Israel Report

June 2002         

Jews Expelled from Arab Lands Forgotten

By Elias Levy - May 9, 2002
The Forgotten Exodus: The expulsion of the Jews from Arab lands and the Israeli-Arab dispute. That was the theme of a conference held recently in Paris, under the aegis of the Jewish European Congress.

Some 1,500 people attended the conference, including Israeli, French, American and Canadian university professors, historians, lawyers and writers, among them Quebec writer Naïm Kattan and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.

At a time when the Palestinians are demanding the “right of return” to present-day Israel, the conference aimed to bring to light a tragic and little-known episode in Sephardi Jewish history that had been repressed for ideological reasons by everyone involved.

Shmuel Trigano, a sociology professor at the University of Paris-X-Nanterre and conference's main organizer, said the symposium was also a way to offer dignity to a group that had its way of life interrupted and its continuity shattered.

Trigano, the founder and director of the Jewish studies college of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and of Pardès, the European journal of Jewish studies and culture, as well as the author of some 30 books, was interviewed by The CJN shortly after the conference.

Canadian Jewish News: What was the main purpose of the conference?

Shmuel Trigano: The main purpose was to restore the moral dignity of the State of Israel and its historic truth. For several decades, the State of Israel has been charged with congenital guilt, because, according to its detractors, it chased out a nation in order to settle in its land. People are going out of their way to depict Israel and the cause of the Jewish people as a state founded on the dispossession of the Palestinian people, as a flagrant injustice.

They have, however, forgotten that 60 per cent of Israeli Jews were also chased out of their native lands and were forced to leave. The Palestinians' invocation of the right of return, since before the latest intifadah, has reawakened our memory. A memory that has been hidden and repressed has returned to the Jews of the Arab world, to the descendants of the 900,000 people who, from the 1940s on, had to leave the countries they had been living in for a very long time – because they had no choice – while leaving behind all their possessions. Like the Palestinians, these Sephardi Jews still held the keys to their houses as they left in haste.

CJN: Is the forced expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries comparable to that of the Palestinians, then?
Shmuel Trigano: Yes. There was an exchange of populations, as 600,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries immigrated to Israel, on the one hand, and on the other, 540,000 Palestinians displaced after the creation of Israel found themselves in several Arab countries. Those 600,000 Jews were stripped of all their belongings. They too lived in “transit camps.” We have a battle to fight on an international level, because this chapter of the history of the Jews from Arab lands has been completely hidden.

The fact that this indisputable historic reality is unknown allows the Palestinians to present themselves today as absolute victims.

CJN: Is there a pattern to the departure of the Jews from the Arab countries?
Shmuel Trigano: Yes. In some countries, the Jews found themselves excluded through legal actions that led to the loss of their rights as citizens, and the exclusions forced them into exile. In Iraq, there were even military expulsion programs, transferring people by truck through Jordan. In Yemen, the Jewish community was given a short period to leave before all emigration was forbidden. They were stripped of all their possessions by a subterfuge developed by the local authorities. In Egypt, the Jews were gradually excluded from any economic life, then they were interned, and their property was confiscated, to the point where life had become a hell. The Egyptian Jews also left with only a suitcase, leaving behind all their personal belongings… In other cases, the Jews left because they were afraid and felt they had no longer any future where they were.
CJN: The Palestinian refugees are insistent today in claiming financial compensation from Israel. Shouldn't the Jews who were forced to leave the Arab countries also have the right to financial compensation?
Shmuel Trigano: Absolutely. Financial compensation must also be paid to the Jews who had to leave with only a suitcase and left behind all their possessions. There is no reason to compensate the Palestinians and not the Jews under the pretext that the Jews may be pariahs, wanderers, and that it was therefore quite normal to expel them, to have them leave behind all their possessions.
CJN: How many Jews are still in the Muslim Arab countries?
Shmuel Trigano: About 10,000 Jews still live in the Arab-Muslim world, mainly in Morocco, and, to a lesser degree, in Tunisia. There are also a few thousand in Iran. The Iranian Jews cannot emigrate. Otherwise, the entire Arab world has been emptied of its Jews. We have to remember that what happened to 60 per cent of Israel's Jews is directly related to the history of the Arab nation states. When the Arab nation states were created in the Islamic Arab world, there was no longer any place for the Jews in those states.
This article appeared in full in French in the Montreal edition of The CJN, April 18. Translation by Carolan Halpern.

©2002 - Canadian Jewish News


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