Where do Yemeni Jews come from?


Stephan Grigat

Stephan Grigat teaches political science at the Universities of Vienna and Passau. He is a Permanent Fellow at the Moses Mendelssohn Center at the University of Potsdam and a Research Fellow at the University of Haifa.

The escape and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries were almost total. Of the nearly 900,000 Jews living in Arab countries before 1948, only a few thousand remain today. But outside of Israel, this issue is rarely mentioned in current debates on the Middle East.

In the historic old town in Sanaa, capital of Yemen. Of the nearly 900,000 Jews living in Arab countries before 1948, only a few thousand remain today. (& copy picture-alliance, picture agency-online / Diederich)

Mass exodus after 1948

Outside Israel, discrimination, flight and expulsion of Jews from the Arab states are hardly an issue, and the approximately one million Jewish refugees who have left the Arab states since 1948 and Iran since 1979 are rare in current debates on the Middle East Mention. [1] For example, the pogroms in the Moroccan cities of Oujda and Jérada in 1948 are just as little known as the Farhud in Baghdad: In that pogrom of 1941, around 180 Jews were murdered. [2] It marked the beginning of the end of the more than two and a half thousand year old Jewish community in Iraq. In Europe today, the collective awareness that between 25 and 30 percent of the population of the Iraqi capital was Jewish at the end of the 1930s was largely Jewish, a proportion similar to that of Warsaw or New York at the same time, and that in North Africa alone until 1948 about half a million Jews lived.

While numerous Jews from Russia and the Balkans fled to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century [3], there was a mass exodus of Jews from the Islamic Arab regions in the second half of the 20th century. Their flight and expulsion from the Arab countries is strongly linked to European and German history, in particular due to the mutual fertilization of Arab and European anti-Semitism and above all to the National Socialist policy in the Middle East [4], as well as to the German mass murder of the European Jews as well as the founding of the Israeli state on May 14, 1948. Nevertheless, the reasons for the flight and emigration of around 850,000 Jews from the Arab countries were manifold. In addition to "push" factors such as persecution and discrimination, economic hardship and political instability in the Arab states, there were also "pull" factors such as the Zionist or religious longing for a Jewish home, the fulfillment of which appeared to be feasible through the establishment of Israel from 1948 onwards. The main cause, however, must be seen in the anti-Jewish traditions of Islamic dominated societies, the manifest anti-Semitism of the respective Arab leaderships and the anti-Israel view of the conflict with the Jewish state [5] in large parts of Arab politics.

The escape and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries were almost total. They were not directly related to a war - unlike in the case of the approximately 700,000 Arabs who fled in the course of the establishment of the Israeli state and the subsequent attack by the Arab armies of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, also for fear of an approaching battle . [6] Of the almost 900,000 Jews who lived in Arab countries before 1948, only a few thousand remain today, the majority of them in Morocco and Tunisia.

Of the more than 250,000 Moroccan Jews, only about 2,000 remained in the country. 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia; today there are around 1,500. In 1948 there were 75,000 Jews in Egypt and 135,000 in Iraq; today there are fewer than 20. In Yemen there were around 60,000, today their number is estimated at 50. The Syrian Jewish community has shrunk from 30,000 to fewer than 15. In 1948 there were 140,000 Jews in Algeria and 38,000 in Libya. There are no Jews living in either country today. Small Jewish communities such as in Bahrain, where the Manama pogrom took place as early as 1947 after the UN partition resolution for the Mandate Palestine, were affected: in 1948 around 600 Jews lived in the Gulf state, today there are 40.

The first refugee and migration movements took place before the founding of the state of Israel. Between 1941 and 1948 there were numerous anti-Jewish riots in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and the rest of North Africa. [7] Around half of the approximately 10,000 Jewish community at the time fled from Aleppo, Syria, after pogroms in which around 70 Jews had fallen victim. In the years immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, around 260,000 Arab Jews went to Israel, especially from Iraq, Yemen and Libya. The majority of Egyptian Jews had to leave the country as a result of the Suez War of 1956. In Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, the majority of the refugee movements of hundreds of thousands of Jews took place in the 1950s and 1960s, among other things as a result of the Six Day War of 1967. The last major refugee movement took place after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 by the time the vast majority of Jews had already left the Arab countries.

In many cases, the refugees were forced to abandon almost all of their property [8], particularly in Iraq, Egypt and Libya. In Iraq alone there was a "robbery of gigantic proportions" [9], which was legally safeguarded by a series of laws. The sums confiscated from Jews in Iraq in the early 1950s are estimated at US $ 200 million. In Egypt, the Jews forced to flee were only allowed to take 20 Egyptian pounds with them and had to sign to accept the confiscation of their goods. Estimates of the values ​​left behind and confiscated by Jews in Arab countries overall since 1948 vary. In 2007, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries estimated that values ​​of up to 300 billion US dollars (according to today's assessment) were left behind, including over 100,000 square kilometers of land, particularly in Egypt, Morocco and Iraq (which is about five times an area as big as Israel is). [10]

Traditions: Jews in Islamic Societies

Even in the 19th century, the situation of Jews in Islamic societies was generally better than that of most of the Jewish minorities in Christian societies in Europe. This does not mean, however, that Jews were able to live on an equal footing in Islamic societies: even in the comparatively bloodless periods of Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Arab world, in which Jews were "protected" (dhimmis) were tolerated, it was a tolerance "consisting of contempt". [11] The institution of dhimma was a "status of humiliation, humiliation and humiliation" [12], which subjected Jews to numerous excluding special regulations. Long before 1948, the contempt based discrimination repeatedly led to bloody persecution: One of the first pogroms against Jews in Europe with around 4,000 victims was the Granada massacre in 1066, which was under Islamic rule at the time. At the end of the 18th century, for example, the Jews were expelled from the Saudi Arabian Jeddah, in 1790 there was a pogrom in Tetuan, Morocco, in 1828 in Baghdad, in 1834 there were outbreaks of violence against the Jewish community in Safed, which is now in Israel.

In the 19th century, allegations of ritual murder against Jews in the Ottoman Empire increased massively. Initially, they were promoted primarily by Christian propagandists, but at the end of the 19th century they were increasingly taken up in Islamic publications. [13] In the 19th and 20th centuries, classic anti-Jewish motifs from Islamic tradition mixed with elements of modern anti-Semitism. [14] This radicalization of the Arab-Islamic hostility towards Jews began before the establishment of the Israeli state. On the one hand, it was fueled by National Socialist propaganda in the Near and Middle East. On the other hand, it was a reaction to the partial auto-emancipation of the Jews in Arab societies. Similar to European anti-Semitism, but embedded in the context of a different religious tradition, the Jews in the Arab world were attacked as representatives of modernization processes that would undermine the original social order.

This hatred of modernity is particularly evident in thought leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, such as Hassan al-Banna and later in Sayyid Qutb's programmatic writing Our fight with the Jews from 1950, which continues to inspire Islamist assassins around the world to this day, or with the Algerian pioneer of Islamism Malek Bennabi. He complained: "This is the century of the woman, the Jew and the dollar". [15]

Anti-Semitism in the Arab and Islamic countries was not the result of the Middle East conflict, and the Arab-Islamic contempt of Jews did not require the establishment of an Israeli state. The establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 rather acted as a driving force for the transformation of this traditional contempt for the Jewish dhimmis into enmity against the "wards" who empower themselves to sovereignty. With a view to Israel's conflict with its Arab neighbors, the main causes of this must not be ignored, the anti-Jewish traditions in the Arab and Islamic world and the Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism that has emerged from them. [16]

With the events of World War II at the latest, it was clear to large parts of Arab Jews that it made no significant difference whether they spoke out for or against Zionism. The majority of the population in the Arab states, which is dominated by Islam, has hardly oriented its behavior towards the Jewish minority in their societies to how they viewed the establishment of a Jewish state. Whether they - as in Syria and Iraq - for the most part loudly joined Arab anti-Zionism; how in Egypt they showed their loyalty permanently; - as in some cases in Tunisia and Libya - openly stand behind the Zionist cause; or - as is often the case in Algeria - in view of the character of Arab and pan-Arab nationalism, sided with the colonial power: "In the end, they all shared a similar fate and decided to emigrate or flee their native countries." [17]

There were, however, important exceptions to radical Arab nationalist and Islamic anti-Semitism. In the mandate of Palestine, the supporters of the openly anti-Semitic Mufti Amin al-Husseini, who collaborated with National Socialism, first had to prevail against much more moderate fractions on the Arab side through brutal violence. During the pogroms in Iraq in 1941, not only were around 180 Jews murdered, but also numerous Arabs who stood protectively in front of their Jewish neighbors. In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, as the first and long-standing president after independence at the end of the 1950s, could not or did not want to do anything against the exodus of Tunisian Jews - and he also made anti-Semitic statements - but at the same time he took positions against Israel that made him Opponents of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser made. Bourguiba acted against Nasser's radical anti-Israeli agitation in terms of moderate realism, which aimed at a "peaceful solution" to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.

Even under Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism, the radical First implement forms of anti-Semitic policy: In Egypt, for example, Muhammad Nagib, the first president after the fall of the monarchy in 1952, refused to give in to the demands of the Arab League for the confiscation of Jewish property, and on the high Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur he demonstratively visited a synagogue in Cairo. The situation of the Jews in Egypt deteriorated rapidly only from 1954 onwards with the fall of Nagib and the presidency of Nasser, who launched the anti-Semitic inflammatory pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion recommended for reading that is widespread in Egyptian society to this day. [18]

Arab Jews in Israel

Over the decades, the Israeli parliament has passed a dozen resolutions on Jews who fled and expelled from Arab countries, and in 2010 passed a resolution that no Israeli government may sign a peace agreement that does not also address the issue of compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries and from Iran regulates. In 2012, the Israeli Foreign Ministry launched a campaign for "Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries" for the first time, and in 2014 the Israeli Parliament passed a law to commemorate November 30th to commemorate the escape and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran explained. Before that, however, the broader Israeli public believed for decades that the Jews from the Arab countries were more likely to be Zionist-motivated immigrants, not refugees or displaced persons in the traditional sense. [19]

Not all of the Jews who fled or expelled from Arab countries came to Israel, but the vast majority of around 600,000, with the largest numbers coming from Iraq and Morocco. About 200,000 Jews - especially from Algeria, but also from Tunisia - went to France. The United States was a destination primarily for Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese Jews.

Until the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their descendants made up up to 70 percent of the Israeli population. Today just over 50 percent of Israeli Jews are descendants of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Tent city for housing Jewish immigrants in Israel 1950. Jewish refugees from Arab countries were integrated into Israel despite enormous difficulties and reservations. (& copy picture-alliance, Everett Collection)
The story of the flight and expulsion of the Jews from the Arab world is at the same time the story of a remarkable integration achievement, which together with the refugee movements from Europe led to a population increase of around 120 percent in Israel shortly after the state was founded.

Despite all the difficulties and hardships and despite all the reservations of the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe towards the Arab-Jewish - in Israel as Mizrahim - the originally 650,000 Jews in Palestine took in 700,000 more within a very short time, many of them traumatized by the Shoah and in the case of refugees from the Arab countries by no means always, but often comparatively poorly educated Jews from impoverished sections of the population.

In 1948 the newly founded and militarily threatened Jewish state was ambivalent about the mass immigration of Jews from the Arab countries. The aim was to help the threatened and persecuted Jews, and there was massive interest in Jewish immigration, but the focus was not primarily on Jews from Arab countries. David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first Prime Minister in 1948, had his own as early as 1942 Tochnit HaMillion submitted a plan for one million new immigrants. But he had primarily thought of the best-educated Jewish immigrants from Europe possible. Israel encouraged emigration and flight from the Arab countries, but initially proceeded restrictively in view of the immense problems that the young state had to cope with. For example, until 1955, only Jews between the ages of 18 and 45 and wealthy families from Morocco were granted the right to immigrate. In other cases, Israel set up spectacular airlifts, with little or no restrictions on refugees and immigrants: in the operation Flying carpet About 45,000 Jews were flown out of Yemen in 1949. Between 1951 and 1952 they were in surgery Ezra and Nehemiah brought over 120,000 Jews to Israel from Iraq.

The vast majority of Jews from Arab countries first had to find shelter in Israel in tent cities for immigrants, and later in fortified immigrant camps - the so-called Ma’aborotwhich were largely transformed into developing cities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The fight against discrimination against the Arab-Jewish Mizrahim in Israeli society - which for a long time were economically and socially disadvantaged compared to Jews from Europe - has shaped the history of protest in the country and, in the early 1970s, for example, when the Black Panthers led by second generation Jewish-Arab immigrants to Israel. [20]

The fact that the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries were integrated into Israel despite enormous difficulties and reservations is probably one of the reasons for their extensive absence in the international discussion. Another reason is certainly to be found in the fact that over 170 UN resolutions have been passed within the United Nations since 1947, which explicitly or indirectly deal with the fate of the Palestinian refugees or their descendants. Not a single one addresses the fate of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.

From the Israeli perspective, 1948 was a kind of population exchange that took place in numerous conflict regions after the Second World War. The Israeli government was ready to take care of both the Jewish refugees from Europe and those from the Arab world, but at the same time expected the Arab states to take care of the Arab refugees from Israel, who were largely due to the Arab war of aggression against the new founded Jewish state came into being. [21] Accordingly, for decades, Israel has almost never tried to make politics or demand a "right of return" with the fate of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries - which has contributed to the massive injustice and suffering of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Arab countries has played no role in world politics for decades.


It is to be hoped that a realistic look at the anti-Semitic traditions in Arab and Islamic societies and a reflection on the history of discrimination, persecution, flight and expulsion of Jews from the Arab states in the discussion on Israel's conflict with its Arab neighbors enable a better understanding of Zionism. In the future, this could make a contribution to a possible rapprochement in the Middle East. The peace treaties between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 have shown that rapprochement is possible despite the history of displacement and flight (which, however, did little to change the widespread anti-Semitism in Jordanian and Egyptian society).

The establishment of official relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the currently unofficial intensification of relations with other Gulf states such as Oman and Israel's rapprochement with Morocco and Sudan are currently raising hopes for reconciliation. This has already led to a quiet renaissance of Jewish life in Bahrain and, in particular, to the remarkable official withdrawal of anti-Semitic propaganda in Saudi Arabia. In any case, coming to terms with the history of the flight and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and reflecting on the anti-Semitic traditions in Islamic societies will play an important role in future peace solutions in the Middle East.


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