a few thousand Jews are left in North Africa and Middle East countries.
The majority of these refugees became citizens of the new State of Israel, which was trying to establish itself in a hostile region while absorbing large number of Jews from different parts of the world. The refugees from Muslim lands brought with them a rich culture and ancient traditions, contributing to the diversity of Israel’s society. Their integration, however, was not without difficulty in a society in which Jews from Central and Eastern Europe held most of the economic, political, and cultural power.
While nowadays, thanks to increasingly common intermarriage, over half of Israeli Jews can trace at least part of their origins back to Jews from Muslim lands, several studies have shown a reality of lower socioeconomic and educational status. Many over the past decades have complained that their communities’ culture was not valued and their history not taught inside of Israel, but also that their history of expulsion and loss of homes, property, and roots was disregarded in its specificity, while the world’s attention was much more closely focused on the issue of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
It is only since 2014 that an official “Commemoration of Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran” has been instituted by Israel. During the first ceremony to mark the occasion, on 30 November 2014, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin declared that Israel had erred with its paternalistic and condescending behaviour towards immigrants from Arab countries, but also called for arrangements to be finally made to compensate Jews for the property and capital they were forced to leave behind when they left, fled, or were expelled from Muslim lands.
The acknowledgment of the plight of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East remains indeed an unsolved question between Israel and countries in the region, with discussions about the need for reparations to be paid to the refugees and their descendant having been held formally and informally for many years. While other countries, including Canada and the United States, have officially recognized the experience of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, the issue remains both emotionally charged and politically unresolved.
Costanza Musu is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs University of Ottawa.
This article was first published in The Hill Times on 30 November 2017.