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The Forgotten Exodus: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries

January 3, 2018

by: Ilse Posselt, BFP News Correspondent

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I knew Hannah Behar was extraordinary the first time she cupped my cheeks in her age-gnarled hands and called me habibti (Arabic term of endearment). At 86, Behar—a friend’s grandmother who welcomed me in her home as a daughter—was the picture of vitality and spunk. Her exceptional character, I learned, was forged in the fires of adversity and loss. She emerged, determined to embrace the second chance at life she had been offered.

Behar was born in a bustling Jewish community in Mosul, Iraq, the daughter of a prosperous jeweler. She married at 15 and the couple welcomed their first daughter a year later. Their peaceful life ended at the same time as the British Mandate in historic Palestine. As the possibility of a Jewish home in the Promised Land increased and the promise later turned into reality, persecution of the Jewish community in Iraq reached fever pitch. Finally, Behar’s family and loved ones were expelled from the country of their birth—carrying nothing but one suitcase each. On the border, Iraqi guards stamped their passports with an Arabic phrase that warned, “Go and never come back!” Behar was six months pregnant at the time.

Iraqi Jewish refugees

Behar’s tale is tragic, but in no way unique. Alter some details—like the country of origin, hometown or specifics of the eviction—and you have the story of 850,000 Jews who were expelled from Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Algeria and Morocco around the time of the rebirth of the State of Israel. Their ordeal, hailed as the Forgotten Jewish Exodus, is one of the most untold tales of our time.

Life Interrupted

The history of Jewish populations in Arab countries is a long and distinguished one. The Iraqi Jewish community, for instance, dates back some 2,700 years and was considered one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished. The Jews of the Middle East were responsible for some of the most pivotal texts in Judaism, including the Babylonian Talmud (rabbinic commentary) and played a leading role in the development of their respective countries. For generations, Jews lived in relative harmony alongside their Arab neighbors, who called them the “People of the Book” and revered them as distinguished scholars and merchants.

As World War II drew to a close, the Jewish population in Arab countries across the Middle East and North Africa neared one million. Today, less than 10,000 remain. Those who left did not do so voluntarily.

In 1947, the Palestinians rejected the United Nations (UN) resolution to carve the Promised Land into a Jewish and a Palestinian state. In a flurry of anti-Zionist fervor, Arab rulers poured rage and hatred on their Jewish communities. Bloody government-inspired pogroms swept through Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Jews. Laws that froze Jewish bank accounts and legalized the confiscation of Jewish property and possessions quickly followed.

The persecution intensified after the rebirth of Israel in 1948. Then, following the failure to annihilate the Jewish state in the War of Independence, Arab rulers turned their attention to waging a war of terror against their Jewish citizens. The situation soon became unbearable. Between 1949 and 1950, up to 130,000 Iraqi Jews fled to Israel as part of rescue Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, while Operation Wings of Eagles brought 49,000 Yemenite Jews home to the Promised Land. In total, roughly 850,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews were evicted or forced from their homes – penniless and destitute.

Welcomed Home

The UN currently faces the largest refugee crisis in modern history, with 68 million people requiring shelter. Regardless of the pressing need world-wide, only one group has its own dedicated UN body: the Palestinians. An estimated 650,000 to 710,000 Palestinians left Israel between 1948 and 1967. Today, over six decades later, the future of these so-called refugees remains unresolved. In fact, the supposed injustices they have suffered and their alleged right to return are purposefully kept alive in the hearts and minds of international audiences, which results in the refugee narrative being painted as exclusively Palestinian and effectually condemning them to remain shackled to a status of perpetual victimhood.

The phenomenon also highlights a glaring bias. Experts estimate that the number of Jews expelled from Arab countries exceeded the number of Palestinians who left Israel by nearly 20%. Moreover, the sum of individual assets lost was exponentially higher on the Jewish refugees’ part than on that of the Palestinians. Why, then, does the Palestinian refugee issue remain at the top of the global agenda, while few know nor care about the plight of the Jews who were forced from their countries at roughly the same time? And while the Palestinians have a dedicated agency at the UN advocating for its supposed rights, where are the international bodies calling for Jewish restitution and right of return?

Iraqi Jewish refugees in 1951

The answer arguably lies in the fact that the State of Israel welcomed the exiled Jews with open arms and made every effort to integrate them into the society as thriving citizens. The newly reborn country did so despite facing a constant threat for its survival, suffering dire economic hardship and receiving no compensation from the Arab states that confiscated all the Jewish refugees’ possessions. The Palestinians, on the other hand, continue to be ostracized by their brethren and shunned by Arab countries. Israel offered its people life—and they seized the chance. The Arabs, on the other hand, chose to cast the Palestinians in the role of eternal martyrs.

Behar stands as testimony. After spending a year in a resettlement camp, the young family of former refugees started building their new lives as Israelis in the Promised Land. Today, Behar is the proud grandmother of ten and great-grandmother of five. Her sons, daughters and grandchildren served in the army, studied at Israel’s finest universities and now hold distinguished careers. Every Friday night, they gather around her Shabbat table to dine on Jewish cuisine with a distinct Iraqi flavor. “We refused to be victims,” she says. “We preferred life.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

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