Anti-Semitism Israel

The Jewish exodus from Arab lands: Why Zionists and anti-Zionists are both wrong

First, an apology:

One reason why I’ve taken to blogging so sporadically, and why Realistic Dove has experienced a rapidly diminishing number of page views, is that I am tired of arguing. I am tired of trying to prove that anyone is wrong or anyone is right. The premise of this blog is that there is a grey area where the truth lives, and reasonable people want to dwell there, not in the black- and white- terrain of fixed ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict that is found on much of the Web. It is exhausting to insist upon locating the grey area, which perhaps explains why so few people care to look.

In a 2003 lecture at the YIVO Institute on digital anti-Semitism, the amazing Simon Schama summed up my problem. This is a historian who speaks in strings of lengthy and interesting sentences, which are not ideal for the constricting format of blogs. The sentence structures are -in and of themselves– a kind of rebuke to the simplistic, reductive argumentation he criticizes:

The triumph of the Web represents the overthrow, for good or for ill, not just of linear narrative but of the entire system of Baconian inductive reasoning, with its explicit commitment to hierarchies of knowledge, tests of proof and so on…

…Nor could anything possibly be further away from the epistemological conventions according to which arguments are tested against critical challenges than the Net’s characteristic form of chat, which overwhelmingly takes the form of call and response, to which there is never any resolution or conclusion, merely a string of unadjudicated utterances and ejaculations. Digital allegiances can be formed there not through any sort of sifting of truth and falsehood but in response to and in defense of a kind of cognitive battering.

Still, exhaustion from repeated cognitive battering is no excuse for silence.

To compensate for my prolonged absence, below is a (very) lengthy excerpt from a fascinating piece by an Australian scholar, Philip Mendes, that is posted on the Meretz USA Weblog. It concerns some of the most important yet least discussed questions of mid-20th century history:

o–What, precisely, prompted the rush of Jews from Arab lands in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Was it an explosion of vengeful anti-Jewish policies and practices by Arab governments and societies (the standard Zionist explanation)? Or was it a massive Zionist plot, with false flag operations and skilful fear-mongering that deliberately exaggerated the threats to Sephardic Jews, in order to persuade them to seek refuge in Israel (the longstanding explanation offered by Arab opinion leaders and their fellow travelers in the anti-Israel left)? Mendes shows that both views are simplistic.

o–Should the Palestinian exodus and the flight of Jews from Arab lands be considered a “population exchange,” comparable to what happened in India-Pakistan and other regions? That argument is sometimes used to justify or explain away the Palestinian exile. Mendes says, “no, not really.”

Most commentators who sound off on these topics have little detailed knowledge of the tangled history of Jews in Arab countries. That is why the Mendes article, which mostly focuses on Iraq, is valuable. If you don’t have the patience to read his sometimes dry, historical reportage, here is the concluding quote, which suggests the relevance of his research to current controversies over refugees and compensation.


On the one hand, Arab denial of the contribution made by anti-Jewish hostility to the Jewish exodus from Iraq and elsewhere is insensitive and ahistorical. Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be entitled to some form of compensation for abandoned lands and property. There is no reason why organisations such as the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) should not be formally represented in negotiations between Israel and the Arab states.

On the other hand, it is equally insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees. The latter group also have a justifiable claim for financial compensation.

This is a logic that passionate moderates should embrace.

In what follows, I have deleted all of the parenthetical references to other sources as well as a few sentences here and there. Go back to the Meretz site if you want to find them. Otherwise, I’ve left it alone, and present it without further commentary.

THE FORGOTTEN REFUGEES: the causes of the post-1948 Jewish Exodus from Arab Countries by Philip Mendes, published in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 16, 2002, pp.120-134.

This paper explores the question of the other Middle Eastern refugees – the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries between 1948 and the mid 1950s. Specific attention is drawn to the experience of Iraq.

Using relevant literature, the author analyses the two principal and polarised versions of the exodus: the Zionist position which attributes the Jewish exodus almost solely to Arab violence or threats of violence; and the Arab or anti-Zionist position which assigns responsibility to a malicious Zionist conspiracy. This paper suggests a middle-ground or less polarised version which acknowledges the role of both anti-Jewish hostility, and the attraction of Zionism and the newly-created State of Israel.

The Case of Iraq
The Jewish departure from Iraq arguably provides the best case example of the Jewish exodus from the Arab world.

The Jews of Iraq constituted one of the oldest communities of the Jewish Diaspora, dating back over 2500 years to the time of the Babylonian exile. They were well integrated into Iraqi society, and generally prosperous. Yet during 1950 and 1951, more than 120,000 Jews (95% of the Jewish population) left Iraq for Israel via the airlift known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. How and why did this mass evacuation occur?

The traditional Zionist view views the exodus as a response to a long history of Arab persecution. This history of persecution culminated in an official policy of oppression and discrimination following the creation of the State of Israel. According to this perspective, the Iraqi Jews were also specifically attracted to Israel by the emotional power of the Zionist idea.

The alternative anti-Zionist view highlights the positives of Arab-Jewish history. The Jews of Iraq are depicted as an overwhelmingly prosperous and integrated community. Their exodus is attributed not to anti-Semitism, but rather to a malicious Zionist conspiracy including instances of bomb-throwing aimed at achieving mass Jewish emigration to Israel.

Both these perspectives are overly simplistic, and arguably intended to bolster contemporary political claims and agendas. Following the general argument of the Israeli historian Moshe Gat, I will contend that the Jewish exodus from Iraq can be attributed to both push and pull factors. While some of these factors were paralleled in other Arab countries, others were arguably unique to Iraq such as the prominent and popular identification of Jews with Communism.

Iraqi Jews in the pre-1948 period
Most of the literature agrees that Iraqi Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century was a relatively prosperous and well-integrated community.

Jews were particularly prominent in trade utilising both their knowledge of European languages, and contacts with expatriate Iraqi Jews in the countries with which they traded. They also dominated the professions of banking and money-lending known locally as the sairafah business. For example, a large proportion of members of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce were Jewish. On the other hand, the majority of Jews were poor, and some were destitute.

Following the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1920, Jews contributed prominently to local arts and literature. They were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy, Overall, Jews viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality. Only a minority of Jews were sympathetic to Zionism…

…Nevertheless, during the 1930s, there was increasing evidence of a decline in Iraqi tolerance for minority groups. The massacre of Christian Assyrians seeking autonomy in August 1933 was widely viewed as an ominous signal. In addition, European anti-Jewish propaganda began to impact on Iraq. Numerous Palestinian exiles headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, spent time in Iraq. The German Ambassador to Iraq, Dr Fritz Grobba, was also a malevolent influence.

Anti-Jewish feeling was soon reflected in both official and popular actions. For example, large numbers of Jewish clerks were dismissed from government positions, and restrictive quotas were placed on Jewish access to higher education. In addition, following the outbreak of the Arab revolt in Palestine, public attacks including bombings took place against Jews and Jewish institutions. Considerable pressure was also placed on Jews to publicly dissociate themselves from Zionist activities. However, there was no official government policy of discrimination, and the authorities took action to protect Jews from extremist attacks.

The security and confidence of Iraqi Jews was shattered by the pro-German military coup of April 1941. The coup leaders were quickly defeated and exiled by a British army occupation, but their departure was followed by a large-scale farhud or pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad. The farhud was perpetrated by Iraqi officers, police, and gangs of young people influenced by Nazi ideology, and the popular perception of a Jewish alignment with Britain. Over 180 Jews were murdered, several hundred injured, and numerous Jewish properties and religious institutions damaged and looted.

However, the new Iraqi Government soon took steps to restore law and order. The leaders of the farhud were jailed or exiled, and some were even executed. An offical committee of enquiry attributed the farhud to a number of factors including German propaganda, and the influence of Palestinian and Syrian exiles led by the Mufti of Jerusalem. The Jewish community was also awarded financial compensation.

Consequently, the traditional leadership of the community was able to retain its commitment to Jewish integration into Iraqi society. However, an increasing number of younger Jews began to turn to either Communist or Zionist solutions. Younger Jews established a Zionist underground movement dedicated to Zionist education, the defence of Jews from further violence, and the organisation of emigration to Palestine.

The outbreak of the 1948 Israeli-Arab War crystallised the “precarious” position of Iraqi Jewry. The war coincided with considerable political agitation around the signing of the British-Iraqi Portsmouth Treaty. Both extreme right nationalists and communists campaigned against the continuation of the British presence. The Communist Party had a significant Jewish membership particularly in Baghdad including two key leaders, Yehudah Abraham Zaddiq and Sason Shlomo Dallal. Both would later be hanged by the authorities.

The government took two principal measures to restore political calm. On the one hand, martial law was imposed in order to maintain internal stability including the protection of Jewish life and property from extremists. On the other hand, the government implemented an official anti-Jewish policy of controlled oppression and discrimination.

Jewish freedom of movement was limited, and Jews were forbidden to leave the country. Jews were forced to donate money to assist the Iraqi forces serving in Palestine. Import licences were restricted, Jewish doctors were refused registration, and Jewish banks were forbidden to engage in currency transfers. Wealthy Jews were detained and fined. A law was passed defining Zionism as a criminal offence attracting severe penalties, and all Jews who had departed for Palestine in the last 10 years were declared to be criminals. In addition, government bodies were ordered to dismiss all Jewish employees consisting of approximately 1500 people.

The anti-Jewish policy came to a head in August 1948 with the arrest and execution of the millionaire businessman, Shafiq Ades, chief agent of the Ford company in Iraq. Ades was charged with purchasing surplus military equipment, and allegedly supplying them to Israel. Many Moslem businessmen including Ades’s business partners were involved in similar activities, but none of them were charged…The public hanging of Ades shocked the Jewish community. Ades was an assimilated Jew unsympathetic to Zionism who had been on close terms with leading government officials. His fate appeared to indicate the end of hopes for Jewish integration into Iraqi society.

Following the Middle East armistice in January 1949…,the government succeeded in locating the key leaders of the Zionist underground movement. Brutal measures including widespread arrests and torture were used to suppress the movement. However, these actions created an internal crisis in the Jewish community which led to the downfall of the traditional leadership, and its replacement by leaders sympathetic to the Zionist agenda. Increasingly, Iraqi Jews considered immigration, rather than integration, as the solution to their problems.

In March 1950, the Iraqis passed a Denaturalization Bill which gave Jews the legal right to immigrate. The Bill recognized an existing reality whereby approximately one thousand Jews were illegally departing each month via the Iranian border. The Bill also reflected a desire to be rid of disloyal elements – whether Zionist or Communist.

The authorities ironically saw the two groups as closely connected despite their inherent political enmity. This seemingly illogical view reflected two factors: the significant number of Jews in the Communist Party, and the Party’s support. The authorities also believed that the departure of Zionist elements would marginalise anti-Jewish extremists. They anticipated that only about 10,000 mainly poorer Jews would elect to depart, and that most Jews (particularly those involved in commerce and finance) would remain.

Contrary to claims of a Zionist conspiracy to evacuate Arab Jewish communities, the Israeli Government was initially highly reluctant to absorb a large number of Iraqi Jews.

This perspective partly reflected economic and budgetary realities. For example, Israel was already experiencing severe housing and employment problems in meeting the needs of existing immigrants from post-Holocaust Europe…

…However, pressure was placed on the Israelis by a number of sources. In particular, the passage of the Property Freezing Law in March 1951 rendered the denaturalized Jews not only stateless, but also penniless. There was also evidence of increasing threats to the safety and lives of remaining Jews. Eventually after a number of months of hesitation, the Israeli Government agreed to accelerate the pace of immigration, and transport the entire Jewish community out of Iraq to Israel.

The Bombings and the Jewish Exodus
The Jewish exodus from Iraq was influenced by, and coincided with, a wave of bombings which took place between April 1950 and June 1951. These bombings damaged both Jewish and American targets, produced a number of serious injuries, and caused the deaths of six Iraqi Jews.

The motivation behind and responsibility for these bombings remains a contentious issue. According to a number of anti-Zionist authors, the bombings were perpetrated by Zionist agents in order to cause fear amongst the Jews, and so promote their exodus to Israel.

Some evidence for this argument is provided by the fact that the Iraqi authorities charged three members of the Zionist underground with perpetrating the explosions. Two Jews were subsequently found guilty and executed, whilst a third was sentenced to a lengthy jail term.

In addition, many of the Iraqi Jewish immigrants shared the belief that the bombs had been thrown by the Zionist underground to persuade them to move to Israel. Many years later, Uri Avnery’s muckraking newspaper, Haolam Hazeh, would popularise this claim. Avnery’s argument was then repeated by numerous anti-Zionist commentators.

Attention has also been drawn to the similarity between this incident, and the 1954 bomb attacks by Zionist agents on American institutions in Egypt…However, the later attacks were arguably different in content and motivation in that they did not target or injure Jews, but rather damaged British and American institutions in an attempt to tarnish Egypt’s reputation in the West.

In contrast, the historian Moshe Gat argues convincingly (in my opinion) that there was little direct connection between the bombings and [Iraqi Jewish] exodus. He demonstrates that the frantic and massive Jewish registration for denaturalisation and departure was driven by knowledge that the denaturalisation law was due to expire in March 1951.

He also notes the influence of further pressures including the property-freezing law, and continued anti-Jewish disturbances which raised the fear of large-scale pogroms. In addition, it is highly unlikely the Israelis would have taken such measures to accelerate the Jewish evacuation, given that they were already struggling to cope with the existing level of Jewish immigration.

Gat also raises serious doubts about the guilt of the alleged Jewish bombthrowers. Firstly, a Christian officer in the Iraqi army known for his anti-Jewish views, was arrested, but apparently not charged, with the offences. A number of explosive devices similar to those used in the attack on the Jewish synagogue were found in his home. In addition, there was a long history of anti-Jewish bomb-throwing incidents in Iraq.

Secondly, the prosecution was not able to produce even one eyewitness who had seen the bombs thrown. Thirdly, the Jewish defendant Shalom Salah indicated in court that he had been severely tortured in order to procure a confession.

It therefore remains an open question as to who was responsible for the bombings, although Gat suggests that the most likely perpetrators were members of the anti-Jewish Istiqlal Party, Certainly memories and intepretations of the events have further been influenced and distorted by the unfortunate discrimination which many Iraqi Jews experienced on their arrival in Israel.

Why did the Jews Leave?
To summarize, the massive and rapid Jewish exodus from Iraq arguably reflected a combination of push and pull factors. The key push factor was the strength of popular anti-Jewish feeling which was heightened by the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Increasingly, Jews were viewed as a potential fifth column whose real sympathies lay with the enemies of Iraq.

These feelings were intentionally exploited and strengthened by deliberate government policies which deprived Jews of their civil and economic rights….

Comparing the Jewish Exodus and the Palestinian Exodus

…The Israelis and their supporters have often argued that the experience of the Jewish refugees can be equated with that of the Palestinian refugees. Both left their countries due to violence or threats of violence. Unlike the Palestinians, however, who remained in refugee camps rather than being offered homes elsewhere, the Jewish refugees were welcomed and resettled in the Jewish State of Israel. Their settlement inside Israel constitutes (so the argument goes) a direct and legitimate exchange of populations.

The Arab view is almost dichotomous. The Jewish refugees were respected and equal citizens of Arab countries, but were persuaded to leave by malicious Zionist propaganda. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, they left voluntarily and are welcome to return at any time.

As the above discussion has demonstrated, neither of these perspectives reflects the complexity of the Jewish exodus. To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the two exoduses. However, the differences between the two exoduses are arguably far more significant.

Firstly, the Palestinian expulsion occurred under conditions of external war and conflict, whereas the Jewish departure from Iraq primarily reflected internal political developments. In addition, the Jewish departure reflected far more diverse factors. As already noted, many Jews were strongly motivated by Zionist beliefs, and voluntarily left Iraq for Israel.

Secondly, the two exoduses did not concur chronologically. The Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries took place a number of years after the Palestinian exodus. There is no evidence that the Israeli leadership anticipated a so-called population exchange when they made their arguably harsh decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees.

Thirdly, it is important to remember that the Arab States, not the Palestinians, were responsible for the Jewish exodus.

Finally, Israel agreed to accept the Jewish refugees who subsequently integrated with varying degrees of success into Israeli society, and looked towards the future. Unlike the Palestinians, most of the Jewish refugees had little or no desire to return to their former homes in Baghdad or elsewhere. In contrast, the Arab states refused to facilitate an organized resettlement of Palestinian refugees. Consequently, most looked backwards, and held onto hopes of a return to Palestine. This analysis demonstrates that the two exoduses are not identical in motivation and cause, and should be considered separately.

On the one hand, Arab denial of the contribution made by anti-Jewish hostility to the Jewish exodus from Iraq and elsewhere is insensitive and ahistorical. Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be entitled to some form of compensation for abandoned lands and property. There is no reason why organisations such as the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) should not be formally represented in negotiations between Israel and the Arab states.

On the other hand, it is equally insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees. The latter group also have a justifiable claim for financial compensation.

11 thoughts on “The Jewish exodus from Arab lands: Why Zionists and anti-Zionists are both wrong

  1. I agree that. in a perfect world, some Jews who fled from Arab countries would get some form of monetary compensation. But the cost of resolving the Paletinian refugee problem –whether it’s only with compensation or a combination of compensation and actual return–will be enormous. Their plight is far more desparate, and helping them is far more important to resolving the conflict. Is it worth it to complicate matters by adding more monetary requirements that the Arab states and international community will need to meet? Sometimes it is better to be smart than to be right…

  2. Both Sides Now,
    You raise a good point, but any peace agreement is going to need the support of SHAS and the other Mizrachi Jews in Israel. It is much more likely that they will back an agreement if their history isn’t shunted aside.

  3. “On the other hand, it is equally insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees.”

    is an important point.

    Dan,
    Grey is also not a single shade. Your voice and action does shift medium gray to a lighter gray. I’m not sure a blog is the best use of your time, but your voice is needed, if available.

    With the failure of Tzipi Livni to form a coalition, the election scheduled for February will be a hotly contested one. The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu is a shoe-in, which I don’t think is a certainty.

    Netanyahu holds the same economic philosophy of American republicans (free market, minimization of social expenditures, deregulation) which hopefully all of the world has learned is failed/failing.

    Also, he has never renounced the goal of gradual annexation, nor the prospect of unilateral military attacks on Iran, nor ANY attraction for the Saudi proposal which would normalize Israel’s status.

    I would hope that Israelis would scrutinize his record and proposals. (He also faces corruption accusation, only quiet because he has been out of political power for so long, and not able to collect envelopes).

  4. Thanks, Richard.

    If Bibi does win, the only hope I could harbor is that President Obama would have enough guts to stand up to him. Bibi knows that he can offend the Arabs or Europeans, but an Israeli Prime Minister cannot be viewed by the public as someone who is seriously distrupting the U.S.-Israel relationship.

  5. Both sides,

    The financial claims of Israeli Jews against Arab countries can be taken into account when discussing Israeli compensation to Palestinian refugees. Since Arab countries, and the Palestinians claim to be part of the Arab nation, benefitted from Jewish property lost during emigration this can offset similar Palestinian property losses that Israel gained from.

  6. In a perfect world, Tom, this would happen. I agree. But we don’t live in such a world.

    The only trade-off that has a slim chance of working is for the Jews to give up their claims to all of Jerusalem and the Palestinians to give up the imnplementation of a right of return to Israel proper, even if they insist on clining to the claim that they have the right. That is complicated enough. Why make it more complicated?

    The Mizrachi Jews are doing ok in Israel, although there are obviously still problems. Palestinian refugees are, by and large, not doing OK. Putting their claims on an equal footing just makes it harder to help the people who have suffered the most.

  7. Both sides,

    If you want to get Israel contributing to compensation for Palestinian refugees, the plight of Jewish refugees will also have to be taken into account. If the compensation comes purely from the international community, the Mizrahim can be safely ignored.

  8. As someone who’s argued with you, Dan, I hope you don’t take our disagreements too much to heart. I value your posting even when I vehemently disagree with you.

    On the Jewish exodus, I’d say the issue is treated in a more nuanced way in this article by Michael Fischbach, the author of “Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries” and “Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property
    and the Arab-Israeli Conflict”:
    http://www.hnn.us/articles/52679.html

    My own position, which finds some resonance in Fischbach’s article, is that Arab Jews certainly have outstanding property claims which require redress. But these cannot justly be put on the table as part of an attempt to deal with Palestinian property claims from ’48 and ’67. The issues both require redress, but they are not two sides of the same coin, and in fact attempts to link them usually come as an attempt to veil the question of the right of return (which is related to but itself also different from the question of property rights).

    I’d be interested to hear what you think of Fischbach’s piece, and his book if you have a chance to read it.

  9. Kevin,

    I am somewhere between you and Tom Mitchell on this one. When this issue is used to veil the question of what the Palestinians desparately need and ought to have, it can be destructive. But bringing up both in the context of comprehensive negotiations does not necessarily mean they are “two sides of the same coin.” It just means that these Jewish refugees, and the indignities they suffered, need to be acknowledged by Arab states and compensation needs to be provided. Where else could that possibly happen except at a negotiating table where the region’s most painful problems are addressed, once and for all? Do you honestly think there is any chance that these Jews could get reparations from those states if their grievances were treated separately and addressed in some other forum? I don’t believe there is a chance in hell that this would happen.

  10. Perhaps both of us should read Fischbach’s book and then have a chat – I was paging through it at Book Culture a couple of days ago, but didn’t buy it. But even in a quick overview it was quite clear his approach is to disaggregate the two issues. Regarding your pessimism about getting Arab states to discuss the issue separately: I do think it would be possible to pressure Arab states into an agreement on Jewish dispossessions (and by the way, Libya and Morocco have, as I understand, both already offered to settle their outstanding cases – I don’t know to where these offers have led, but hopefully other states will follow) once the issue of the Palestinian claims be settled. It’s possible that the issue could be part of the terms of recognition/normalization of relations once the Palestinian final status talks have been agreed (and these would need to include right of return/property claims)…

    If I may I’d suggest you take a look at the Fischbach book (honestly I have no personal stake in its sales) and perhaps reserve a post to your further thoughts on the matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.