Backgrounder:

The Jewish Exodus, Part III

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, speaking in Cairo on September 12, vowed, "The right of refugees to return to their homeland is one... which we will never compromise." Arab League states collectively support the Palestinian "right of return," both as a whip against Israel in general, and in many cases as a means to rid themselves of unwanted Palestinian populations. But based upon the historic maltreatment and expulsion of their respective Jewish communities and their responsibility for initiating hostilities against Israel, do these nations or the PA enjoy legal or moral standing to demand the return of displaced Palestinians?
This is the final installment in a three-part series examining the Jewish exodus from Arab lands. This issue will probe the stories of Syria, Yemen and Iraq in order to expose the unfolding Arab League scheme to plunder and expel their Jewish populations.

Palestinian National Council member Sabri Jiryis, in a rare confession of Arab responsibility for the Jewish exodus made in a May 1975 article in Beirut's Al-Nahar newspaper, said: "This is hardly the place to describe how the Jews of the Arab states were driven out of their ancient homes, ...shamefully deported after their property had been commandeered or taken over at the lowest possible valuations. This is true for the majority of the Jews in question."

Syria. The Syrian Jewish community in 1948 dated to the First Century destruction of Jerusalem, approximately 1900 year earlier. Under Islamic rule, Jews were routinely subject to cruel and inhumane treatment, including forced conversions, routine pogroms and severe commercial and personal restrictions. By early 1947, only 13,000 Jews lived in Syria; 20,000 had fled throughout the course of the previous decade, as Nazi zeal permeated the region and made their lives especially difficult. Immediately after Syria gained independence from France in 1945, vitriolic anti-Semitic propaganda was broadcast on television and radio, inciting the Arab masses to violence. In December 1947, one month after the Partition Plan's acceptance, a pogrom erupted in the Syrian town of Aleppo, torching numerous Jewish properties, including synagogues, schools, orphanages and businesses. Eyewitnesses to the violence noted Syrian firemen and police dispatched to the scene actively participated in the rioting.

A flurry of anti-Semitic legislation passed in 1948 restricted, among other things, Jewish travel outside of government-approved ghettos, selling private property, acquiring land or changing their place of residence. A decree in 1949 went a step further, seizing all Jewish bank accounts. Under threats of execution, long prison sentences and torture, 10,000 Jews were able to depart between 1948 and 1962. A report published in 1981 indicated Syrian Jews were subject to "the Mukhabarat, the [Syrian] secret police, [who] conduct a reign of terror and intimidation, including searches without warrant, detention without trial, torture and summary execution." Due mainly to US influence in the context of the Madrid peace process, all but about 800 of the Jewish community have fled, most settling in the United States. Syria has confiscated all Jewish property aside from those who remain.

Yemen. The Yemenite Jewish community existed in what historian S.D. Goitein described as the "worst aspect" of the Arab mistreatment of the Jew. Jewish life in Yemen, up to the time of Israel's modern evacuation of the community, contained the harshest elements imaginable under dhimmitude status. Jews could not testify in court, and were regularly murdered, limited to employment in the most demeaning of positions and forced to relinquish their property on demand, to name a very few deprivations. An "age-old" custom of stoning Jews, permissible by Muslim law, was still regularly practiced up to the time the Jews fled Yemen. Conditions for the community were exacerbated by Israel's victory over Arab armies in 1948, making the swift extraction of the community a matter of rescue or extinction. Arab mobs swarmed through Tsan'a and other towns, burning, murdering, raping and looting in the city's Jewish quarters. The region's imam - or religious authority - permitted the Jewish community to leave Yemen, provided they forfeit all property to the state. Israel launched Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, and over the course of one year, successfully airlifted some 50,000 Yemenite Jews - almost the entire ancient community - to Israel.

Iraq. The 135,000 strong Iraqi Jewish community in 1948 traced their origins to the pre-exilic Jewish community of Babylon, 2700 years previous. Anti-Semitic legislation in 1948, declared "Zionism" - a crime accorded to Jews automatically - an offence punishable by a seven-year jail term. Additional legislation barred Jews from government, medicine and education, denied merchants import licenses and closed Jewish banks. The Jewish community faced economic ruin. During Israel's War of Independence, immigration to Israel was declared a capital offense while public Law No. 1, passed in 1950, stripped Jews of their Iraqi nationality. In 1950, Israel launched Operation Ali Baba to extricate the destitute remnant. Iraq, intrigued at the prospect of inheriting large quantities of abandoned Jewish property, allowed the Jews to leave, reassuring emigrants they would receive fair compensation for property and other assets they were forced to abandon. The airlift spirited 123,000 Jews out of the country, with 110,000 choosing to remain in Israel. Despite it's promise, the Iraqi government announced on March 10, 1951 - the day after the deadline for exit registration - that emigrant's property, businesses and bank accounts were forfeit. That same year, Law No. 5 was expanded to include all Jewish holdings in Iraqi banks. By itself, this extension looted $200 million in Jewish assets. By January 1952, as Iraq again closed the doors to Jewish emigration, only 6,000 remained. All remaining Jewish communal property was confiscated in 1958. Today, only 200 Jews remain in Iraq, forced to reside in a Baghdad ghetto.

Without Equal. The exchange of Arab and Jewish populations in and around Israel's War of Independence cannot be equated, as the circumstances perpetuating the refugee movements prove vastly different. The record shows the bulk of Palestinian refugees left their homes on their own accord and at the strong insistence of Arab leadership at the time. None were forcibly deprived of their wealth, and most expected to return to their homes after invading Arab armies crushed the nascent Jewish state.

In contrast, the Jewish residents of Arab countries were, almost without exception, forcefully expelled from their homelands and robbed of their wealth and livelihoods by government-planned, anti-Semitic campaigns meant to eliminate from their midst the "pariah" Jewish presence. This program of ethnic cleansing came hard on the heels of Hitler's plot to make Europe "Judenrein." Using tactics of terror, Arab/Islamic leaders effected a plan to expel their Jewish citizenry, indifferent that its execution would mean the death of thousands, gleeful of the untold wealth it would transfer into their coffers.


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