The Forgotten Refugees

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Although much is heard about the plight of the Palestinian refugees from the aftermath of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War, little is said about the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to flee from Arab states before and after the creation of Israel.

In 1945, roughly 1 million Jews lived peacefully in the various Arab states of the Middle East, many of them in communities that had existed for thousands of years. After the Arabs rejected the United Nations decision to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state, however, the Jews of the Arab lands became targets of their own governments’ anti-Zionist fervor. As Egypt’s delegate to the UN in 1947 chillingly told the General Assembly: “The lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries will be jeopardized by partition.” The dire warning quickly became the brutal reality.

Throughout 1947 and 1948, Jews in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen (Aden) were persecuted, their property and belongings were confiscated, and they were subjected to severe anti-Jewish riots instigated by the governments. In Iraq, Zionism was made a capital crime. In Syria, anti-Jewish pogroms erupted in Aleppo and the government froze all Jewish bank accounts. In Egypt, bombs were detonated in the Jewish quarter, killing dozens. In Algeria, anti-Jewish decrees were swiftly instituted and in Yemen, bloody pogroms led to the death of nearly 100 Jews

Throughout 1947 and 1948, Jews in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen (Aden) were persecuted, their property and belongings were confiscated, and they were subjected to severe anti-Jewish riots instigated by the governments. In Iraq, Zionism was made a capital crime. In Syria, anti-Jewish pogroms erupted in Aleppo and the government froze all Jewish bank accounts. In Egypt, bombs were detonated in the Jewish quarter, killing dozens. In Algeria, anti-Jewish decrees were swiftly instituted and in Yemen, bloody pogroms led to the death of nearly 100 Jews.

In January 1948, the president of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Stephen Wise, appealed to U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall: “Between 800,000 and a million Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, exclusive of Palestine, are in ‘the greatest danger of destruction’ at the hands of Moslems being incited to holy war over the Partition of Palestine … Acts of violence already perpetrated, together with those contemplated, being clearly aimed at the total destruction of the Jews, constitute genocide, which under the resolutions of the General Assembly is a crime against humanity.” In May 1948, the New York Times echoed Wise’s appeal, and ran an article headlined, “Jews in Grave Danger in all Muslim Lands: Nine Hundred Thousand in Africa and Asia face wrath of their foes.”

 With their lives in danger and the situation growing ever more perilous, the Jews of the Arab World fled their homes as refugees.

 Of the 820,000 Jewish refugees between 1948 and 1972, more than 200,000 found refuge in Europe and North America while 586,000 were resettled in Israel – at great expense to the Israeli government, and without any compensation from the Arab governments who had confiscated their possessions. The majority of the Jewish refugees left their homes penniless and destitute and with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. These Jews, however, had no desire to be repatriated in the Arab World and little is heard about them because they did not remain refugees for long.

In Israel, a newly independent country that was still facing existential threats to its survival, the influx of immigrants nearly doubled the population and a put a great strain on an economy struggling to just meet the needs of its existing population.  The Jewish State, however, never considered turning away the refugees and, over the years, worked to absorb them into society.

 Overall, the number of Jews fleeing Arab countries for Israel in the years following Israel’s independence was nearly double the number of Arabs leaving Palestine. The contrast between the Jewish refugees and the Palestinian refugees grows even starker considering the difference in cultural and geographic dislocation – most of the Jewish refugees traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to a tiny country whose inhabitants spoke a different language and lived with a vastly different culture. Most Palestinian refugees travelled but a few miles to the other side of the 1949 armistice lines while remaining inside a linguistically, culturally and ethnically similar society.

Moreover, the value of Jewish property left behind and confiscated by the Arab governments is estimated to be at least 50 percent higher than the total value of assets lost by the Palestinian refugees.  In the 1950’s, John Measham Berncastle, under the aegis of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, estimated that total assets lost by Palestinian refugees from 1948 – including land, buildings, movable property, and frozen bank accounts – amounted to roughly $350 million ($650 per refugee). Adding in an additional $100 million for assets lost by Palestinian refugees as a result of the Six Day War, an approximate total is $450 million – $4.4 billion in 2012 prices. By contrast, the value of assets lost by the Jewish refugees – compiled by a similar methodology – is estimated at $700 million – roughly $6.7 billion today.

To date, more than 100 UN resolutions have been passed referring explicitly to the fate of the Palestinian refugees. Not one has specifically addressed Jewish refugees. Additionally, the United Nations created a organization, UNRWA, to solely handle Palestinian refugees while all other refugees are handled collectively by UNHRC. The UN even defines Palestinian refugees differently than every other refugee population, setting distinctions that have allowed their numbers to grow exponentially so that nearly 5 million are now considered refugees despite the fact that the number estimated to have fled their homes is only approximately 400-700,000.

Today, nearly half of Israel’s native population descends from the Jewish refugees of the Arab world and their rights must be recognized alongside any discussion of the rights for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. In Israel, the issue of the Jewish refugees has been of preeminent importance during all peace negotiations with the Palestinians, including the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2000 Camp David summit.  Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  Israel is now calling on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to hold a summit specifically the issue of the Jewish refugees.