An Israeli Foreign Ministry document from 1961, recently reprinted here, provides a useful overview of the plight of each Jewish community in Arab lands. The blog Elder of Ziyon focuses on the proposed exchange of 100,000 Iraqi Jews for 100,000 Palestinian Arab refugees. The Iraqi government soon dropped the idea: it was easier to terrorise the Jews into leaving. Here's an extract of the document, via Elder of Ziyon:
How the Jews of Iraq Became Refugees: An eye-witness account, written by a visitor from overseas early in 1949 shortly after the conclusion of the Arab war against Israel, presents a graphic picture of the position of Iraqi Jewry at that time: “The Jews of Iraq” it stated, “are in a state of panic. They have been attacked in the streets, have had their businesses broken into and an alarming number have been murdered in cold blood. They have been dismissed from all branches of public and civil service, must submit to a curfew every evening and have been barred from most of the general amenities available to the ordinary citizen. Many have made desperate attempts to escape, but without success.”
When the United Nations Economic Survey Commission for the Middle East visited Baghdad in October 1949, the then Iraqi Premier was reported to have proposed that 100,000 Iraqi Jews out of some 160,000 to 180,000 be sent to Israel in exchange for 100,000 Palestine Arab refugees. The Jews were to leave their property in Iraq and take over the property in Israel of 100,000 Arabs. If this suggestion of a population transfer and mutual financial compensation was really made, it was soon dropped by the Iraqi Government. It was apparently found easier to terrorize the Jews into leaving by fixing a time limit for their departure and enacting legislation to seize their possessions for the benefit of the Iraqi exchequer.
In the third week of December 1949, a second wave of anti-Jewish pogroms began. Thousands were imprisoned on charges of “Zionism” or taken into “protective custody.” When, as expected, large numbers thereupon applied for exit permits to Israel, legislation was rushed through freezing Jewish accounts in the banks and forbidding the sale of property without special permit. Jews were permitted to leave with only 50 kgs of luggage per person. On 10 March, 1950, the Iraqi Government issued a decree blocking the property of all Jews who, on leaving the country, “had relinquished their nationality.” A special custodian of Jewish property was appointed, who began immediately to sell it by public auction.
To speed up the departure of the Jewish community, the Iraqi Government set a time limit for it, fixing 21 June as the final date. As a further incentive a series of laws was enacted designed to make the position of the Jews in the country untenable. Restrictions were imposed on their movements. They were barred from schools, hospitals and other public institutions. They were refused import and export licences for carrying on their business. At the same time the arrests continued. So effective were these oppressive measures that by mid-July 1950 over 110,000 Iraqi Jews had registered for emigration and by June 1951 had left for Israel. By the end of 1951, the number of Iraqi Jews transferred to Israel amounted approximately to 125,000. Most of them were brought over by chartered aircraft. They arrived utterly destitute, carrying small bags which held all their belongings. Such was the end of what had been for centuries the most prosperous and cultured Jewish community of the East--a community which could trace its history back for more than 2,000 years, centuries before the Arabs had come to Iraq.
Operation “Magic Carpet”: The mass transfer of the Jews of Yemen to Israel differed in significant aspects from that of Iraqi Jewry. The modern immigration of Yemenite Jews had begun in the eighteen-eighties, when about 2,500 of them made their homes in Jerusalem and Jaffa. During the last few years before the First World War another 1,500 entered the country and settled in the villages of Judaea, Samaria and Galilee. The outbreak of the war interrupted this movement. When, after the First World War, Yemen became fully independent, the degrading anti-Jewish decrees were re-enacted, in particular that which required the compulsory conversion of Jewish orphans to Islam. There was a renewal of immigration to the Holy Land, though this involved the confiscation of the property of those who left.
After the Palestine Arab riots of 1929, the Imam of Yemen forbade the emigration of Jews to the Holy Land, so they had to escape secretly to the British-held port of Aden. There they lived for years in utter penury. In the final phase of the Second World War, when Jewish immigration from Europe was blocked, about 4,000 Yemenite Jews who had so escaped to Aden were admitted to Palestine. Altogether 17,000 Jews entered the country by way of Aden from 1923 to 1945, bringing the total of Yemenite Jews in Palestine in that year to approximately 22,000.
At the end of the Second World War, the trek to the Holy Land was resumed. Thousands of Jews streamed to Aden, but the Palestine immigration restrictions hindered their transfer, and they languished for several years in Aden, their number steadily increased by newcomers from the interior. After the UN decision of November, 1947, to partition Palestine, serious riots broke out in Aden itself. Many Jews were killed and the Jewish quarter was burned down. It was only in September 1948, five months after the establishment of the State of Israel, that the authorities in Aden permitted the refugees to proceed to their destination. As the sea passage was closed to these immigrants because the Egyptians controlled the Suez Canal and the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, they had to be brought over by plane. By March 1949, all the Yemenite refugees in Aden had been transferred to Israel.
In the meantime, there had been a palace revolution in Yemen. The aged Imam Yahya had been murdered and two of his sons contested the throne. Anarchy prevailed and the Jews were the prime sufferers by it, robbed left and right by the troops of either side. After lengthy negotiations, the British authorities in Aden agreed to permit the departure of Jewish emigrants from that port, whereupon the Sultans under their protection who controlled the route from Yemen to Aden gave permission for departing Jews to pass through the Protectorate.
It was now that the total exodus of the Jews of Yemen began. Thousands managed to reach Aden, traversing an uncharted desert, leaving their homes and chattels, taking away little more than the Scrolls of the Law from their synagogues, to bring with them to the Holy Land. Most of them, men, women and children, came on foot. Many fell sick on the way. There were no doctors, no medicines, no food supplies. Malaria was rampant. Notwithstanding all this, the great venture succeeded and approximately 45,000 Jews were flown from Aden to Israel in what came to be known as “Operation Magic Carpet.”
That was the end of yet another great Jewish community in the Arab world whose origins went back to the days of the Bible. “In spite of all the difficulties encountered,” wrote a visitor from Israel, “it was a very different liquidation from that in the countries under Nazi control. No graves were dug, no doxology was sung. A whole living community with their Holy Books were saved from peril and degradation and brought over to Israel 'on the wings of eagles', as they themselves termed it in biblical phrase.”
Syria and Lebanon: At the time of the last census in 1943, the Jewish community of Syria numbered approximately 29,000, of whom 11,000 lived in Damascus and 17,000 in Aleppo. Four years later, the total had dwindled to 13,000. By 1960, only slightly more than 6,000 remained. The majority of those who had left the country proceeded to Israel.
It had been very difficult for them to obtain exit permits, the fees and taxes exacted by the authorities being far beyond their capacity. The Syrian frontier guards had instructions to fire on any Jew attempting to cross the border. If caught, the escaping Jews were liable to heavy fines and imprisonment. In spite of this, thousands took the risk and fled to Israel. Many Syrian Jews were arrested on charges of having helped others to leave. Arab policemen, detectives and informers are reported to have taken advantage of the situation and to have blackmailed well-to-do Jews, threatening to denounce them as having been involved in illegal emigration.
In the meantime, all kinds of restrictions had been imposed on the Syrian Jews. They were no longer permitted to buy and sell property, and their bank accounts were frozen. Some of these restrictions have now been lifted, but anyone desiring to leave the country is still required to turn over his immovable property to the Government. The economic condition of the small Jewish remnant is such that it has to rely on assistance from abroad to maintain its communal institutions.
Arab smugglers sometimes cruelly exploited the Jews who put their fate into their hands. In November 1950, 30 Syrian Jews were smuggled out of Syria by a band of Arab seamen who promised to bring them to Israel. Halfway between Beirut and Haifa, the Arabs turned on their passengers, stripped them of their valuables, murdered them in cold blood and threw their bodies overboard.
Libya: Iraq and Yemen were not the only Arab countries from which the Jewish communities had to be transferred.
In Libya there lived about 35,000 Jews, of whom two-thirds were resident in Tripoli and the remainder in Benghazi and the smaller towns. They had suffered terribly during the war years, when the country was under Axis control, many of them having died in the concentration camp at Giado from ill-treatment and disease. After its liberation, Libya came under British occupation, but the anti-Jewish propaganda conducted by the Arab League created new frictions and dangers for the Jews. A leading part in this campaign of incitement was taken by the Egyptian teachers and businessmen who came to Tripoli as officials of the British occupying authorities. When, in November 1945, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Egypt, organized Moslem mobs also attacked the Jewish quarter in Tripoli. In a pogrom which lasted three days, from 4 to 7 November, 130 Jews, women and children among them, were brutally murdered. Many were compelled to abjure their faith and embrace Islam in order to save their lives. Houses, shops and cinemas were looted and burnt down. In the wake of this savagery more than 31,000 Jews left for Israel. Since then, another 2,000 have come to settle here. Like the Jewish communities of Iraq and Yemen, Libyan Jewry has practically ceased to exist.
Egypt: At the time of the last Egyptian census held in 1947, 65,639 Jews were reported to be resident there. Unofficial estimates put the number as high as 90,000, which included Jews possessing British, French, Greek or Italian citizenship. The figure has now dwindled to 14,000, When, in 1948, Egypt joined the other Arab countries in invading Israel, it promulgated a series of anti-Jewish decrees and took severe measures against those suspected of “Zionist” activities. Much Jewish property was confiscated. Hundreds of Jewish families were driven out of their homes. Bombs were thrown into Jewish houses, causing heavy casualties in dead or wounded. On several occasions there were mob invasions of the Jewish quarter of Cairo, in which a number of Jews were killed and their houses and shops pillaged. The Jews of Egypt have since lived in a state of constant terror. A precipitate night began. By October-November 1950, approximately 27,000 had left the country. Of these, over 21,000 found sanctuary in Israel.
In November 1956, following the Sinai crisis, a ruthless expulsion of the Jewish community began. Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned under wretched conditions in Cairo and other cities. They included practically every leader in Egyptian-Jewish communal life. In the approved Nazi fashion they were led through the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, stoned and vilified by Arab hooligans. During the first three days of internment the men were kept without food. At the same time, a mass eviction of Jews began; thousands were notified that they had to go or face imprisonment. In the beginning, these measures were confined to the families of foreign Jews, many of whom had been resident in Egypt for generations past but had not been granted Egyptian citizenship. Gradually, however, the Egyptian Government began to enlarge its target. At the end of November 1956, its Minister for Religious Affairs caused an order of the Government to be read out in every mosque, stating that all Jews in Egypt were regarded as enemies of the country who would soon be expelled, and urging the population to refrain from any contact with them. Many Jews were interned and released only after signing formal declarations to the effect that they were ready to leave the country and would never return to it. They were also required to renounce all financial claims and to transfer to the Egyptian Government all assets they had left behind. Many of them were forced at gun-point to sign these declarations or beaten up till they agreed to do so. Those fortunate enough to get a passage were allowed to take with them only one suitcase of clothing and twenty Egyptian pounds. Following these steps, a whole complex of anti-Jewish measures was enforced; bank accounts were blocked, private and commercial property was confiscated, business firms were liquidated and Jewish employees dismissed. Jewish department stores, banks and other firms of long standing were sequestered. The value of the Jewish assets so confiscated or frozen ran into hundreds of millions of dollars. A special proclamation authorized the appointment of an administrator of the sequestered business firms with power to dispose of their claims and assets. The proclamation prohibited all direct or indirect transactions with any establishment whose property had been sequestered, and barred the execution of any contract concluded by them or for their benefit. These decrees were drastically enforced. The bulk of Jewish property in Egypt thus passed into Government hands.
The Jewish community was stripped of its communal assets as well. Jewish hospitals were taken over by the Egyptian army. The famous old synagogue in Cairo ceased to be an institution for religious worship and was turned into a Government-sponsored tourist attraction. Most of the smaller synagogues were closed. The activities of the Rabbinate were reduced to a minimum because of the lack of funds and the continued departure of large numbers of the community. Jewish lawyers who were Egyptian nationals were expelled from the bar. Jewish engineers were denied the right to exercise their profession. The Egyptian populace was directed by the Medical Association of Egypt not to consult Jewish physicians or surgeons. Many of the Jews who went abroad left behind large fortunes, apartment houses, land and commercial enterprises. Before departing they were searched and had to surrender all their personal belongings. Of those who went out of Egypt as a result of these official measures, 15,000 Jews came to settle in Israel. All in all, some 36,000 Jews from Egypt have come to live in Israel since the establishment of the State.
The Maghreb: In the three Moslem countries of Northwest Africa known as the Maghreb--Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco--populous Jewish communities had been settled for many centuries. Their total number, according to recent official estimates, was approximately 400,000. For centuries they were exposed to every form of arbitrary oppression and ill-treatment.1 The majority of them lived in circumstances of great poverty, many of them below the subsistence minimum. In some of the cities of Morocco they were herded together in overcrowded and shut-in quarters, the so-called Mellahs. “The squalor, decay and hopelessness of these quarters,” writes a recent eye-witness, “defy description. Heaps of refuse and dirt cover the whole area, in which thousands of human beings, men, women and children, are crammed together. Trachoma, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other skin diseases are endemic. Emaciated women surrounded by sick children lead half-blind men down narrow alleys. At Casablanca, about 50,000 Jews out of a total of 85,000 live in the Mellah; at Marrakesh over 17,000. Of an aggregate Jewish community of 220,000 in Morocco, over 100,000 are beggars living in conditions of utter destitution.”2
The spread of Arab nationalism to the countries of North Africa has further aggravated the position of the Jewish communities there. The legal status and economic position they had enjoyed under French rule became imperilled. According to official estimates, the Jews of Algeria until recently had numbered between 120,000 and 130,000. The prolonged conflict between the French authorities and the “Front de la Liberation Nationale” rendered their situation most difficult and led to a progressive exodus from the country. Wedged in between the extremists on both sides, the Jews suffered many fatalities at the hands of terrorists. Since synagogues and Jewish schools were often located in Arab neighbourhoods, access to them became unsafe. In Algiers, the Great Synagogue had to be closed. During the anti-French outbreaks which occurred at the time of President de Gaulle's visit to Algiers in December 1960, that ancient House of Prayer was invaded by Arab mobs who tore the Holy Scrolls to pieces, broke the memorial stones for the dead off the walls and turned the whole place into a shambles. What the future may hold in store for the Jews of Algeria was indicated by a statement made on 27 January, 1961, by a spokesman of the “Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic” in Tunisia, in which he declared that the FLN was opposed to the emigration of Jews to Israel. In the light of the present position of the Jews in Morocco and other Arab countries which have attained independence, this statement strikes an ominous note.
The crisis in Algeria had disastrous consequences also for the Jews of Morocco. They live in constant fear of what the next day may bring. Whoever could, tried to get away. Altogether 150,000 Jews from Morocco settled in Israel between 1948 and 1957. During the last few years their emigration has been rendered ever more difficult. The recent tragedy of a boat full of Jewish refugees from Morocco which capsized off Gibraltar and in which about 40 men, women and children were drowned, illustrates to what straits Moroccan Jewry has come. As the Israel Minister for Foreign Affairs recently stated: “Basic civil rights which are granted to every man are arbitrarily denied to the Jews of Morocco, in contravention of the solemn undertakings given by that State when it attained independence and was admitted to the United Nations Organization. Freedom of movement and emigration does not exist for Jews. Postal and telegraphic communications between the Jews who live in Morocco and their families in Israel have been severed by the Government of Morocco. Jewish schools are being progressively taken over. Jewish families live in constant dread of detention and assault, of kidnapping and violence. An atmosphere of terror and insecurity, both physical and mental, prevails among the quarter of a million Jews of Morocco, and it is no wonder that they seek to flee for their lives and join their near and dear ones in Israel. They take flight in the full knowledge of the dangers that lie in wait for them, but the authorities of Morocco leave them no choice.”
How Israel Absorbed the Newcomers: Of the approximately half a million Jews from the countries of the Middle East and North Africa who entered Israel since 1948, the great majority arrived practically without any means of their own. The newcomers had to be provided with housing and employment, schools and medical services, many of them also with welfare assistance. No immigration restrictions were imposed by Israel on account of age, health, or physical defects. Many of them were “hard-core” cases--chronic invalids, blind people, backward children. A great many were of advanced age. Their arrival coincided with the transfer to Israel of another half million Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, among them the exhausted survivors of the concentration and DP camps. They all arrived at a time when the State was still in its infancy, struggling for its political and economic survival, and the country was suffering from a great dearth of food, equipment and buildings. The administrative, educational, social and health services of the new State were still in the process of being built up. The rehabilitation and integration of the newcomers constituted a major charge on the financial resources of the country. In fact, the entire economic and fiscal policy of the State was geared to the overriding task of providing them with homes and work. It has involved heavy sacrifices, lengthy periods of unemployment and a regime of severe austerity for the entire population. The integration was assisted by the generous financial support of the Jewish communities throughout the world, in particular of American Jewry, and by the economic aid of friendly Governments, but the brunt of this unprecedented challenge inevitably had to be borne by the people of Israel themselves.
Refugee settlement in Israel has not been the work of a select group of philanthropists and social workers. It has been a national effort. It could not have succeeded if it had not been so. The refugees were accepted from the moment of their arrival as free and equal members of society. They were not, as elsewhere, confined in camps. They were allowed to go freely to work.
During the initial phase they were temporarily housed on the outskirts of the towns and in rural areas, where they remained until work and permanent housing could be found for them. No less than 80% of the 125,000 Jews who came from Iraq, for instance, were at first so accommodated. The remaining 20% were either fixed up provisionally with relatives and friends in towns and villages or, if they were social cases, taken to hospitals and institutions. The same procedure was followed in the case of the immigrants from the Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and other Moslem countries. Until work could be found for them, the Jewish Agency bore the expenses of their maintenance, but as the rural development and public works schemes of the Government matured, they had little difficulty in securing employment.