To paraphrase TS Eliot, November was always a cruel month for Jewish citizens of Arab states – and never more so than in the 1940s.
Three popular myths surround the 870,000 Jews who left Arab countries after Israel was born. The first is that they departed of their own free will. Second, if they did flee as refugees, it was because Arab states lashed out spontaneously against their Jewish citizens like a bull to a red rag (and who could blame them?). Third, the Arab states took revenge on their Jews for the plight of Arabs driven out of Palestine.
There are several things wrong with this reading of history. First, the pressures on Jews were shared with other non-Muslim and ethnic minorities. Secondly, Arab leaders were making threats against their own Jewish citizens, and devised a coordinated plan to persecute them, before the 1947 UN Partition Plan was passed. Thirdly, violent riots against defenseless Jews in Arab countries preceded the outbreak of war in Palestine and the resulting flight of several hundred thousand Arab refugees.
Sixty-six years ago this week, the Political Committee of the UN General Assembly sat down to debate the proposed Partition of Palestine. The Egyptian delegate, Heykal Pasha, made the following remarks:
“The United Nations…should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries. Partition of Palestine might create antisemitism in those countries even more difficult to root out than the antisemitism which the Allies tried to eradicate in Germany…If a Jewish state is established, nobody could prevent disorders. Riots would break out in Palestine, would spread through all the Arab states and might lead to a war between two races.”
Sure enough, a wave of violence spread in Egypt following the vote in favor of Partition on 29 November 1947. Demonstrations were called for 2 – 5 December. It was only because the police prevented the mob from attacking the Cairo Jewish quarter that lives were spared.
In Bahrain, beginning on 5 December, crowds began looting Jewish homes and shops and destroyed the synagogue. Two elderly ladies were killed.
In Aleppo, Syria, the Jewish community was devastated by a mob led by the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 150 homes, 50 shops, all 18 synagogues, five schools, an orphanage and a youth club were destroyed. Many people were killed, but the exact figure is not known. Over half the city’s 10,000 Jews fled into Turkey, Lebanon and Palestine.
In Aden, the police could not contain the rioting. By the time order was restored on 4 December, 82 Jews had been killed. Of 170 Jewish-owned shops, 106 were destroyed. The synagogue and two schools were among the Jewish institutions burnt down.
Arab statesmen were making threats against their Jewish citizens six months before Ben Gurion declared Israel established.
More alarming still, Jews had been targeted for violence years earlier. In Iraq, 179 Jews were murdered in a Nazi-inspired pogrom, the Farhud, seven years before Israel was created.
In November 1945, two years before Israel was declared, and before the UN Partition Plan vote, a series of anti-Jewish riots broke out in several Arab countries on the anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
In Egypt, anti-Zionist demonstrations were called by the Muslim Brotherhood, Misr al-Fatat and the Young Men’s Muslim Association. Mass demonstrations took place on Balfour Day (2 November) in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities.
Jewish businesses in Cairo and in the Jewish Quarter were looted and the Ashkenazi synagogue ransacked. The disturbances soon spilled over into anti-dhimmi violence, with Coptic, Greek Orthodox and Catholic institutions also attacked. Of 500 businesses looted, 109 belonged to Jews.
Amazingly, only one policeman was killed in Cairo. Five Jews were among six killed in Alexandria.
Far worse was the pogrom in Libya which began on 4 November 1945 in Tripoli. Thousands went on the rampage in the Jewish quarter and bazaar. Jewish homes and businesses had been marked out beforehand for exclusive attack.
The violence spread to other towns. Over three days of rioting, the police stood by and British and US servicemen on the outskirts waited until three days later to impose a curfew. By then 130 Jews were dead including 36 children. Women were raped, some 4,000 Jews were left homeless and nine synagogues destroyed.
In Syria a mob broke into the great synagogue in Aleppo and beat up two elderly men. In Iraq, the government avoided a repeat of the 1941 Farhud by banning public demonstrations.
But in November 1947, the blood-curdling threats coming from Arab officials were none other than state-sanctioned incitement.
The Palestine Post ran an editorial entitled “Unwilling hostages” on 11 December 1947. It quoted an editorial in the Manchester Guardian the day before, entitled ‘Hostages’. This article deplored inflammatory statements made by Arab leaders which could be interpreted as threats against the Jewish minorities.
Both in Syria and Iraq “pressure has been put on the Jews to denounce Zionism and support the Arab cause. One cannot help wonder what threats have been made to bring this about.”
The riots of the previous week had been attributed by Arab governments to the ‘fury of the people’. The editorial charged that ” the governments concerned, if they do not activate or instigate them, look upon them with a benevolent eye.”
As well as approving or instigating violence against their Jewish minorities, the member states of the Arab League drafted a plan to victimize their Jewish citizens ‘as the Jewish minority of Palestine.’
The Palestine Post of 22 December 1947 carried a report about harsh measures that the Arab League was considering taking against Jews in Arab lands. They would first be denaturalized, their property confiscated, their bank accounts frozen, and they would be treated as enemy aliens.
‘While there is no news of the acceptance of this resolution by the Arab League, it is significant and tragic that such a document should have been drafted,” the editorial lamented.
“It is easy for them to play the bully and to keep a sword hanging over the heads of many hundreds of thousands of Jews who are at their mercy.”
The Lebanese government issued orders of expulsion against Palestinian Jews in Lebanon.
Although it was not passed, aspects of the Arab League draft resolution were adopted by individual Arab governments. The human rights lawyer and Canadian ex-Justice ministerIrwin Cotler has called them ‘Nuremberg-style measures.’
Jews were liable to be arrested and sometimes executed for the crime of ‘Zionism’, but the boundaries between Judaism and Zionism were always blurred.
By the time Israel was established on 15 May 1948, the Jewish communities in Arab countries had been rocked to their very foundations. As the historian Norman Stillman writes, the Palestine issue was a major contributing factor, but it was not the only one – it was more of a catalyst.
Arab and Islamic nationalism could find no room for ethnic and religious groups that deviated from the norm, and Jews found themselves alienated and isolated from society at large.