Treatment of Jews in Arab Countries

(source: Middle East Digest - November/December 1999)


Approximately 75,000 Jews lived in Egypt in 1948, a community whose origins date back to the Babylonian captivity some 2700 years prior. In the preceding decade, Muslim elements, believing that Hitler would be successful in completing the 'Final Solution' in Europe, carried out almost continuous pogroms against Jewish communities, killing and injuring thousands. The Egyptian Company Law of July 1947 introduced prohibitive quotas against employing Jews, precluded them from most areas of employment, and confiscated many Jewish-owned businesses, properties and other assets. Then, in the days after the passage of the Partition Plan, Muslims in Cairo and Alexandria went on a rampage, murdering, looting houses and burning synagogues. In one seven-day period in 1948, an eyewitness counted 150 Jewish bodies littering the streets.

During the War of Independence, Egyptian Jews were barred from travelling abroad. In August 1949, Egypt lifted the ban and 20,000 Jews fled the country, many going to Israel. Conditions for Jews improved somewhat under General Naguib, but when General Abdul Nasser rose to power in Egypt, he ordered mass arrests of Jews and confiscated huge quantities of Jewish property, personal and commercial. Nasser issued deportation orders to thousands of Jews, concurrently confiscating all their property and assets. Most of the deportees were limited to one suitcase apiece. In 1964, Nasser boldly declared, in an interview with a German publication, that Egypt still adhered to the Nazi cause: 'Our sympathy,' he said, 'was with the Germans.' With the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, Jews were arrested en masse and sent to concentration camps, where they were tortured, denied water for days and forced to chant anti-Israel slogans. By 1970, Egypt's Jewish population numbered in the mere hundreds.


Like other Muslim nations, Algeria possesses a long history of anti-Semitism, legal and popular. The colonization of Algeria by the French in 1830, though, liberated the 2500-year-old Jewish community from much of the humiliation and persecution it had sustained under Islamic rule. But the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany augured a reversion to anti-Semitic activities. In 1934, twenty-five Jews were massacred in Constantine. During the subsequent trial by French authorities, evidence revealed the attack was organized by the city's leading Muslim authorities. When the French Vichy government took power in 1940, it immediately stripped Jews of their French citizenry, banned them from schools and declared them 'pariahs.' Only the Allied landing soon thereafter saved the Jews from mass deportation to European death camps. With the fall of the Vichy regime, more than 148,000 Jews enjoyed the full benefits and affluence of French society. A civil war erupted in Algeria, and as it intensified, thousands of Jews fled the country, mostly for France.

Algeria achieved independence in 1962, by which time more than 75,000 Jews had departed. State-sanctioned persecution began the following year with the passage of the 1963 Nationality Code, limiting citizenship to those residents whose father and paternal grandfather were Muslim. The new state confiscated or destroyed Jewish private, commercial and communal property and ordered most of the nation's synagogues converted into mosques. Following a flood of anti-Semitic violence in 1965, the majority of the remaining Jewish community of 65,000 departed. Today, the once vigorous Algerian Jewish community numbers a paltry 300.


Today, no Jews are known to live in the north African nation of Libya. Like Egypt and Algeria, massive pogroms decimated the once-thriving Jewish communities in the 1940s. From 1941-1942, great waves of persecution washed over Libya. Jewish property in Benghazi was pillaged and 2,600 were sent into the desert to a forced labor camp, where 500 perished. On November 5, 1945, a horrendous bloodbath ensued in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. According to New York Times reporter Clifton Daniels: 'Babies were beaten to death with iron bars. Old men were hacked to pieces where they fell. Expectant mothers were disembowelled. Whole families were burned alive in their houses.' Several hundred Jews died in the attack.

After the approval of the Partition Plan, another 130 Jews were murdered in anti-Semitic rioting. The following year saw another Tripoli-like massacre. In 1948, Libya's Jewish population was 38,000; by 1951 only 8,000 remained. After the Six-Day War, another pogrom erupted, driving all but 400 from the country. On July 21, 1967 Libyan strongman Colonel Qadhafi nationalized all Jewish property, and soon thereafter, all remaining Jews left the country.


The Syrian Jewish community in 1948 dated to the First Century destruction of Jerusalem, approximately 1900 years earlier. Under Islamic rule, Jews were routinely subject to cruel and inhumane treatment, including forced conversions, routine pogroms and severe commercial and personal restrictions. By early 1947, only 13,000 Jews lived in Syria; 20,000 had fled throughout the course of the previous decade, as Nazi zeal permeated the region and made their lives especially difficult. Immediately after Syria gained independence from France in 1945, vitriolic anti-Semitic propaganda was broadcast on television and radio, inciting the Arab masses to violence. In December 1947, one month after the Partition Plan's acceptance, a pogrom erupted in the Syrian town of Aleppo, torching numerous Jewish properties, including synagogues, schools, orphanages and businesses. Eyewitnesses to the violence noted Syrian firemen and police dispatched to the scene actively participated in the rioting.

A flurry of anti-Semitic legislation passed in 1948 restricted, among other things, Jewish travel outside of government-approved ghettos, selling private property, acquiring land or changing their place of residence. A decree in 1949 went a step further, seizing all Jewish bank accounts. Under threats of execution, long prison sentences and torture, 10,000 Jews were able to depart between 1948 and 1962. A report published in 1981 indicated Syrian Jews were subject to "the Mukhabarat, the [Syrian] secret police, [who] conduct a reign of terror and intimidation, including searches without warrant, detention without trial, torture and summary execution." Due mainly to US influence in the context of the Madrid peace process, all but about 800 of the Jewish community have fled, most settling in the United States. Syria has confiscated all Jewish property aside from those who remain.


The Yemenite Jewish community existed in what historian S.D. Goitein described as the "worst aspect" of the Arab mistreatment of the Jew. Jewish life in Yemen, up to the time of Israel's modern evacuation of the community, contained the harshest elements imaginable under dhimmitude status. Jews could not testify in court, and were regularly murdered, limited to employment in the most demeaning of positions and forced to relinquish their property on demand, to name a very few deprivations. An "age-old" custom of stoning Jews, permissible by Muslim law, was still regularly practiced up to the time the Jews fled Yemen. Conditions for the community were exacerbated by Israel's victory over Arab armies in 1948, making the swift extraction of the community a matter of rescue or extinction. Arab mobs swarmed through Tsan'a and other towns, burning, murdering, raping and looting in the city's Jewish quarters. The region's imam - or religious authority - permitted the Jewish community to leave Yemen, provided they forfeit all property to the state. Israel launched Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, and over the course of one year, successfully airlifted some 50,000 Yemenite Jews - almost the entire ancient community - to Israel.


The 135,000 strong Iraqi Jewish community in 1948 traced their origins to the pre-exilic Jewish community of Babylon, 2700 years previous. Anti-Semitic legislation in 1948, declared "Zionism" - a crime accorded to Jews automatically - an offence punishable by a seven-year jail term. Additional legislation barred Jews from government, medicine and education, denied merchants import licenses and closed Jewish banks. The Jewish community faced economic ruin. During Israel's War of Independence, immigration to Israel was declared a capital offense while public Law No. 1, passed in 1950, stripped Jews of their Iraqi nationality. In 1950, Israel launched Operation Ali Baba to extricate the destitute remnant. Iraq, intrigued at the prospect of inheriting large quantities of abandoned Jewish property, allowed the Jews to leave, reassuring emigrants they would receive fair compensation for property and other assets they were forced to abandon. The airlift spirited 123,000 Jews out of the country, with 110,000 choosing to remain in Israel. Despite it's promise, the Iraqi government announced on March 10, 1951 - the day after the deadline for exit registration - that emigrant's property, businesses and bank accounts were forfeit. That same year, Law No. 5 was expanded to include all Jewish holdings in Iraqi banks. By itself, this extension looted $200 million in Jewish assets. By January 1952, as Iraq again closed the doors to Jewish emigration, only 6,000 remained. All remaining Jewish communal property was confiscated in 1958. Today, only 200 Jews remain in Iraq, forced to reside in a Baghdad ghetto.