As Jews around the world celebrate Passover and remember their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, it is also important to remember the modern day Jewish exodus from Arab lands. In 1945, around one million Jews lived in Jewish communities residing in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen.

Many of these communities predated Islam. Jews in Arab states greatly contributed towards their societies. Sasson Heskel, a Baghdadi Jew, was an Iraqi Finance Minister in the 19th centruy, while an Egyptian Jew named Murad Bey helped draft the Egyptian Constitution in the 1930’s and Layla Murad, also an Egyptian Jew, was the great diva of Arabic music during the mid 1900’s. However, in the days leading up to Israel’s independence in 1948, many Arab states grew oppressive towards their Jewish citizens, who had lived beside Arabs since antiquity.

From 1947 through 1948, Jews in the Arab Middle East were systematically persecuted, with anti-Jewish pogroms erupting and Jewish property being confiscated. The Iraqi government declared that Zionism was a capital offense; the Syrian government froze Jewish bank accounts; a bomb set off in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo resulted in the death of 70 Jews; and a pogrom in Aden led to the death of 80 Jews, as well as the destruction of countless Jewish homes. As a result of such persecutions, between 1948 and 1972, 820,000 Jews from Arabian countries would become refugees, with 200,000 settling in Europe and the United States, while an additional 586,000 moving to Israel. The descendants of the Jewish refugees from Arab states presently make up around half of the Israeli population.

A Haggadah from the Forgotten Jewish Exodus website includes the following prayer on Passover, “As we hold the bread of affliction, we recall that more than 3,000 years ago our ancestors went forth from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Israel. Many never left the Middle East. Today, we remember not only the bitterness of that slavery, but also the forgotten exodus of one million Jews who fled the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century. The Jewish people have been living in Egypt and throughout the Middle East for more than 3,000 years. As Jews, we take pride in being the Middle East’s oldest, existing ethnic group.”

Upon discussing Jewish contributions to Arab states and the oppression that Jews endured within Arab countries, which ultimately led to their exodus from these lands, it asserts, “We hold the bread of affliction and recall the 135,000 Jews of Iraq who once made up a plurality of the city of Baghdad; the 40,000 Jews of Libya, where today no Jews remain; and the 80,000 Jews of Egypt, many of whom in 1956 received government expulsion orders. Just as the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise, these modern Egyptian Jewish refugees did not have time to pack their bags. And hundreds of thousands more.”

It concludes, “The scars of the past can heal. But justice can only be achieved when peoples and governments in the Middle East recognize the plight of the forgotten million refugees. This year, we pray for the day when justice will be achieved for the Jews of the Middle East and when all peoples of the region will live together in peace and harmony. Amen.” As one Egyptian Jewish refugee, Joseph Abdel Wahed, asserted, “On Passover, it is a Jewish tradition that in retelling the Exodus story we should feel as if we, ourselves, experienced persecution and the Exodus from Egypt. I hope that this year we can also take a moment to experience the modern exodus of Middle Eastern Jews.”

By Rachel Avraham

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