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June 28, 2013 9:04 am

Jews from Muslim Lands: The Forgotten Refugees of 1948

avatar by Noah Beck

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Jewish refugees.

June 20 was World Refugee Day, dedicated to nearly 60 million people worldwide who were forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution. One group of refugees rarely acknowledged is the Jews who were indigenous to Muslim lands but compelled to flee around the time when the State of Israel was established.

A Google search for “1948 refugees” produces about 6 million results. All but a few (at least through page six) are about the Palestinian Arab refugees, as if they were the only refugees of 1948. But it is estimated that from the beginning of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War through the early 1970s, up to 1,000,000 Jews fled or were expelled from their ancestral homes in Muslim countries. 260,000 of those refugees reached Israel between 1948 and 1951 and comprised 56% of all immigration to the fledgling state. By 1972, their numbers had reached 600,000.

In 1948, Middle East and North African countries had considerable Jewish populations: Morocco (250,000), Algeria (140,000), Iraq (140,000), Iran (120,000), Egypt (75,000), Tunisia (50,000), Yemen (50,000), Libya (35,000), and Syria (20,000). Today, the indigenous Jews of those countries are virtually extinct (although Morocco and Iran each still has under 10,000 Jews). In most cases, the Jewish population had lived there for millennia.

Few know this history because the Jewish refugees of 1948 were granted citizenship by the countries to which they fled, including Israel. By contrast, many Muslim countries refused to integrate the Palestinian refugees, preferring to leave them as second-class citizens in order to maintain a domestic demographic balance and/or a political problem for Israel.

Media bias also explains why so few people know about the 1948 Jewish refugees from Muslim lands. A search for “1948 refugees” on the BBC news site generates 41 articles (going back to 1999); 40 discuss the Palestinian Arab refugees of 1948. Only three of those 40 (dated 9/22/11, 9/2/10, and 4/15/04) even mention the Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, and two do so only in a single, superficial sentence that presents the issue as a claim rather than a historical fact.

A search for “1948 refugees Jews from Arab lands” on the New York Times site produces 497 results (replacing “Arab” with “Muslim” halves the results), while “1948 Palestinian refugees” yields 1,050 results. Consider a comparison using Sri Lanka, another war-torn, multi-ethnic country that gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The nearly 26-year ethnic conflict there began in 1983 and claimed 80,000-100,000 lives, many multiples of the total casualties from the nearly 100-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sri Lanka’s conflict also produced hundreds of thousands of refugees, including at least 200,000 Tamil refugees in Western Europe alone. Yet a search for “Tamil refugees” generates only 531 articles – less than 5% of the 11,300 results for “Palestinian Arab refugees.”

Institutionalized favoritism at the UN has also enabled the Palestinians to monopolize the refugee issue, which undoubtedly reinforces the media’s bias. All non-Palestinian refugees around the world (nearly 55 million) are cared for by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which works under the guidelines of the Convention on Refugees of 1951. But Palestinian refugees (whose original population was under one million) have a UN agency dedicated exclusively to them (UNRWA).

UNRWA’s unique definition of “refugee” includes anyone “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” So, in addition to families who lived in the area for generations, UNRWA’s definition includes any migrants who arrived as recently as 1946 but were then displaced. And because the definition includes “descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition,” UNRWA’s refugee population has grown from 750,000 in 1950 to 5,300,000 today (making resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue even harder). Despite these problems, the United States continues to support UNRWA (with over 4.1 billion dollars since 1950).

The rest of the world’s refugees are assisted by the High Commission, which is mandated to help refugees rapidly rebuild their lives, usually outside the countries that they fled. Jewish refugees from Muslim lands did just that: they rebuilt their lives in Israel and elsewhere. But the fact that they quietly adapted and Israel granted them full citizenship doesn’t lessen the wrongs committed by their countries of origin. These Jewish refugees from Muslim lands suffered legal and often violent persecution that resulted in immeasurable emotional and physical loss. They lost billions in property and endured huge socioeconomic disadvantages when forced to rebuild their lives from scratch. Israel was unfairly burdened with the colossal social and economic cost of suddenly absorbing so many refugees. So any suggestion that Jewish refugees from Muslim lands don’t deserve compensation is resoundingly wrong.

On the recent World Refugee Day, the Israeli Knesset member Shimon Ohayon, whose family fled Morocco in 1956, called on the Arab League to “accept their great responsibility for driving out almost a million Jews from lands [in] which they had lived for millennia.” He explained that “In 1947, the Political Committee of the Arab League drafted a law that…called for the freezing of bank accounts of Jews, their internment and [the confiscation of their assets]. Various other discriminatory measures were taken by Arab nations and subsequent meetings reportedly called for the expulsion of Jews from member states of the Arab League.” Ohayon challenged the League to accept responsibility for “the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population from most of the Middle East and North Africa…[and] to provide redress to the Jewish refugees.”

A just and comprehensive Mideast peace is possible only when Muslim states recognize their role in two historic wrongs: 1) displacing one million indigenous people only because they were Jews, and 2) perpetuating the plight of Palestinian refugees by denying them citizenship. The first wrong requires financial compensation to the families of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, which reparation can be administered by the states that absorbed them. The second wrong should be remedied by granting full citizenship to Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who have resettled in Muslim lands. Both wrongs have festered for too many decades.

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes that also discusses the expulsion of Jews from Muslim lands.

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  • chava

    As the daughter of a Libyan jew, I am well aware of the persecution we suffered. My mom’s family left Tripoli in 1948 & spent time in ma’abaraot, before moving to Bnei Brak. However, I vehemently disagree with this articles conclusion. First, it was NOT Muslims who evicted Jews. Libya was an Italian colony til 1951. If anyone should pay $$ compensation, it should be Italy. Second one can no more conflate Palestinians with Jordanians & Egyptians than one can conflate Belgians and French, both of whom live on the same continent, speak the same language but consider themselves distinctive national entities.

    Palestinians lived in Palestine. Zionists dispossessed them deliberately. Read Begin’s & Ben Gurion’s autobiographies for details. Although I am proud to be shomer shabbes, I am not proud of how Zionists behaved towards Israel’s indigenous people. Yes, Europeans stole land from the Aboriginal people in North America but that is no justification for Zionists to steal the land from Palestinians. We continue today by displacing Bedouin peoples and forcing them into concrete jungles like Rahat. Surely, Hashem did not mean for us to steal from others to realize our dreams of nationhood?? Chava

  • Kiflemariam Melake

    i APPRECIATE THE AUTHOR. He has raised a very crucial issue based on founded data. His criticism of partiality in reporting and in publicizing about the 1948 is correct. This trend of slanting historical facts especially referring to the territory called Palestine and the State of Israel has been reported by others which I was able to get their installments and publications. One of these include PETER FARMER. In his installment of August 12/2012 he stated, ” the author [he means himself, Peter Farmer] found that many sources have redacted or deleted politically-incorrect content which portrayed the MB in less than flattering terms. Wikipedia and other sources downplay or neglect to mention, the extent to which the Ikhwan have supported violent jihad (holy war) over the years since the founding of the group. Also absent in many internet accounts are the proven links between the Brotherhood and Nazi regime during the era 1933-1945. Today, Islamic supremacists and their enablers go to great lengths to portray the MB as strictly a cultural, social and religious movement”.

    Read more: Family Security Matters http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/detail/a-brief-history-of-the-muslim-brotherhood#ixzz2YEbwt5f8
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

    The same truth applies to the fate of Jews during 1948. How about since the revolution of Egypt’s January 25? How many were mistreated? How many were crucified? But, this is not reported and the big democratic states kept quiet. Is petrodollar working to close the mouth of politicians, diplomats and press agencies?

  • Carol

    Want to see an excellent documentary on the 600,000+ Jews forced out of the lands they had lived in for over 1000 years (by their once upon a time friends, neighbors, and governments), then watch Pierre Rehov’s THE SILENT EXODUS.

    Also see Rehov’s many other informative films.


  • E.S.Lombard

    Had I that power, I would clear the Palestinian children’s textbooks of their anti-Israel hatred and instead explain to them that their real chief enemies have been (1) the Arab League in its masterful propaganda and (2)the anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, ignorant liberals and lefties who fail to realize that all their misguided humanitarian efforts are doing horrific damage to the souls of those they purport to help.

  • This should be on every agenda and conversation EVER when it comes to doing ANY negotiations with what to do with the muslims in Israel!! My suggestion for peace, move all of the hater muslims from Israel to the houses the Jews had to leave behind in all the hater muslim countries we had to flee and call it even. Or they can chose war and death like they always do and we will have to put them underground for good instead.