The bicameral Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC) will hold a landmark hearing on Thursday July 19th regarding the hundreds of thousands of Jews forced to flee their communities in the Arab Muslim nations as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Oriental Jews suffered profound violations of their basic human rights under the Islamic regimes throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf Region. This persecution—including pogroms and expropriations—caused their subsequent flight despite longtime residences in these countries. The Congressional Human Rights Caucus, under the auspices of its Chairman, Congressman Tom Lantos, will hear testimony from legal experts on the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries as well as from “living witnesses'”—Oriental Jews who will testify as to their plight in, and flight from, the Arab countries where they were born.
The July 19, 2007 congressional hearing on Jewish refugees has an immediate, practical goal of providing US legislators with preliminary information before voting on House Resolution 185 and Senate Resolution 85. Under the proposed legislation, the US president would be required to instruct all official representatives of the United States that “explicit reference to Palestinian refugees be matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity.” The historical legacy of this mass Jewish exodus elucidates the bare minimum equity provided in these resolutions.
From Minority Protection to Minority Sacrifice
The two decades following World War II witnessed a rapid dissolution of the major Jewish communities in the Arab Muslim world (and beyond, including Afghanistan, as well as the significant attrition of the Jewish population in Turkey). Even the first decade after World War II saw a reduction by half in the overall Jewish population of the Arab countries. The decline was far greater in several countries. Iraq, Yemen, and Libya had lost over 90 percent of their Jews, and Syria 75 percent, by the end of 1953. At this time, the French-ruled Maghreb contained most of the Jews who remained in the Arab world. Not long afterward, however, the three countries of that region (i.e., Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) achieved their independence. And within little more than two decades after the end of World War II, most of the North African Jews were gone as well.
Although the Arab-Israeli conflict, combined with the end of French colonial rule in North Africa, may have served as catalysts for this mass exodus, these phenomena were antedated by a more powerful underlying dynamic set in motion during the 19th century era of Western colonization. Historians Bat Ye’or and Norman Stillman have highlighted the profound political and psychosocial impact of the West’s penetration into the Islamic world through the 19th and 20th centuries, which undermined (at least temporarily, and in part) the prevailing system of dhimmitude:
(Bat Ye’or) They were no longer forbidden to have a position that might give them equality or superiority over a Muslim. They could revive their prohibited language, as well as their history and their culture. They were no longer dehumanized dhimmis, deprived of the right to speak, to defend themselves and to preserve their own history…The national liberation of a dhimmi people [i.e., the Jews of Israel] meant the abolition of the laws of dhimmitude…[in] their historical homeland
(Norman Stillman) …the Jews and most native Christians…viewed it [European colonial governance] as a liberation from their traditional subordinate dhimmi status, which since the later Middle Ages [at least] had been rigorously imposed upon them. The Jews and Christians of the Muslim world were quick to see that increased European interference and penetration into the affairs of their region meant a weakening of the traditional Islamic norms of society and could only better their own position, which was one of religiously and legally defined inferiority.
Jewish and Christian dhimmi populations availed themselves eagerly of the modern educational programs provided by an array of Western religious and cultural representatives inundating the Middle East and North Africa. From the 1860s onward, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, for Jews, specifically, was the chief provider of modern education in the major cities and towns of most Arab countries. Concomitantly, French, rather than Arabic or Turkish, became the primary language of high culture for tens of thousands of Jews. The Alliance also instilled in its Jewish pupils an improved self-image, which fostered new expectations within them.
Jews (and Christians, who benefited from missionary schools) took advantage of these educational opportunities, which produced cadres of westernized native non-Muslims who now had a distinct advantage over the largely uneducated Muslim masses, arousing the ire of the latter. The Western acculturation and economic success of the Jewish and Christian minorities, as well as their foreign ties, were deeply resented by the Muslim Arab majority. Conspicuous overachievement by some Jews and Christians would contribute to their undoing in the twentieth century, as decolonization lead to the recrudescence of dhimmitude—an inevitable consequence when the aroused jihadist forces (whether traditional, or thinly veiled under the guise of “secular Arab nationalism”) helped end Western colonial rule. For Jews, traditional Islamic antisemitism accompanied this dhimmitude, intensified by a furious anti-Zionism, seamlessly interwoven with both Islamic and modern European antisemitism, especially Nazism. This predictable course of events was foreshadowed during the waning years of European colonialism when the policy of protecting non-Muslim minority rights was sacrificed in order to appease the restive majority Muslim populations. The unleashing of this powerful tide through appeasing, or at least not offending the sensibilities of the Muslim majorities, eventually engulfed and destroyed the Jewish, and some of the Christian communities, in the Arab world.
Pogroms, Persecutions, Expropriations, and Mass Exodus: 1941-1973
Addressing the Political Committee of the U.N. General Assembly with regard to the proposed Partition Plan for Palestine (Resolution 181), on November 24, 1947, Egyptian delegate Heykal Pasha, a “well-known liberal” threatened,
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 the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of the large number of Jews…A million Jews live in peace in Egypt [and the other Muslim states] and enjoy all rights of citizenship. They have no desire to emigrate to Palestine. However, if a Jewish state were 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.
Five days later on November 29, 1947 the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 181,
known as the “Partition Plan.” David Littman has summarized Resolution 181, its relationship to the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, and reception by the Arab League:
Called the “Partition Plan”, it [divided] the land west of the Jordan River into two parts: an Arab state and a Jewish state, with an international corpus separatum for Jerusalem. It comprised about 22 percent of the roughly 120,000 km2 of the original 1922 League of Nations area of Palestine. All the land east of the Jordan River—78 percent, about 94,000 km2 of the entire mandatory area—had been transferred to the Emir Abdullah of Arabia by Britain, thus creating the de facto Emirate of Trans-Jordan, later to be re-named in 1949 the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This 1947 Partition Plan was categorically refused by all the Arab League States and also by the Arab-Palestinian leadership, still nominally headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, who found refuge in Egypt in 1946 (he moved to Beirut in 1962).
Heykal Pasha’s speech provides a useful benchmark for delineating three phases of pogroms and persecutions which caused the exodus of Jews from Arab Muslim nations: the decade prior to his speech; in the immediate aftermath of the speech and the U.N. Partition vote on November 29, 1947; and, the Arab-Israeli War of May-June 1948, and ensuing two decades.
The Baghdad pogrom (the “Farhud”) of June,1941—fomented by Hajj Amin el-Husseini, during his WW II sojourn in Iraq—was followed by three outbursts of anti-Jewish violence in November, 1945—in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Baghdad (1941) and Libya (Tripolitania, 1945) experienced major pogroms: hundreds of Jews were killed and thousands wounded, accompanied by widespread devastation to Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses. During the Farhud, Stillman maintains 179 Jews (including women and children) were murdered, 242 children orphaned, 586 businesses looted, and 911 buildings housing 12,000 individuals were pillaged. Estimates for property damage ranged from 680,000 to 2,700,000 pounds. Naim Kattan, an Iraqi Jew, described the Farhud in this eyewitness account from his autobiographical Farewell Babylon:
The Jews would bare the cost of this repressed hunger, this devouring thirst. Two days and a night. We could hear shots in the distance. They came closer and gradually grew clearer. The conflagration invaded new grounds. Soon it would swallow up everything. They advanced. Armed with picks, daggers, sometimes with rifles, they unfurled in waves, surrounded the city, beleaguered it. As they passed through, they brought along Muslims, spared the Christians. Only the Jews were being pursued. As they advanced, their ranks swelled, teeming with women, children, and adolescents who ululated as they did on great occasions such as weddings and feasts. They reached the target. It was the poorest part of town, Abou Sifain. They pushed down the gates and moved in. What could not be carried away was demolished. Then a second wave entered the devastated site. The men were sent away. Those who put up the slightest resistance had their throats cut on the spot. And the women were made to submit to the will of the men…The Chief Rabbi published a notice of mourning: the community had lost three hundred members. People laughed in his face. Only three hundred! Was he in league with the government? Or perhaps he only wanted to lessen the horror…The dead were entitled to a prayer and the repose of their souls. And what of the hundreds of girls who had been savagely raped? At best they hoped to keep their misfortune secret.
Elie Kedourie has written that 600 Jews were murdered during the May, 1941 Baghdad Farhud, (in support of Kattan’s implication that many more than 300 had been killed), noting, the figure of 600 “…is the official figure which was kept confidential at the time.”
Recurrent anti-Zionist/Antisemitic incitement from 1943 to 1945 culminated in a series of anti-Jewish riots during November of 1945. Egypt was the sight of the first of these riots—in both Cairo and Alexandra—fomented by Islamic groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Young Men’s Muslim Association. Hundreds were injured during the rioting and looting of some 110 Jewish businesses in Cairo, while the disturbances in Alexandria claimed the lives of 5 Jews. Thomas Mayer has observed, “the critics of the riots did nothing to prevent the distribution of anti-Jewish propaganda in Egypt,” and “the Egyptian Jews continued to be harassed by Pan-Arab and Islamic societies, as well as by Government officials, and pressed to make anti-Zionist declarations.” Thus in the aftermath of the riots, neither the Egyptian Chief Rabbi’s protestations of loyalty, nor the expressions of regret and sympathy by Egyptian government officials could restore Egyptian Jewry’s sense of security, as the general atmosphere of hostility towards Jews remained unchanged.
One day after the rioting in Egypt subsided much more extensive and devastating anti-Jewish violence erupted in Libya. A minor altercation between Arabs and Jews near the electric power station outside the Jewish quarter of Tripoli was followed the next day (November 5th) by an anti-Jewish pogrom, as characterized by Norman Stillman,
…mobs numbering in the thousands poured into the Jewish quarter and the Suq al-Turk (the bazaar where many Jewish shops were located) and went on a rampage of looting, beating, and killing. According to one confidential report, weapons were distributed to the rioters at certain command centers, one of which was the shop of Ahmad Krawi, a leading Arab merchant…only Jews and Jewish property were attacked. The rioters had no difficulty in distinguishing Jewish homes and businesses because prior to the attack, doors had been marked with chalk in Arabic indicating “Jew,” “Italian,” or “Arab.” Mob passions reached a fever pitch when a rumor spread that the Chief Qadi of Tripoli had been murdered by Jews and the Shari’a Court burned. The terror then spread to the nearby towns of Amrus, Tagiura, Zawia, Zanzur, and Qusabat.
Zachino Habib, Tripoli’s Jewish community president, provided this eyewitness account of what transpired in Tripoli, Zanzur, Zawia, Qusabat, and Zitlin on November 4-5, 1945:
…the Arabs attacked the Jews in obedience to mysterious orders. Their outbursts of violence had no plausible motive. For fifty hours they hunted men down, attacked houses and shops, killed men, women, old and young, horribly tortured and dismembered Jews isolated in the interior…In order to carry out the slaughter, the attackers used various weapons: knives, daggers, sticks, clubs, iron bars, revolvers, and even hand grenades
Stillman assessed the toll of the pogrom in lives and property, as well as its psychosocial impact:
When the pogroms—for that is what the riots essentially were—were over, 130 Jews were dead, including thirty-six children. Some entire families were wiped out. Hundreds were injured, and approximately 4,000 people were left homeless. An additional 4,200 were reduced to poverty. There were many instances of rape, especially in the provincial town of Qusabat, where many individuals embraced Islam to save themselves. Nine synagogues—five in Tripoli, four in the provincial towns—had been desecrated and destroyed. More than 1,000 residential buildings and businesses had been plundered in Tripoli alone. Damage claims totaled more than one quarter of a billion lire (over half a million pounds sterling). The Tripolitanian pogroms dealt, in the words one one observer [Haim Abravanel, director of Alliance schools in Tripoli], “an unprecedented blow…to the Jews sense of security.” Many leading Arab notables condemned the atrocities, but as the British Military Administration’s Annual Report for 1945 noted, “no general, deep-felt sense of guilt seems to animate the Arab community at large; nor has it been too active in offering help to the victims.”
Minor anti-Jewish violence also occurred on November 18, 1945 in Syria (coinciding with the Muslim holiday al-Id al-Kabir, the culmination of the hajj (pilgrimage) rites at Mina, Saudi Arabia), when “…a mob broke into the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, smashed votive objects, burned prayer books, and beat up two elderly men who were studying there.”
Shortly after Heykal Pasha’s November 24, 1947 speech and the November 29, 1947 U.N. vote which adopted the “Partition Plan” for Palestine, demonstrations were held (December 2nd to 5th) throughout the Arab Muslim world to protest the U.N. decision. These demonstrations sparked anti-Jewish violence in Bahrain, Aleppo, and the British protectorate of Aden. The riots in Aleppo and Aden were severe—many Jews were killed, significant physical devastation occurred, and roughly half of Aleppo’s Jewish population fled.
Such violent anti-Jewish outbursts following the November 1947 U.N. vote to partition Palestine further demoralized Jews living in eastern Arab countries whose confidence had already been shaken by the 1941 Baghdad Farhud, and the 1945 riots in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The steady re-emergence of Islamic (or its corollary “Arab”) national identity in these countries also subjected the Jews to chronic discrimination in employment.
The ongoing isolation and alienation of Jews from the larger Arab Muslim societies in which they lived accelerated considerably after the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948, and the immediate war on the nascent Jewish state declared and waged by members of the Arab League. A rapid annihilation of Israel and its Jewish population was predicted and savored by Arab leaders such as Azzam Pasha, the secretary of the Arab League, who declared:
[T]his will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the crusades
Such widely held expectations may have subdued violent mob reactions of the Arab masses against Middle Eastern and North African Jews at the outset of the war. However, once the Arab offensive in Palestine experienced setbacks, several weeks after the war began, anti-Jewish violence erupted in Morocco and Libya. On June 7 and 8 in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda and Jerada, 42 Jews were killed and roughly 150 injured, many of them seriously, while scores of homes and shops were sacked. One day after the first truce was declared between the Israeli and Arab forces in Palestine, on June 12th, Muslim mobs attacked the Jewish Quarter in Tripoli, Libya, and upon being repelled by Jewish self-defense units—which had been organized there as in other cities that had suffered pogroms in recent years—turned upon undefended neighborhoods outside Hara, murdering thirteen or fourteen Jews, seriously injuring 22, causing extensive property damage, and leaving approximately 300 families destitute. Jews in the surrounding countryside and in Benghazi were subjected to additional attacks.
These events were followed by a series of violent disturbances in Egypt, despite a second truce in Palestine declared on July 18, 1948. During the next three month period Egyptian Jewry was under siege, as bombs destroyed Jewish-owned movie theaters and large retail businesses, including the Adès, Gategno, and Benzion establishments. Overall, these attacks on the Jews of Egypt claimed approximately 50 lives in the summer of 1948, accompanied by enormous property losses. Hundred were left injured, homeless, and unemployed.
The signing of Arab-Israeli armistice agreements in the spring and summer of 1949 rekindled a cautious optimism among many upper, and some middle class Egyptian, Iraqi, and Syrian Jews. This optimism quickly faded for the Jews of Syria and Iraq, lasted perhaps until the 1956 Suez War among Egyptian Jews, and never existed for Libyan or Yemenite Jewry. French disengagement from colonial rule in North Africa between 1954 and 1962 created anxiety in the Jewish populations of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.
These tensions and fears are mirrored in the waves of mass exodus of Jews: almost immediately and completely for the Jews of Libya and Yemen (between 1949 and 1951); a slightly delayed mass exodus of Iraqi Jews by the end of 1951 (after which only 6,000 remained out of ~ 140,000, circa 1945); the rapid attrition of Syria’s population, “…of mass proportions in relation to the smallness of the community”, by 1953; the flight of 60% of Egyptian Jewry within 12-months after the 1956 war, despite being required to abandon almost all their assets except for some items of clothing; a dramatic rise in Jewish emigration from Morocco and Tunisia in anticipation of their independence from France, which continued steadily once independence was achieved; and a precipitous and nearly complete exodus of Algerian Jewry in anticipation of Algerian independence, July 1962.
The “best case” scenarios of Morocco and Tunisia may be most instructive. Muhammad V (of Morocco) and Habib Bourguiba (of Tunisia)—relatively progressive leaders—each initially appointed a Jew to their respective cabinets, and allotted Jews positions within their government bureaucracies. A Muslim-Jewish group promoting interfaith understanding named al-Wifaq (Entente) was even created in Morocco within the (nationalist) Istiqlal party. Despite these “goodwill gestures”, no sustained policies were implemented to combat anti-Jewish discrimination, and the exodus of Jews continued apace. Stillman summarizes these failed efforts:
Neither Jewish minister survived the first reshuffling of their respective cabinets. More significantly, no Jew was appointed again to a ministerial post in either Morocco or Tunisia. The proponents of intercommunal entente made little impression on the Jewish and Muslim masses from whom they were totally removed. The cordiality shown to Jews in some of the highest echelons of government did not percolate down to the lower ranks of officialdom, which exhibited attitudes that ranged from traditional contempt to outright hostility. The natural progression in both countries toward increased identification with the rest of the Arab world (first Morocco, the Tunisia entered the Arab League in 1958) only widened the gulf between Muslims and Jews. Furthermore, government steps to reduce Jewish communal autonomy, such as Tunisian Law No. 58-78 of July 11, 1958, which dissolved the Jewish Communal Council of Tunis and replaced it with the Provisional Commission for the Oversight of Jewish Religious Matters, having far more circumscribed authority, had negative psychological consequences for Jews, who saw their traditional structures under siege. The official pressure on Jewish educational institutions for arabization and cultural conformity only succeeded in feeding the Jews’ worst fears, rather than fostering integration.
The ongoing steady departure of Jews from Tunisia picked up momentum following violent clashes between the French and Tunisian governments in 1961 (during which “Jews” were accused of disloyalty in the Tunisian press) over the naval base at Bizerte. Widespread anti-Jewish riots in Tunis on June 5, 1967 during the Six-Day War reduced Tunisian Jewry to a small remnant population within a year.
Despite the prohibition of mass legal emigration from Morocco in 1956, organized clandestine efforts by the Israeli Mossad continued throughout the remainder of the decade and into the early 1960s. Even during the four years following the dissolution of Cadima [the local Moroccan Zionist organization ordered to “dissolve itself” in 1956] and the imposition of the ban on aliya activities, almost 18,000 Moroccan Jews were spirited out of the country, as Moroccan officials frequently ignored this underground exodus. However during the premiership of Abd Allah Ibrahim (December 1958 to May 1960), who represented the radical wing of the Istiqlal party, there was a serious effort to clamp down on illegal movement, and a special emigration section was established in the police department that made numerous arrests of Jews attempting or even suspected of planning illegal emigration.
Muhammad V reversed the ban on Jewish emigration just prior to his sudden death in February 1961, motivated by pragmatic considerations, including the negative international publicity generated by the drowning of 44 Jews, whose small boat, the Pisces, foundered off the northern Moroccan coast on the night of January 10, 1961, while they were attempting to flee the country.
Once mass emigration was allowed to resume, within three years, 70,000 Jews left Morocco. In 1965, Moroccan writer Said Ghallab described the attitude of his fellow Muslims toward their Jewish neighbors:
The worst insult that one Moroccan can make to another is to call him a Jew....My childhood friends have remained anti-Jewish. They mask their virulent antisemitism by maintaining that the State of Israel was the creation of Western imperialism. My Communist comrades have fallen into this trap. Not a single issue of the Communist press denounces either the Antisemitism of the Moroccans or that of their government [emphasis added]…And the integral Hitlerite myth is cultivated among the popular classes. Hitler’s massacre of the Jews was acclaimed with delight. It is even believed that Hitler is not dead, but very much alive. And his arrival is awaited—like that of the Imam el Mahdi [emphasis added]—to deliver the Arabs from Israel.
Moroccan Muslim attitudes such as these, likely exacerbated by the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, may have contributed to the steady decline of Morocco’s Jewish population throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Nearly a quarter million Jews lived in Morocco (almost 300,000 including Tangier) after World War II. By the early 1970s that number had dropped dramatically to 25,000. With continued attrition, less than 4,000 Jews remain in Morocco at present.
David Littman recently summarized the remarkable demographic decline of all the populations of Jews living in Muslim countries, especially the Arab nations, since 1945:
In 1945 about 140,000 Jews lived in Iraq; 60,000 in Yemen and Aden; 35,000 in Syria; 5,000 in Lebanon; 90,000 in Egypt; 40,000 in Libya; 150,000 in Algeria; 120,000 in Tunisia; 300,000 in Morocco, including Tangier—a total of roughly 940,000 (and approximately 200,000 more in Iran and Turkey). Of these indigenous communities, less than 50,000 Jews remain today—and in the Arab world, their number is barely 5,000—0.5% of the overall total at the end of the Second World War. [emphasis added]
Denial of the Past—and the Present
The Jews of Arab Muslim lands have been reduced to (an exceedingly) “small, vestigial and moribund remnant.”, as Stillman has observed. Devoid of political and economic power (or even aspirations)—unseen, unheard, and certainly unarmed—they are the ideal dhimmis, worthy of the benevolent and tolerant treatment ostensibly afforded them in the idyllic era before European colonization, as described in this October 1991 address to the U.N. General Assembly by then Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk Shara:
For hundreds of years Jews have lived amidst Muslim Arabs without suffering. On the contrary they have been greatly respected.
Saul S. Friedman examined contemporary “respectful” Muslim treatment of Jews in Mr. Shara’s own Syria, in a 1989 study. His sobering analysis reveals the living legacy of Antisemitic, anti-dhimmi Islamic attitudes exploited by a pseudo-secular totalitarian government, further enamored of European Antisemitic motifs—from “historical proofs” of the Jews responsibility for ritual murder in the 1840 Damascus blood libel, published (and re-published) by the Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, to Nazi Antisemitism expressed by unrepentant Nazis such as Alois Brunner, who stated, “All of them [Jews] deserved to die because they were the devil’s agents and human garbage…I have no regret and would do it again…”, while being granted safe haven in Syria.
And current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a speech welcoming Pope John Paul to Damascus on May 5, 2001, put the “torture” of Jesus (Isa) in an Islamic context consistent with Qur’an 2:61/3:112 which accuses the Jews of murdering the prophets:
We notice them [i.e., the Jews] aggressing against Muslim and Christian Holy Sites in Palestine, violating the sanctity of the Holy Mosque (Al-Aqsa), of the church of Sepulcher in Jerusalem and of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. They [i.e., the Jews] try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing Him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon Him). [emphasis added]
Bashar further demonstrated how the Islamic motif of Jews as prophet killers and torturers is “updated” with flawless logic by his reference to the canonical hadith—wherein Muhammad is poisoned by a Khaybar Jewess, and ultimately suffers a protracted, painful death traced to this incident—to vilify both Jews, and the Jewish State of Israel.
At the outset of Hafez al-Assad’s accession to power in the early 1970s, these were the conditions under which Syrian Jews lived:
Jews were required to live in ghettos and not permitted to travel more than 3 or 4 kiolmeters from their homes. (By contrast 500,000 Muslims visited Lebanon in 1971 alone.) Anyone attempting to flee the country could be jailed and tortured for three months or more. Jews were required to carry identity cards with the word Mussawi (follower of Moses) broadly scrawled in red ink. In Al-Qamishli, Jewish homes and stores were required to bear a red sign (the color connoting uncleanliness). Under a law drafted February 8, 1967, all government employees and members of the Syrian armed forces were barred from trading with any Jewish establishment in Syria. A list of boycotted businesses was supplied by the government. In some instrances, Jews were barred from making food purchases themselves and had to rely on Syrian friends to keep them from starving. Jews could not own or drive automobiles or have telephones.
Jews could not serve in the Syrian armed forces, but had to pay $600 to secure exemption certificates. Jews could not sell property. In the event of death or illegal emigration, property was transferred to the state, which disposed of it either through sale or grant to Palestinians. Mmebers of saiqa, a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) faction favored by the Syrians, openly strutted through the streets of Damascus ghetto, intimidating people with arms and beatings. Al Fatah also maintained an office in this ghetto where in one week in 1971 seven Jewish homes were torched.
The overall situation was so critical that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency of November 19, 1971 reported: For the first time since the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet Jews have petitioned their government to aid Jews of another country. Russian Jewish sources reported that a group of Muscovite Jews wrote to the Kremlin’s Big Three—Communist Party Chief Leonid I. Brezhnev, Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin, and President Nikolai V. Podgorny—to intervene with the Damascus government for a cessation of restrictions on Syrian Jews. The names of the petitioners were not disclosed, but the sources said they were all activist Jews, many of whom have applied for migration to Israel. The petitioners based their appeal on humanitarian grounds and on the fact of good Russian-Syrian relations.
Saul Friedman also describes how gullible, high profile U.S. journalists—Seymour Topping of the New York Times and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, as well as the National Geographic—were manipulated by Assad’s government during a mid-1970s Syrian campaign to whitewash the brutally oppressive conditions under which Syrian Jews lived.
On January 5, 1975, The New York Times correspondent Seymour Topping offered the American public a rare view of the lives of Syrian Jews. After rhapsodizing characteristically about “synagogues still being open” and giving the anodyne explanation of official hostility to Jews being due to the technical state of war that made it impossible for Jews to leave the city or country, Topping ended with a conventional stereotype. “The most popular men’s clothing store in Damascus is owned by a Jew. ‘He is a friend of mine,’ said Dr. Saber Falhout, editor of the leading newspaper, Al Baath. ‘This suit I am wearing was made by him.’ It was a well-tailored plaid.” Shortly after this misleading piece appeared, Topping spent some time with George Gruen of the American Jewish Committee. Topping was informed that the people he interviewed were among the few Jewish families permitted to function outside ghetto walls, where foreign visitors were taken to display the government’s benevolence. [emphasis added]
…a Wallace segment on 60 Minutes in 1975 would paint an equally misleading picture of conditions in Syria. Once more carefully selected spokesmen expressed gratitude to the Ba’athist reime for bringing stability to their lives. One, Maurice Nuseyri…offered his own identity card as evidence of a thaw in Arab-Jewish relations. Although there was a line where Nuseyri’s religion was typed, the hateful Mussawi was lacking. Wallace did inquire how long Nuseyri had had the card but did not follow-up when the latter responded, “Oh, about one week.” Nor did the normally relentless journalist inquire after two of Nuseyri’s children who had fled the country, abandoning all property in their quest for freedom. [emphasis added]
One other prestigious institution would fall victim to Syruian propaganda. The National Geographic devoted part of its April, 1974 issue to Syria.An article written by freelance journalist Robert Azzi told of the “freedom of worship and freedom of opportunity” enjoyed by Syrian Jews, especially in Damascus, “the city still tolerantly (embracing) [sic] significant numbers of Jews.” Seven months later, the editors of The National Geographic, noting the difficulty of obtaining “reliable nonpartisan information,” tried to swallow Azzi’s words.
Many of our Jewish members sharply criticized us for not delineating in greater detail the harsh conditions under which that small community has been forced to exist since 1948. We began to wonder if we had unwittingly failed to reflect the true situation. Now after months of carefully reviewing the evidence, we have concluded that our critics were right. We erred. [emphasis added]
For the first time in its eighty-six years of publication, the National Geographic retracted a major article. The evidence that Jews in Syria were not being treated fairly was compelling. Although the Assad government attempted to befog the issue, persecution of Jews continued through the remainder of the decade.
Friedman concluded his 1989 assessment with these observations, despite the putative 1980s “thaw” in overt Syrian government persecution of Jews:
…there is no mistaking the dhimmi status of Syria’s Jews even today. [emphasis added] Few Jews advertise their existence by displaying mezzuzot on the street entrances of their houses. In a land where annual per capita income is less than $1,000, the Muhabarat [Syrian Secret Police] still require a deposit of $5,000 or $6,000 for any Jew temporarily leaving the country.
Recently, the officer in charge of the Jewish Section in the Muhabarat lost his wife in an auto accident and has clamped down on innocents. Six Jews remain imprisoned in the filthy Adra prison, bent over in tiny cells seventy feet below ground level. All have been tortured and one (an eighteen-year-old Laham boy) was beaten so badly that he suffered from phlebitis. His father, visiting the jail, pleaded with the Muhabarat, “Take me! Kill me instead!”
The plight of Syrian Jewry notwithstanding, vestigial Jewish populations in Muslim countries far removed from the battlegrounds of the Arab-Israeli conflict continue to be targeted with attacks—recent examples being the jihadist bombings of the ancient al-Ghariba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia on April 11, 2002 (which killed 21, and seriously wounded many others, most being elderly German tourists), as well as the simultaneous jihadist bombings of two Istanbul synagogues in November 2003. And during January 2007, even the infinitesimal remnant population of Yemenite Jews (some 200 or less) living in the province of Sa’ada, was under duress. Reports indicated that these Jews were being forced to make apparent jizya payments, had been falsely accused of selling wine to Muslims, and were threatened with killings, abductions, and lootings. A letter delivered to the Jewish communal leader, believed to have been composed by disciples of the Yemenite Shi’ite cleric Hossein Bader a-Din al Khouty, stated:
Islam calls upon us to fight against the disseminators of decay…After accurate surveillance over the Jews [in Sa’ada province]…it has become clear to us that they were doing things which serve mainly global Zionism, which seeks to corrupt the people and distance them from their principles, their values, their morals, and their religion.
Georges Vajda’s 1937 analysis of the portrayal of the Jews in the hadith remains the definitive treatment of this subject matter. Vajda (d. 1981) made these sadly prescient observations in 1968 regarding Islamic doctrines which continue to shape the behaviors of Muslim governments and societies towards any Jewish communities remaining in their midst, no matter how small or unobtrusive.
…it seems clear that, unless it changes its principles, goes against the deepest feelings of its coreligionists and calls in question its own raison d’être, no Muslim power, however “liberal” it may like to think itself…could depart from the line of conduct followed in the past and continued de facto in the present [emphasis added], in conferring on Jews anything but the historic status of “protection”, patched up with ill-digested and unassimilated Western phraseology.
This Thursday’s CHRC hearings provide a unique window on the legacy of dhimmitude and Islamic antisemitism which caused the tragic exodus of some 900,000 Jews from the Arab (and non-Arab Muslim) nations, liquidating most of these ancient communities. But the occasion of these hearings should also serve as a clarion reminder that this is a living legacy for those vestigial remnant Jewish populations still living within the Arab Muslim world, as well as the larger populations of Jews in both non-Arab Iran (in particular), and even Turkey. Finally, it must be acknowledged that this same animus—born of general anti-dhimmi attitudes and specific Islamic antisemitism—has reached genocidal proportions when directed at the Jews of Israel, nearly half of whom are Oriental Jewish refugees and their descendants.
Andrew G. Bostom (www.andrewbostom.org) is the author of “The Legacy of Jihad” (Prometheus, 2005) and the forthcoming “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism” (Prometheus, November, 2007)