The emigration and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries

The migration and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries was almost total. Of the nearly one million Jews living in Arab countries before 1948, only a few thousand remain today. But outside of Israel, this topic is rarely mentioned in current debates on the Middle East

Mass exodus after 1948

Outside Israel, discrimination, migration 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 topic.[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 300-400 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. Today in Europe, the collective awareness has largely been pushed out of the fact that between 25 and 30 percent of the population of the Iraqi capital at the end of the 1930s was Jewish, a proportion similar to that in 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 migration 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 Nazi policy in the Middle East[4], as well as to the German mass murder of the European Jews and the founding of the Israeli state on May 14, 1948. Nonetheless, the reasons for the 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 anti-Semitic manifesto 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 the Jews from the 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 out of 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 decision to partition the mandate of 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 members 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 at a time, when the vast majority of Jews had already left the Arab countries.

In many cases, the refugees had 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 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).[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. However, this does not mean that Jews could live on an equal footing in Islamic societies: even in the comparatively bloodless periods of Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Arab world, when Jews were tolerated as “protected” (dhimmis), it was a matter of tolerance, “consisted of contempt”.[11] The institution of the dhimma was a “status of humiliation, degradation and degradation”[12], which subjected Jews to numerous excluding special regulations. Long before 1948, contempt based discrimination had 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, and in 1834 there were outbreaks of violence against the Jewish community in Safed, located now in Israel, then Syria.

In the 19th century, allegations of ritual murder by Jews in the Ottoman Empire massively increased. They were initially 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 Jews in Arab societies. Similar to European anti-Semitism, but embedded in the context of a different religious tradition, Jews in the Arab world were attacked as representatives of modernization processes that would undermine the traditional social order.

This hatred of modernity is particularly evident in thoughts by leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, such as Hassan al-Banna and later in Sayyid Qutb’s programmatic work “Our Struggle with the Jews” from 1950, which still inspires Islamist assassins around the world today, or in the writings of the Algerian leader 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 perception 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 of the Jewish dhimmis into an 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 Islamic majority population in the Arab states hardly orientated itself towards the Jewish minority in their societies as they did towards the establishment of a Jewish state. Whether they – as in Syria and Iraq – for the most part loudly joined Arab anti-Zionism, in Egypt they showed their loyalty permanently – as in some cases in Tunisia and Libya – openly stood 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 German National Socialism, first had to use brutal violence to prevail against much more moderate fractions on the Arab side. During the pogroms in Iraq in 1941, not only around 300-400 Jews were murdered, but also numerous Arabs 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 the Tunisian Jews – and he also made anti-Semitic statements – but at the same time he represented positions towards Israel that made him a opponent to the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Bourguiba acted against Nasser’s radical anti-Israel agitation in terms of moderate realism, which aimed at a “peaceful solution” to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.

Even in Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism, the radical forms of anti-Semitic politics had to prevail: 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 to a high degree on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, he demonstratively visited a synagogue in Cairo. The situation of the Jews in Egypt deteriorated rapidly from 1954 with the fall of Nagib and the presidency of Nasser, who recommended reading the anti-Semitic inflammatory pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which 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, it 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. Before that, however, the general 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 the Arab countries came to Israel, but the vast majority of around 600,000, with the largest numerical contingents from Iraq and Morocco. About 200,000 Jews – especially from Algeria, but also from Tunisia – went to France. The United States were 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.

The story of the Jewish expulsion 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 – referred to as Mizrahim in Israel – 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 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. As early as 1942, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first Prime Minister in 1948, presented his Tochnit HaMillion, a plan for a million new immigrants. But he had primarily thought of the best-educated Jewish immigrants from Europe. Israel encouraged emigration from the Arab countries, but initially proceeded restrictively in view of the immense problems that the young state had to cope with. Until 1955, for example, 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 Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, around 45,000 Jews were flown out of Yemen. Between 1951 and 1952, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah brought over 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel.

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’aborot, which were largely transformed into developing cities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The fight against discrimination of the Arab-Jewish Mizrahim in Israeli society – who for a long time were economically and socially disadvantaged compared to Jews from Europe – has shaped the history of protest in the country.

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, were largely due to the Arab war of aggression against the new founded Jewish state.[20]


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, migration 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 (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 emigration 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.


[1] For the mostly non-Arab Iran, where between 100,000 and 150,000 Jews lived before the “Islamic Revolution”, more than 90 percent of whom left the country after 1979, see Stephan Grigat: Antisemitismus im Iran seit 1979. Holocaustleugnung und Israelhass in der ‘Islamischen Republik’. In: Marc Grimm/Bodo Kahmann: Antisemitismus im 21. Jahrhundert. Virulenz einer alten Feindschaft in Zeiten von Islamismus und Terror. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter 2018, p. 202f.; Roya Hakakian: Juden im Iran und die iranische Linke. Persönliche Reflexionen, die notgedrungen politisch sind. In: Stephan Grigat (Hg.): Iran – Israel – Deutschland. Antisemitismus, Außenhandel und Atomprogramm. Hentrich & Hentrich: Berlin 2017, p. 145-158

[2] Zvi Yehuda: The New Babylonian Diaspora. The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Community in Iraq, 16th-20th Centuries C.E. Leiden: Brill 2017, p. 276.

[3] Bernhard Lewis: Die Juden in der islamischen Welt. Vom frühen Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert. München: C.H. Beck 2004, p. 153.

[4] Matthias Küntzel: Von Zeesen bis Beirut: Nationalsozialismus und Antisemitismus in der arabischen Welt. In: Christian Heilbronn/Doron Rabinovici/Natan Sznaider (Ed.): Neuer Antisemitismus? Fortsetzung einer globalen Debatte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2019, pp. 182-218; David Motadel: Für Prophet und Führer. Die Islamische Welt und das Dritte Reich. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2017; Jeffrey Herf: Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, New Haven: Yale University Press 2009; Robert S. Wistrich: A Lethal Obsession. Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. New York: Random House 2010, p. 662-686.

[5] The Arab League and its six UN member states vehemently rejected the UN partition resolution of 1947 and announced that military measures should be implemented

[6] Benny Morris: Righteous Victims. A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. New York: Vintage 2001, pp. 218-258.

[7] Lewis, p. 170.

[8] Ada Aharoni: The Forced Migration of Jews from Arab Countries. In: Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice. 15 (1), 2003: pp. 53–60.

[9] Nathan Weinstock: Der zerrissene Faden. Wie die arabische Welt ihre Juden verlor. 1947-1967. Freiburg 2019, S. 293.

[10] Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries. New York: Columbia University Press 2008, S. 29-85. Adi Schwartz: „All I Wanted Was Justice“. In: Haaretz, 2.1.2008.

[11] Georges Bensoussan: Die Juden der arabischen Welt. Die verbotene Frage. Berlin/Leipzig: Hentrich & Hentrich 2019, p. 146.

[12] Weinstock, p. 386.

[13] Lewis, p. 143 f.

[14] Matthias Küntzel: Nazis und der Nahe Osten. Wie der islamische Antisemitismus entstand. Berlin/Leipzig: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2019, p. 34.

[15] Bensoussan, S. 86.

[16] Stephan Grigat: Die Einsamkeit Israels. Zionismus, die israelische Linke und die iranische Bedrohung. Hamburg: Konkret 2014, p. 8.

[17] Norman A. Stillman: The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. Philadelphia: JPS 2003, p. 180.

[18] Klaus-Michael Mallmann/Martin Cüppers: Halbmond und Hakenkreuz. Das Dritte Reich, die Araber und Palästina. Darmstadt: WBG 2007, p. 160; Malte Gebert: Die Rezeption der Protokolle der Weisen von Zion in Ägypten. In: Medaon. Magazin für jüdisches Leben in Forschung und Bildung, Nr. 9, 2011, p. 9.

[19] Lyn Julius: Uprooted. How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight. London/Chicago: Vallentine Mitchell 2018, pp. 155-159.

[20] Alex Feuerherdt/Florian Markl: Vereinte Nationen gegen Israel. Wie die UNO den jüdischen Staat delegitimiert. Hentrich & Hentrich: Leipzig/Berlin 2018, S. 111.

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