My family was expelled from Iraq in 1951. My grandfather Haim owned a successful business with several trucks, while my grandmother Gazelle ran the home. They lived in a spacious three-story house while maintaining a simple life. For years my grandparents tried to maintain a good relationship with their Arab neighbors while practing the same Jewish traditions that had been passed down in Iraq for centuries.
All this came crashing down within weeks. With the creation of Israel, the Iraqi government declared that all of their property was to be stripped from them and nationalized while the local Jewish population was to be expelled. The authorities let these soon-to-be refugees leave with only one suitcase each after it had been carefully searched to ensure no gold or jewelry was taken with them. My 4-year-old mother took her favorite rag doll, which served as a solemn reminder for decades to come of our family’s storied past in Iraq.
Just like my family, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from many other Arab countries and Iran. They had to leave everything they cared for behind, their homes, loved ones and possessions, while making their way to Israel.
In 1948, the year Israel was declared a state, 265,000 Jews lived in Morocco, 150,000 in Iraq, 140,000 in Algeria, 100,000 in Egypt, 100,000 in Tunisia, 55,000 in Lebanon, 40,000 in Libya, 30,000 in Syria and thousands more throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, for a grand total of 880,000. Shortly thereafter, over 850,000 Jews were expelled from the very countries they called home. The Arab League rejected the establishment of the State of Israel and ultimately decided in forcing out the absolute majority of Jews from their countries.
My family’s expulsion happened overnight but not before being preceded by years of persecution against Iraq’s local Jewish population. My grandmother would tell my siblings and me about how her family had to hide in June 1941 during the “Farhud”, a two day pogrom of mass murder, looting and terror against Iraq’s Jewish population. 179 were killed, 2,100 were wounded, 242 children were orphaned and more than 50,000 households and businesses were ransacked.
Then, in 1947, the demonstrations against the UN resolution on the establishment of a Jewish state brought up memories of the Farhud and led the Jewish population to go into hiding once again. Hundreds of kilometers away in the city of Aleppo in Syria the situation and results were all too familiar: 75 Jews were murdered, a fifth-century synagogue was destroyed and hundreds of homes were devastated.
This is the untold story of the Jewish forgotten refugees. In the Palestinian struggle to preserve the narrative of refugees, it was all too easy to conceal the fact that nearly one million Jews were forcibly banished their homes. These Jews, who survived ethnic cleansing and were systematically expelled, were now forgotten.
It is precisely because of this that the US House of Representatives decided in 2008, with House Resolution 185, to recognize the importance of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries and Iran. And precisely because of this, the government of Israel recognized their rights and dedicated November 30th as a day marking “Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries”.
This date is not coincidental. The day after November 29 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly decided to establish a Jewish state in British Mandate Palestine, many Jewish communities in Arab countries immediately began feeling the pressure to leave. There was looting, riots and laws enacted against them and the Zionist movement.
The young State of Israel, while fighting for its very existence, absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews from surrounding countries. Under conditions of extreme poverty, a severe lack of resources, being housed in transit camps, without knowing the language and regardless of their relatives left behind, these refugees started over.
Seventy years after the United Nations established a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran are still living in Israel. Many of them, including my mother, remember the exact moment they became refugees and how hard it was in the beginning to start from scratch. But they decided to build again, to give up their refugee narrative, to understand that the years following World War II created a new reality for not only themselves, but tens of millions of others as well.
The Jewish refugees from the Arab countries and Iran, together with hundreds of thousands of other Jewish refugees from Europe, built, created and persisted in order to establish a family, a state and a future for their people.
On the other hand, the preservation of the seven decade old narrative of Palestinian refugees is still in full force. It continues to serve political goals and is used as a tool to delegitimize Israel and not recognize it as the homeland of the Jewish people. The call for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel is just another means in the quest to destroy the Jewish state.
On this day, the story of the forgotten refugees needs to be told. Fortunately, these refugees had Israel as a home to take them in. Many of them never survived the deadly pogroms suffered at the hands of Arab regimes. It is for this reason it is so important to learn their story, for any injustice somewhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.
The author is the Director of the National Campaign for Countering De-Legitimization & Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy. The Video was produced by the Minisrty’s 4IL campaign