15 February 2003

The Forgotten Refugees

Imagine you have been living in the same city that your parents, grandparents and even your great-great-grandparents have lived in for the last twenty five hundred years. Sounds incredible. Then one day, it’s all over. You are thrown out of your home and sent penniless hundreds of miles away with no chance of ever returning. This is the story of the Jews that were living in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.

Jews lived in what are now the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE (BC). When the Muslim Arabs swept through the Middle East and North Africa, Jews were one of the few indigenous peoples that resisted conversion to Islam. As a result, they were reduced to second class citizens, otherwise known as dhimmis. This meant the Jews were tolerated but could never achieve equal status of a Muslim.

Caliph Omar, who succeeded Muhammed, created a set of codes by which a dhimmi had to live. The degradation of Jews under the Charter of Omar depended on the individual ruler. From Time Immemorial, documents some of these actions. In Yemen “life was abject slavery...where one of the Jews’ tasks was to clean city latrines and another was to clear the streets of animal carcasses-without pay, often on their Sabbath.” Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jewish newspaperman wrote: “What have we been for centuries if not dominated, humiliated, threatened and periodically massacred?”

When dhimmis laws were not being strongly enforced, there were times that Jewish community would flourish. The response to that success would be a wave of harassment or massacre of Jews, instigated by the government or the masses. Once the Jewish community was weak again, they would be temporarily left alone.

This is the backdrop to the tragedy of the forgotten Middle East refugees. In 1948, nearly 900,000 Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa, some having lived there for 2500 years, such as in Iraq. Today, 99% of these communities no longer exist and less than 8,000 Jews live in the Arab countries of the MidEast and North Africa.

The rise of Arab nationalism in the mid-20th Century led to the destruction of these communities. Hajj Amin al-Husayni, an Arab nationalist leader, and the Mufti of Jerusalem went to Nazi Berlin in 1941 and asked Hitler to “resolve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and the other Arab countries in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis countries.” A few years later, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen drove out most of their Jewish citizens through government action and physical attacks. In Iraq, 150,000 Jews were forced to leave their bank accounts and life savings, and only allowed one suitcase. Libyan Jews were allowed to leave with no more than twenty dollars apiece.

In 1947, before the creation of the State of Israel, the Arabs were offered a state of Palestine alongside that of a Jewish State. They refused, declared war on Israel, told the Arabs living in pre-state Israel to leave their home temporarily until Israel was destroyed. The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha proclaimed on May 15, 1948, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”

When the Arab states lost the war, two refugee situations were created. The first was the Jewish refugee problem of almost a million people. Israel welcomed them and integrated them into the newly formed State. The second refugee problem was the one of the Arabs who were waiting to go back to their homes after Israel was destroyed. While Israel had taken in the Jews from the Arab countries, these displaced Arabs were placed into refugee camps to be run by the United Nations, paid for by the world.

The Arabs that were told by the Arab commanders to temporarily leave their homes are now being used as a propaganda tool against Israel. These Arabs could have been easily resettled in any Arab country. Zuheir Muhsin, executive member of the PLO wrote in the Dutch daily newspaper, Trouw: “Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel...”

As it stands today, the concept of compensation for the Jews thrown out of their native Arab countries has never made the headlines of any newspaper. They lost what is the equivalent of billions of dollars. It’s time to talk about compensation for these forgotten Middle East refugees.

For more information: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. (www.jimena-justice.org)

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