The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has gained unprecedented prominence in the latest issue of Congressional Quarterly Researcher (13 April 2018). Sarah Glazer tells the story of Syrian-born Joseph Esses and interviews Lyn Julius, author of Uprooted.
Joseph Esses, who was born in 1919 in the Syrian city of Aleppo, had fond memories of growing up Jewish next to his Muslim neighbors. But Arab attitudes toward Jews took a fateful turn after 1948, when the state of Israel was founded.
One evening after that historic event, Esses was walking home from his clothing shop when three Muslim men cornered him on the street. Beating him with fists, rocks and sticks, they taunted him, “You want a country? Here is your country!” Esses recalled witnessing numerous atrocities against the Jewish community in Aleppo — the killings of friends and relatives in broad daylight and hangings for the “crime” of being a Jew. After being in and out of jail for two years and enduring torture, Esses escaped to Lebanon in 1950 and found his way to Canada, leaving behind all his family heirlooms and property. 1
After 1948, 856,000 Jews were forced to leave the Middle Eastern countries where their families had lived for generations. Most of this migration occurred rapidly: 90 percent of the Jews who fled Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen had departed by 1951. About 650,000 ended up as refugees in Israel; another 200,000 went to the United States, Canada or Europe. 2
The forces pushing Jews from their homelands included discriminatory laws — stripping them of citizenship, confiscating their property and barring them from specified jobs — as well as anti-Jewish riots.Within a few years, thriving Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Yemen had virtually disappeared.
Today, outside of Israel, only 4,500 Jews remain in the Middle East, almost all in Morocco and Tunisia. 3
In Uprooted: How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight, British writer Lyn Julius, the daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees who fled to the United Kingdom in 1950, chronicles this story. More Jews than Palestinians were forced from their homelands after 1948, and about as many Middle Eastern Jews ended up as refugees in Israel as the number of Palestinians displaced from that land, she wrote. 4
“The Palestinians have to recognize there are two sets of refugees — not just them,” says Julius, who thinks recognition of this fact and compensation for Middle Eastern Jews, known as Mizrahi Jews, should be on the agenda of any future peace negotiations. “This hopefully would lead to a recognition that a wrong was done to people on both sides and would lead to a kind of reconciliation.”
President Bill Clinton took a step in this direction in July 2000, immediately after the Camp David peace talks, when in an Israeli television interview he suggested creating an international fund to compensate Jews from Arab countries who became refugees in Israel. At the Camp David summit, Clinton said, “the Palestinians said they thought these people should be eligible for compensation.”
In 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proposed compensation for Jews from Arab countries ahead of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 5 However, no such international fund has been established.
Recently, in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries, interest
has grown in Jewish culture. Exemplifying this trend are a popular Egyptian TV series, “The Jewish Neighborhood;” the emergence of films and novels in Arabic featuring Jewish characters; Jewish cultural festivals; and the restoration of abandoned synagogues. 6
Palestinian scholar Najat Abdulhaq, who is based in Berlin and teaches at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, traces this growing interest among young people to the 2010-11 Arab Spring protests and the questioning of their governments’ official line. “Literature, culture and films are intellectual spaces where we can discuss taboos” about Jews and can go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said during a recent talk in London.
Curious about shuttered synagogues and nostalgic for the once-cosmopolitan, inclusive societies portrayed in films, young people are seeking a reappraisal of the role that Jews played in their societies, she said. 7
Joseph Esses, shown with his wife, Olga Abadi Esses, in 1960 in Beirut, fled Syria to Lebanon in 1950 and eventually settled in Canada.
Julius said she is skeptical of a real rapprochement, suggesting the trend toward restoring Jewish synagogues is driven by Arab countries’ desire to attract Western tourism — garnering favorable public relations “without the inconvenience of live Jews.” 8
In her book, Julius argued that anti-Semitism in Arab countries predated the Israeli-Arab conflict. Bigotry against non- Muslims has a long tradition in the Middle East, she wrote. 9
“Even minorities who’ve got no Israel of their own have been persecuted,” Julius says. “You only have to look at the plightof Christian groups and Kurdish Yazidis.”
For many years, the Israeli government described the migration of Mizrahi Jews as the product of a long-held desire to return to the Jewish homeland. But Julius says that most arrived out of desperation. Wealthier families went to the United States, Europe or Canada. In the early years, Mizrahis were typically housed in tent camps and faced discrimination in a society dominated by European Jewry.
Only recently has Israel recognized the plight of the Mizrahis. In 2010, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed a law declaring that compensation to Jewish refugees from Arab lands for property losses should be part of any future peace negotiations. 10
1 Michelle Devorah Kahn, “Tales of a convicted Jew’s escape from Syria,”
National Post, Dec. 1, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y844m8yk.
2 Lyn Julius, Uprooted: How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab
World Vanished Overnight (2018), pp. 120, x-xxiii, 5.
3 Ibid., pp. 132, 5, 264.
4 Ibid., p. x. An estimated 711,000 Palestinian Arabs, who had left what
became Israel after the 1948 war, were recognized by the U.N. as refugees
in 1950. See “General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the
United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, Covering the Period
from 11 December 1949 to 23 October 1950,” United Nations Conciliation
Commission, Oct. 23, 1950, https://tinyurl.com/y7zd2fby.
5 Alan Baker, ed., Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy
(2011), p. 61, https://tinyurl.com/y9qt3m8m; Julius, op. cit., 267-69.
6 “Rethinking and Reclaiming History: Emerging Arab Interest in Jewish Heritage,”
SOAS University of London, Jan. 30, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y82lg6sz.
8 Julius, op. cit., p. 234.
9 Ibid., p. 87.
10 Ibid., p. 270.