Israel Report

JulyAugust 2004         

The Other Refugees

by Erik Arnold - - July 25, 2004
"Arab aggression has created not one but two groups of refugees in the Middle East. The world has not been allowed to forget the first, but has remained largely unaware of the second. The first group comprises those Arabs who abandoned their homes in Palestine during the 1947-1949 fighting. They numbered 587,000... The second group encompasses the Jews who, between 1947 and 1963, were uprooted from African and Middle Eastern countries where their ancestors had lived for generations and where they were full-fledged citizens until they suddenly became anathema. They numbered about 650,000 [The numbers are actually much higher than this, being closer to 800,000. - E. A.]... The overwhelming majority were poor people, but they collectively left behind property valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars... The world has not overly concerned itself about the Jews who were constrained by forces beyond their control - discriminatory laws, persecutions, physical violence, and purposeful exclusion from Arab societies - to flee 'to a place of safety,' thus meeting Webster's definition of refugees. Attention has been concentrated instead on the plight of the Arabs who left Palestine voluntarily - persuaded by their own military commanders and politicians that the war against the Jews would be short and their victorious return would be sweet with booty - hence [they] might be categorized more properly as 'fugitives' rather than as 'refugees'."
- Frank Gervasi, The Case for Israel, Viking Press, New York, 1967, pp. 108-109

The above paragraph makes succinctly clear a problem long ignored by the world's governments: the history of the persecution and expulsion of the large Jewish population of the Middle East and North Africa. The story of the Arab refugees has occasioned much gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts among the collective court of international opinion, while the same sentiment has not been granted to their more numerous Hebrew counterparts.

Contrary to popular opinion, Jewish existence was never better in essence among the Sons of Ishmael than amid the Christian peoples of Europe. The writer Albert Memmi, born in Tunisia, champion of anti-colonialism and self-described "left-wing Zionist", once wrote the following: "The supposed 'idyllic life' led by Jews in the Arab countries is all a myth! The truth... is that we were, first of all, a minority in hostile surroundings and, as such, we had all the fears of the overly weak, their constant feeling of precariousness.... Never, I repeat, never... have the Jews lived in the Arab countries otherwise than as diminished people in an exposed position, periodically overcome and massacred so that they would be acutely conscious of their position." (Albert Memmi, Jews and Arabs, translated by Eleanor Levieux, J. Philip O'Hara Inc., Chicago, 1975, pp. 20-22)

He further states: "But if we leave out the crematoria and the murders committed in Russia, from Kishinev to Stalin, the sum total of the Jewish victims of the Christian world is probably no greater than the total number of victims of the successive pogroms, both big and small, perpetrated in the Moslem countries." (ibid. pg. 27)

In fact, during Islam's Golden Age Jews were restricted as to their choice of occupation, mode of dress, forms of worship, and even access to specific parts of some cities. These discriminatory attitudes were enshrined in the Pact of Omar, the name for the collective body of legislation directed at both Jew and Christian in the Islamic world. On certain occasions, the followers of Mohammed even introduced prejudicial measures later adopted by the Christian West, such as the "Jewish badge" as a mark of identification for "unbelievers". And while Muslim tolerance varied greatly with both time and location, it could be revoked at any time, with disastrous consequences. Jews were expected to know their place within the hierarchical scheme laid out in the Koran and subsequent laws.

Success was always accompanied by a sword of Damocles. For instance, in 1066, the Ibn Nagrela family, prominent courtiers at the Muslim court of Granada, were deposed and the ghetto destroyed by mobs incensed at the haughty behavior of the "infidels". This pogrom was preceded by a vitriolic attack launched by the theologian Ibn Hazm and the writer Abu Ishaq, both of whom castigated King Badis for his relative leniency in letting Jews rise to influential positions, in contradistinction to their degraded station in Islamic jurisprudence.

The internecine warfare among the petty Moorish states that succeeded the Caliphate of Cordoba led to the invasion of the Iberian peninsula by the Almoravides and Almohades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, respectively. These Berber marabouts, warrior clerics similar in certain respects to the Teutonic Knights, streamed from their forts in the North African wastelands and, with their intolerance, put the nail in the coffin for Jewish life in Muslim Spain. By offering the choice of conversion or death to all "non-believers" - a stance contrary to general Islamic practice - they sounded the death knell for the relative tolerance of the "Iberian Renaissance".

The Jewish condition tended to worsen with the decline of Islamic power (with Turkey being the main exception), reaching its nadir in Iran and Yemen from the seventeenth century onwards. In those countries, the Jews were subjected to particularly humiliating forms of discrimination. In Shiite Persia, for example, with its stringent "sanitary" religious prohibitions, food or items handled by Jews were considered unclean and polluting to the faithful, a situation analogous in some respects to that of the Hindu caste of untouchables in India. Iran even created its own "Marranos" by forcibly converting the Jews of Meshed in 1839. In Yemen, a royal decree instituted in 1673, and continuing until that country was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1872, forced Jews to go bareheaded, something particularly galling to the pious.

Yemen's treatment of its Jews varied little with the passage of time, which can be seen in the following description made by the German explorer Hans Helfritz in the 1930s:

"The Southern Arabians regard the Jews as people of a lower grade, and despise them utterly, although both belong to the same Semitic race. Accordingly, the Jew has very limited privileges and is subject to strict regulations. Evidently there is a desire to prevent him from climbing upwards. An indication of the inferiority of his position is in the fact that he is not allowed to ride a camel or a mule, but has to rely on donkeys for his transport. Further, he is not permitted to carry arms or to serve in the army; on the other hand he is required to pay a high sum to the Imam, who then condescends to see to his protection. He is called upon to perform the most servile tasks, and though he is allowed to trade in the Arab city [the Arab section of San'a], he may never settle among Mohammedans.

"The houses in the ghetto, the Ka'a el-Jahud (City of the Jews), may only have two floors, and the synagogues are allowed in no wise to differ from the ordinary living houses. Consequently the streets in the ghetto, in contrast to those in the Arab city, make a monotonous and unattractive impression.... 'The Jews must pay tribute,' a distinguished Saidi told me, 'in order that they may not forget their racial origin. It is also a reminder to them of the Prophet's tolerance and benevolence.' ...The Imam is not willing to allow his Jews to leave the country; nor may they establish any communications with their compatriots in Palestine, or with the Zionist Movement; nor may they receive teachers or propagandists from abroad. Many of them have escaped over the frontier; in such cases their whole property has been confiscated by the Imam." (Hans Helfritz, Land Without Shade, transl. Kenneth Kirkness, New York, Robert M. McBride and Co., 1936, pgs. 252 - 254)

This predicament was repeated throughout the Mohammedan world. A late nineteenth century European traveler wrote the following similar observations about North Africa:

"It has lasted long enough before the Jews enjoyed in those countries [i.e., Morocco and Tunisia] an existence worthy of human dignity.... The oppression to which the latter [the Jews] are exposed, even to this day, are almost incredible... they had to live in a certain quarter, and were not allowed to appear in the streets after sunset... If it was a dark night, they were not allowed to carry a lantern like the Moors and Turks, but a candle, which the wind extinguished every minute. They were neither allowed to ride on horseback nor on a mule, and even to ride on a donkey was forbidden them except outside the town; they had then to dismount at the gates, and walk in the middle of the street, so as not to be in the way of Arabs. If they had to pass the 'Kasba', they had first to fall on their knees as a sign of submission, and then to walk on with lowered head; before coming to a mosque they were obliged to take the slippers off their feet, and had to pass the holy edifice without looking at it.... It was worse even in their intercourse with Mussulmans; if one of these fancied himself insulted by a Jew, he stabbed him at once, and had only to pay a fine to the state, by way of punishment.... The Prime Minister down to the common soldier, took every opportunity to oppress and rob the Jews. They need only hear that this one or the other possessed great wealth to be after him at once for the purpose of confiscating his fortune for the paltriest of reasons, or to extort as many thousand piastres as they thought he was worth." (Chevalier de Hesse - Wartegg, Tunis: The Land and People, new edition, London 1899, pgs 115 -128. Quoted in Norman A. Stillman, The Jews in Arab Lands, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1979, pgs. 416 - 417, 420)

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the importation of such Western ideas as socialism, capitalism, secularism, and the idea of the modern nation state into what was basically an agrarian, religiously oriented, clan-based and feudal society. The concomitant rise of Zionism among the despised Jews served to further aggravate the dislocation felt in much of the Arab-Islamic world and served as a lightning rod to galvanize the Muslim masses. Vicious attacks were launched against all Jews, including those of non- or even anti-Zionist feeling. The ferocious Hebron pogrom of 1929, in which the mostly Orthodox community was slaughtered, to a man, accompanied by savage mutilations of both the living and the dead, was an extreme example of the new Arab behavior.

The rise of Italian fascism and German National Socialism was greeted with applause by many Arab intellectuals, who felt an acute kinship with both ideologies for their anti-British and anti-Semitic elements. Copies of both the Czarist-era forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf were issued in numerous Arabic language editions. Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, the British-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem, became a prominent Muslim activist on behalf of the Axis cause. After fleeing the Middle East for Berlin, he broadcast rabidly anti-Semitic propaganda for the Nazis' Arabic radio service as well as organizing Bosnian Muslim SS units for active use on the battlefront. Future Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat was a strong admirer of Hitler and kept a portrait of the Fuhrer in his private office as late as the early fifties. The Egyptian "Green Shirts" attempted to emulate their radical European counterparts by instituting an economic boycott of Jewish businesses and committing random bombings of private homes of wealthy Jews. In 1941 Yunis Al-Sabawi, the head of Iraq's fascist influenced militias, ordered all Jews to remain in their homes in preparation for a secret massacre planned to occur during the two days of Shavuot. While Sabawi was deported to the Iranian border and hence unable to follow through with his project, a more or less spontaneous mass slaughter did take place in Baghdad under the watchful eyes of the British army.

The post-World War II period witnessed the end of the millennia-old history of Jewish life in the Near East. Across this huge area, dictators arose who emphasized the purely Arab character of their countries, thus automatically excluding the Jews from the nation-building process. The growth of Zionism and the subsequent battle for Palestine were used to stress the alien quality and the "subversiveness" of the Israelite population. The persecution, despoliation and expulsion of whole communities proceeded apace, ending only with the beggaring and ejection of the Jews of Libya following the Qaddafi coup of 1969.

Yet, when the issue of Middle Eastern refugees is discussed, the group in question is always Arab.

The implications of this one-sided emphasis for the Israel-Arab problem have been profound. While Arabs and their supporters loudly declaim the unconditional demand that Israel open its doors to a flood of emigrants and their descendents, no Muslim country is expected to do the same for Jews. Indeed, in many instances, the Jewish presence in certain areas antedates that of both Arabs (North Africa) and Islam (Yemen) by several thousand years; yet there is no large-scale effort to make restitution to these shattered communities.

A visit to any library will reveal a large amount of works devoted to the dilemma of the Arab runaways. In fact a whole "Palestine industry" has arisen dedicated to the articulation of this group's point of view, while systematically ignoring that of the Jews. The Israeli government, rather than making a case for its own victimized citizens and their progeny, simply allows the black silence to engulf the memory of the destroyed Levantine communities of the world's oldest Diaspora.

Erik Arnold is a freelance columnist who writes on a variety of cultural and political topics.

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