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The Middle East's Forgotton Refugees

by Semha Alwaya

In discussions about refugees in the Middle East, a major piece of the narrative is routinely omitted, and my life is part of the tapestry of what's missing. I am a Jew, and I, too, am a refugee. Some of my childhood was spent in a refugee camp in Israel (yes, Israel). And I am far from being alone.

This experience is shared by hundreds of thousands of other indigenous Jewish Middle Easterners who share a similar background to my own. However, unlike the Palestinian Arabs, our narrative is largely ignored by the world because our story – that of some 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries dispossessed by Arab governments – is an inconvenience for those who seek to blame Israel for all the problems in the Middle East.

Our lives in the Israel of the 1950s were difficult. We had no money, no property; there were food shortages, few employment prospects. Israel was a new and poor country with very limited resources. It absorbed not only hundreds of thousands of us, but also an equal number of survivors of Hitler's genocide. We lived in dusty tents in "transit camps," their official name because these were to be temporary, not permanent.

Housing was eventually built for us, we became Israeli citizens, and we ceased being refugees. The refugee camps in Israel that I knew as a child were phased out, and no trace of them remains. Israel did this without receiving a single cent from the international community, relying instead on the resourcefulness of its citizens and donations from Diaspora Jewish communities. Today, many of Israel's top leaders are from families that were forced to flee Arab countries, and we make up more than half of Israel's Jewish population.

I was born in Baghdad, and like most other Iraqis, my mother tongue is Arabic. My family's cuisine, our mannerisms, our outlook, are all strongly influenced by our synthesized Judeo-Arabic culture.

There once was a vibrant presence of nearly 1 million Jews residing in 10 Arab countries. Our Middle Eastern Jewish culture existed long before the Arab world dominated and rewrote the history of the Middle East. Today, however, fewer than 12,000 Jews remain in these lands – almost none in Iraq.

What happened to us, the indigenous Jews of the Arab world? Why were 150,000 Iraqi Jews – my family included – forced out of Iraq? Why were an additional 800,000 Jews from nine other Arab countries also compelled to leave after 1948?

When the world of the 1930s and '40s was divided between the democratic Allies and the Fascist Axis, Arab nationalists in Iraq and Palestine chose to form an alliance with Nazi Germany. The father of Palestinian nationalism and the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, began his close collaboration with Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s.

The British put out an arrest warrant for the pro-Nazi Palestinian leader, but he escaped when war broke out in Europe in the spring of 1939. Later that year, he arrived in Baghdad and linked up with pro-Nazi Iraqi nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. In 1941 al-Husseini and al-Gaylani engineered a pro- German coup against the pro-British Iraqi government, which brought a reign of terror to Iraq's Jews. This culminated in what we remember as the Farhud, an Arabic word akin to "pogrom."

In a two-day period Arab mobs went on a rampage in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, murdering, raping and pillaging these cities' Jewish communities. Nearly 200 Jews were killed, more than 2,000 injured; some 900 Jewish homes were destroyed and looted, as were hundreds of Jewish-owned shops. My father was a survivor of the carnage. He hid in a hole dug in the ground to save his life. He saw Iraqi soldiers pull small children away from their parents and rip the arms off young girls to steal their bracelets. He saw pregnant women being raped and their stomachs cut open.

Britain eventually regained control, but al-Husseini and other Palestinian nationalists had already fled to Berlin where they became honored guests of the Nazi state. Hitler told a grateful al-Husseini that "Germany's only remaining objective in the [Middle East] would be limited to the annihilation of the Jews living under British protection in Arab lands."

Later, in a speech over Radio Berlin's Arabic Service, al-Husseini voiced support for the Nazis' "Final Solution" and became the first Arab leader to call openly for the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands – some eight years before there was a single Palestinian refugee.

Even though Hitler lost the war, al-Husseini's call was heeded. In 1948, Iraq rounded up and imprisoned hundreds of Jews. Others were removed from their jobs in the civil service, business licenses of Jews were revoked, and quotas were placed on Jewish high school and college students. Later, discriminatory restrictions were imposed on Jewish travel abroad and the buying or selling of property. Thus, even if Jews wanted to escape Iraq, they could not do so legally, and they could not liquidate their assets.

In 1950, the Iraqi parliament passed a law called Ordinance for the Cancellation of Iraqi Nationality for Jews, Law No. 1 that stripped Iraqi Jews of their citizenship. In 1951, the Iraqi parliament passed another law, confiscating all Jewish property. Within a year, most of Iraq's ancient Jewish population, my family included, fled to Israel.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, Jews faced similar circumstances. In Libya in 1945, nearly 100 Jews were massacred. In 1948, the Jewish communities of Aden and Algeria were rocked by a series of attacks that left hundreds dead and many more injured. Discriminatory laws against Jews were passed in other Arab countries. Within a decade, the exodus of Jews from Arab countries was almost complete, with most going to Israel.

All of this was conducted under the guise of law by Arab governments. This forced Jews to flee lands where we had lived for thousands of years before the Arab-Islamic conquests.

Since 1949, the United Nations has passed more than 100 resolutions on Palestinian refugees. Yet, for Jewish refugees from Arab countries not a single U.N. resolution has been introduced recognizing our mistreatment or calling for justice for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees forced out of our homes. This imbalance of the world's concern is itself an injustice.

Arab governments instituted policies that led to nearly 900,000 Middle Eastern Jews becoming stateless refugees. Those same governments forced about 750,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants to remain in impoverished refugee camps, refusing them citizenship and denying them hope.

Peace between Israel and the Arab world requires a solution that recognizes that there were two refugee populations. Acknowledging and redressing the legitimate rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries will promote the cause of justice, peace and a true reconciliation.


Semha Alwaya is an attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area and a founding member of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Born in Iraq and raised in Turkey, Iran, Israel and the USA., Alwaya was among 125,000 Iraqi refugees whose citizenship was revoked and their property confiscated by the Iraqi government in the middle of the 20th century. Her family left Iraq in 1951 and, like many other Jewish refugees, lived in temporary refugee camps in Israel. Alwaya speaks Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. She has a Masters Degree in Near Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley and has taught Arabic and Farsi at UC Berkeley and Stanford. She also has managed and directed her own language institute.