Roots of the Jewish Exodus

Though the Palestinian refugee issue receives widespread attention, little regard is given the far greater flood of Jews that fled from Islamic lands into Israel beginning immediately before the 1948 War of Independence and continuing years hence. In 1948, 850,000 Jews lived within the Islamic Crescent, some communities dating back to the Babylonian exile. Today, perhaps less than 30,000 Jews remain. What were the events that caused these beleaguered people to flee their homelands? And will their dispossession and loss be rectified alongside Palestinian claims in final-status talks? These questions are explored in a three-part Backgrounder series, beginning with "The Roots of the Jewish Exodus."

This first installment briefly examines the roots of Islamic anti-Semitism and its application in Muslim lands throughout history in an attempt to identify and understand the causes of the modern Jewish exodus. In the intervening years since 1948, Jews were the target of vitriolic government orchestrated anti-Semitic pogroms aimed at eradicating all Jewish presence from Muslim lands. Sparked by the incredible - yet unacceptable --rebirth of the Jewish nation in their midst, these Islamic pogroms were the last acts of hundreds of years of continuous government and religiously-sanctioned persecutions against the Jewish race.

THE FOUNDATIONS of the Islamic faith rest primarily upon two pillars: The Koran -- Islam's holy book, and Muhammedan  sunna (traditions). The Koran is a compilation of the teachings of Allah, as revealed through his prophet Muhammed, forming part of the basis for religious, social and judicial structures in Islamic societies.

The Koran. Amazingly, the Koran refers to Jews as Allah's chosen people in sura 5:20-22, part of which states, "O my people (Jews)! Go into the Holy Land which Allah hath ordained for you." This verse was written at the beginning of Muhammed's "revelations," after he fled Mecca for Medina, and indicates that he believed Jewish rights to present-day Israel were ordained by "Allah." But later in life, after realizing local Jewish tribes refused to recognize him as "The Prophet," he declared them to be "infidels" or unbelievers, effectively stripping them of their status as "Allah's chosen people." Sura 47:4, though it does not specifically mention Jews, has been used throughout the centuries by adherents of Islam as a pretext to kill them: "Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers, smite at their necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them)…" This verse refers to Allah's command of perpetual jihad -- literally "holy war" -- until all mankind is either killed, converted, or subjugated by Islam. Other Koranic verses prophesy a ceaseless struggle against the Jews until Judgement Day.

The Sunna. The sunna is the record of Muhammed's life and is used as the pattern by which Muslims are to conduct relations among one another and between the umma -- the Muslim community -- and the infidel. Once Muhammed gained a political foothold in Medina, he drafted the Covenant of Medina, stating his desire for peace with the Jews of the city. After he became sufficiently powerful, he broke the treaty, waged war against the Jews of the city and completely eliminated them. He attacked the remaining Jewish tribe, the Banu-Qurayza, decapitated the men and buried them in a mass grave, distributing as chattel the surviving Jewish women and children among the Muslim umma.

Dhimmitude. Muhammed next attacked and subjugated the Jews in the Arabian region of Khaybar, binding them to a condition called dhimmitude, which served as a model of Islamic rulership over all monotheistic infidels vanquished by jihad.

In return for Muhammed's "protection," the Jews of Khaybar had to cede to Muhammed one-half of all future production, and pay an annual Koranic poll tax -- the jizya -- to the umma. Muhammed believed no infidel was endowed with the right to life; his life and goods are granted to him by the umma, and must be repurchased year after year through payment of the jizya.

The shadow of dhimmitude fell over all the lands where Islam conquered, although the severity of application varied according to the whims of the local imam or caliph. In all regions, though, a dhimmi's protection could be revoked for a number of reasons: if he broke Islamic law, refused to pay the jizya, harmed a Muslim or his property, or committed blasphemy -- a charge he was powerless to defend himself against in court. If ever the "pact of protection" were broken, a dhimmi's life and property were forfeited.

A dhimmi's rights were non-existent in all aspects of life: religious, social, political and judicial. He had no right to defend himself if assaulted by a Muslim; could not testify or defend himself against a Muslim in court; possessed no rights of free speech, assembly or religion; could not marry a Muslim or have Muslim servants, and could not ride a horse or camel (too noble of creatures). He also had to wear distinctive clothing -- usually a yellow star -- identifying him as a Jew. Stoning and murdering of dhimmis was common, as their blood was worth only half that of a Muslim. The offenders had only to pay a fine to the umma for the loss of income sustained from the dhimmi's death.

Applications in Various Nations. In Libya, then known as Tripolitania, Jews were considered as property of their Arab masters, who would bequeath the Jews to their heirs upon death. Writing in 19th century Syria, one Jew lamented, "When a Jew walked among them [the Muslims] in the market, one would throw a stone at him in order to kill him, another would pull his beard, yet another spit on his face He became the symbol of abuse."

In the 12th century, Egyptian Jews were the object of anti-dhimmi riots so successful that one observer noted the Jewish population had "greatly declined" in their wake. In 1884, the Sultan of Morocco said Jews had to work on Shabbat, could only "clean foul places and latrines," had to part with merchandise at half-price and accept counterfeit coinage, to name a few of the provisions.

Conclusion. This, then, was the world from which the Jews fled to Israel. The illustrations are neither isolated nor exceptional, but rather the sad condition in which virtually all Jews existed under the Islamic rule of law. In 1948 and beyond, after hundreds of years of exposure to severe oppression and degradation, the Sephardim and Mizrahim -- the Jews of North Africa and the East -- found refuge from their enemies.

"The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing… Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away." Isaiah 51:11

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