Richard Melson

July 2006

Suez Crisis, Jews, Third World

Jews & Arab Countries

David Sassoon

David Sassoon (1792-1864) was a philanthropist and a prominent Bombay businessman. He was born in Baghdad into a family of Nasis, traditional leaders of the Jewish community. His father, Saleh Sassoon, was a wealthy banker and the treasurer to Ahmet Pasha, the governor of Baghdad. However, at that time, the Jews were coming under pressure from the Muslim Turkish rulers of Baghdad. Fleeing with his wife and family and a small part of the family's wealth, Sassoon arrived in Bombay in 1833.

He started business in Bombay with a counting house and a small carpet godown. His business acumen soon made him one of the richest men in Bombay. He chose to follow the market, but he pursued all his enterprises better than his chief rivals, the Parsis. By the end of the 1850s it was said of him that "silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat– whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company".

Opium trade

Here (in Bombay) he established the house of David Sassoon & Co., with branches at Calcutta, Shanghai, Canton, and Hongkong; and his business, which included a monopoly of the opium-trade, extended as far as Yokohama, Nagasaki, and other cities in Japan. Soon, this opium reached Hong Kong. Between 18301831 they trafficked 18,956 chests of opium earning millions of dollars. Part of the profits went to Queen Victoria and the British government. In the year 1836 the trade increased to over 30,000 chests and drug addiction in coastal cities became endemic.

In 1839, the Manchu Emperor ordered that it be stopped. He named the Commissioner of Canton, Lin Tse-hsu, to lead a campaign against opium. Lin seized 2,000 chests of Sassoon opium and threw it into the river. An outraged David Sassoon demanded that Great Britain retaliate. Thus, the Opium Wars began with the British Army fighting as mercenaries of the Sassoons. They attacked cities and blockaded ports. The Chinese Army, decimated by 10 years of rampant opium addiction, proved no match for the British Army. The war ended in 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. This included provisions especially designed to guarantee the Sassoons the right to provide an entire population with opium. The "peace treaty" included these provisions:

  1. Full legalisation of the opium trade in China

  2. Compensation from the opium stockpiles confiscated by Lin of 2 million pounds

  3. Territorial sovereignty for the British Crown over several designated offshore islands.

Although he did not speak English, he became a naturalised British citizen in 1853. He kept the dress and manners of the Baghdadi Jews, but allowed his sons to adopt English manners. His son, Abdullah changed his name to Albert, moved to England, became a Baronet and married into the Rothschild family. All the Sassoons of Europe are said to be descendants of David Sassoon.

He built a synagogue in the Fort (area) and another in Byculla, as well as a school, a Mechanics' Institute, a library, and a convalescent home in Pune.

David Sassoon was conscious of his role as a leader of the Jewish community in Bombay. He helped to arouse a sense of Jewish identity amongst the Bene Israeli and Cochin Jewish communities. The Sassoon Docks (built by his son) and the David Sassoon Library are named after him. He also built a synagogue in Byculla.

David Sassoon died in his countryhouse in Pune in 1864.

His business interests were inherited by his son.


Jewish exodus from Arab lands:

The Jewish exodus from Arab lands refers to the 20th century emigration of Jews, primarily of Sephardi and Mizrahi background, from majority Arab lands. Typically, this emigration followed documentable discrimination, harassment, persecution, and financial confiscation on the part of the majority population and/or government agencies. Approximately two-thirds of affected Jews emigrated to the modern State of Israel; other common refuge destinations included the United States, Canada and France. Disruption overall was significant: the ancestors of many Jews had resided within Arab lands for centuries before the advent and spread of Islam in the seventh century CE. The ancestors of others had immigrated in later centuries. Previously sporadic, Jewish emigration from Arab lands accelerated following the establishment of Israel in 1948. The process accelerated as Arab nations under French, British and Italian colonial rule or protection gained independence. Further Arab-Israeli wars were sustained by, and in turn exacerbated, anti-Jewish sentiment within the various Arab-majority states. Within a few years after the Six Day War there were only remnants of Jewish communities left in most Arab lands.

Many regard the Jewish exodus from Arab lands as a historical parallel to the Palestinian exodus during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Six-Day War.

History of Jews in Arab lands (Pre-1948)

Excluding the region of Palestine, and omitting the Biblical account of the Jews' slavery in Egypt, Jews have lived in what are now Arab states at least since the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), about 2,600 years ago.

After the conquest of these lands by Arab Muslims, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, typically had the legal status of dhimmi. As such, they were entitled to limited rights, tolerance, and protection, on the condition they pay a special poll tax (the "jizya"), which exempted them from military service, and also from payment of the Zakat alms tax required of Muslims. As dhimmi, Jews were typically subjected to several restrictions, the application and severity of which varied by time and place: residency in segregated quarters, obligation to wear distinctive clothing, public subservience to Muslims, prohibitions against proselytizing and marrying Muslim women, and limited access to the legal systems. Some Jews sometimes attained high positions in government, notably as viziers and physicians. Jewish communities, like Christian ones, were typically constituted as semi-autonomous entities managed by their own laws and leadership, who carried the responsibility for the community towards the Muslim rulers. Taxes and fines levied on them were collective in nature.

In 1945 there were between 758,000 and 866,000 Jews (see table below) living in communities throughout the Arab world. Today, there are fewer than 8,000. In some Arab states, such as Libya (which was once around 3 % Jewish), the Jewish community no longer exists; in other Arab countries, only a few hundred Jews remain.

Jewish Populations of Arab Countries: 1948 and 2001

Country or territory

1948 Jewish

Estimated Jewish
population 2001[1]















< 100

















758,000 - 866,000


Jews flee Arab states (1948-)

Beginning in the late 19th century, the Zionist movement led to an immigration of Jews to Ottoman-ruled Palestine (which did not exist as a distinctive administrative entity within the boundaries laid down later the British Mandate of Palestine), or more precisely in the Jerusalem Sanjak or district of southern Syria. Tensions arose between these immigrants (who transformed and expanded the pre-Zionist indigenous Jewish community) and the Palestinian Arabs; Pan-Arabism led to the Palestinian side of this conflict being taken up by other Arabs, including (from 1945) the Arab League.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Palestinian exodus, the creation of the state of Israel, and the independence of Arab countries from European control, conditions for Jews in the Arab world deteriorated. Over the next few decades, most would leave the Arab world. Their departure and its motivations are covered country by country below.


Main article: History of the Jews in Morocco

Jewish communities, in Islamic times often (though not always[1]) living in ghettos known as mellah, have existed in Morocco for at least 2,000 years. Intermittent large scale massacres (such as that of 6,000 Jews in Fez in 1033, over 100,000 Jews in Fez and Marrakesh in 1146 and again in Marrakesh in 1232)[4] were accompanied by systematic discrimination through the years. During the 13th through the 15th centuries Jews were appointed to a few prominent positions within the government, typically to implement decisions. A number of Jews fleeing the expulsion from Spain and Portugal settled in Morocco in the 15th century and afterwards, many moving on to the Ottoman Empire.

The imposition of a French protectorate in 1912 alleviated much of the discrimination. While the Vichy regime during World War II passed discriminatory laws against Jews, King Muhammad prevented deportation of Jews to death camps (although Jews with French, as opposed to Moroccan, citizenship, being directly subject to Vichy law, were still deported.)

In 1948, approximately 265,000 Jews lived in Morocco. Between 5,000 and 8,000 live there now, mostly in Casablanca, but also in Fez and other cities.

In June 1948, soon after Israel was established and in the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war, riots against Jews broke out in Oujda and Djerada, killing 44 Jews. In 1948-9, 18,000 Jews left the country for Israel. After this, Jewish emigration continued (to Israel and elsewhere), but slowed to a few thousand a year. Through the early fifties, Zionist organizations encouraged emigration, particularly in the poorer south of the country, seeing Moroccan Jews as valuable contributors to the Jewish State:

...These Jews constitute the best and most suitable human element for settlement in Israel's absorption centers. There were many positive aspects which I found among them: first and foremost, they all know (their agricultural) tasks, and their transfer to agricultural work in Israel will not involve physical and mental difficulties. They are satisfied with few (material needs), which will enable them to confront their early economic problems.

(Yehuda Grinker (an organizer of Jewish emigration from the Atlas),

The Emigration of Atlas Jews to Israel, Tel Aviv,

The Association of Moroccan Immigrants in Israel, 1973.[2])

In 1955, Morocco attained independence. Jews occupied several political positions, including three Members of Parliament and a Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. However, emigration to Israel jumped from 8,171 in 1954 to 24,994 in 1955, increasing further in 1956. Beginning in 1956, emigration to Israel was prohibited until 1963, when it resumed.[3] In 1961, the government informally relaxed the laws on emigration to Israel; over the three following years, more than 80,000 Moroccan Jews emigrated there. By 1967, only 60,000 Jews remained in Morocco.

The Six-Day War in 1967 led to increased Arab-Jewish tensions worldwide, including Morocco. By 1971, the Jewish population was down to 35,000; however, most of this wave of emigration went to Europe and North America rather than Israel.

Despite their current small numbers, Jews continue to play a notable role in Morocco; the king retains a Jewish senior adviser, André Azoulay, and Jewish schools and synagogues receive government subsidies. However, Jewish targets have sometimes been attacked (notably in Al-Qaeda's bombing of a Jewish community center in Casablanca, see Casablanca Attacks), and there is sporadic anti-Semitic rhetoric from radical Islamist groups. Late King Hassan II's invitations for Jews to return have not been taken up by the people who emigrated.


Main article: History of the Jews in Egypt

In 1948, approximately 75,000 Jews lived in Egypt. About 100 remain today, mostly in Cairo. In 1948, Jewish neighborhoods in Cairo suffered bomb attacks that killed at least 70 Jews. Hundreds of Jews were arrested and had their property confiscated. The 1954 Lavon Affair, in which Israelis and Egyptian Jews were arrested for bombing Egyptian and American targets served as a pretext for further persecution of the remaining Jewish community in Egypt.

After the 1956 Suez Crisis, Egypt expelled over 25,000 Jews, confiscated their property, and about 3,000 were imprisoned. About 1,000 more were imprisoned or detained. In 1967, Jews were detained and tortured, and Jewish homes were confiscated as emigration continued.

Egypt was once home of one of the most dynamic Jewish communities in the diaspora. Caliphs in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries CE exercised various repressive policies, culminating in the destruction and mass murder of the Jewish quarter in Cairo in 1012. Conditions varied between then and the advent of the Ottoman Empire in 1517, when they deteriorated again. There were at least six blood libel persecutions in cities between 1870 and 1892. In more recent times, the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been published and promoted as though they were authentic historical records, fueling anti-Semitic sentiments in Egyptian public opinion.


Main article: History of the Jews in Tunisia

Jews have lived in Tunisia for at least 2300 years. In the thirteenth century, Jews were expelled from their homes in Kairouan and were ultimately restricted to ghettos known as hara. Forced to wear distinctive clothing, several Jews earned high positions in the Tunisian government. Several prominent international traders were Tunisian Jews. From 1855 to 1864 Muhammad Bey relaxed dhimmi laws but reinstated them in the face of anti-Jewish riots that continued at least until 1869.

Tunisia, as the only Middle Eastern country under direct Nazi control during World War II, was also the site of anti-Semitic activities such as prison camps, deportations, and other persecution.

In 1948, approximately 105,000 Jews lived in Tunisia. About 1,500 remain today, mostly in Djerba, Tunis, and Zarzis. Following Tunisia's independence in 1956, a number of anti-Jewish policies led to emigration, of which half went to Israel and the other half to France. After attacks in 1967, Jewish emigration both to Israel and France accelerated. There were also attacks in 1982, 1985, and most recently in 2002 when a bomb in Djerba took 21 lives (most of them German tourists) nearby the synagogue in a terrorist attack claimed by Al-Qaeda.

The Tunisian government makes an active effort to protect its Jewish minority now and visibly supports its institutions.


Main article: Yemenite Jews

Including Aden, there were about 63,000 Jews in Yemen in 1948. Today, there are about 200 left. In 1947, riots killed at least 80 Jews in Aden. Increasingly hostile conditions led to the Israeli government's Operation Magic Carpet, the evacuation of 50,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel in 1949 and 1950. Emigration continued until 1962, when the civil war in Yemen broke out. A small community remained unknown until 1976, but it appears that all infrastructure is lost now.

Jews in Yemen were long subject to a number of restrictions, ranging from attire, hairstyle, home ownership, marriage, etc. Under the "Orphan's Decree", many Jewish orphans below puberty were raised as Muslims. This practice began in the late 18th century, was suspended under Ottoman rule, then was revived in 1918. Most cases occurred in the 1920s but sporadic cases occurred until the 1940s. In later years, the Yemenite government has taken some steps to protect the Jewish community in their country.


Main article: History of the Jews in Iraq

In 1948, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. In 2003, there were 100 left, though there are reports that small numbers of Jews are returning in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In 1941, following Rashid Ali's pro-Axis coup, riots known as the Farhud broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher), and up to 2,000 injured.

Like most Arab League states, Iraq forbade the emigration of its Jews for a few years after the 1948 war on the grounds that allowing them to go to Israel would strengthen that state. However, intense diplomatic pressure brought about a change of mind. At the same time, increasing government oppression of the Jews fueled by anti-Israeli sentiment, together with public expressions of anti-semitism, created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

In March 1950, Iraq passed a law of 1 year duration allowing Jews to emigrate on condition of relinquishing their Iraqi citizenship. Iraq apparently believed it would rid itself of those Jews it regarded as the most troublesome, especially the Zionists, but retain the wealthy minority who played an important part in the Iraqi economy. Israel mounted an operation called "Ezra and Nehemiah" to bring as many of the Iraqi Jews as possible to Israel, and sent agents to Iraq to urge the Jews to register for immigration as soon as possible.

The initial rate of registration accelerated after a bomb injured three Jews at a café. Two months before the expiry of the law, by which time about 85,000 Jews had registered, a bomb at the Masuda Shemtov Synagogue killed 3 or 5 Jews and injured many. The law expired in March 1951 but was later extended after the Iraqi government froze the assets of departing Jews (including those already left). During the next few months, all but a few thousand of the remaining Jews registered for emigration, spurred on by a sequence of bombings that caused few casualties but had great psychological impact. In total about 120,000 Jews left Iraq.

In May and June of 1951, the arms caches of the Zionist underground in Iraq, which had been supplied from Palestine/Israel since the Farhud of 1942, were discovered. Many Jews were arrested and two Zionist activists, Joseph Basri and Abraham Salih, were tried and hanged for three of the bombings. A secret Israeli inquiry in 1960 reported that most of the witnesses believed that Jews had been responsible for the bombings, but found no evidence that they were ordered by Israel. The issue remains unresolved: Iraqi activists in Israel still regularly charge that Israel used violence to engineer the exodus, while Israeli officials of the time vehemently deny it. According to historian Moshe Gatt, few historians believe that Israel was actually behind the bombing campaign -- based on factors such as records indicating that Israel did not want such a rapid registration rate and that bomb throwing at Jewish targets was common before 1950, making the Istiqlal Party a more likely culprit than the Zionist underground. In any case, the remainder of Iraq's Jews left over the next few decades, and had mostly gone by 1970.


In 1948 there were approximately 30,000 Jews in Syria. The Syrian government placed severe restrictions on the Jewish community, including on emigration. Over the next decades many Jews managed to escape, and the work of supporters, particularly Judy Feld Carr[5], in smuggling Jews out of Syria, and bringing their plight to the attention of the world, raised awareness of their situation. Following the Madrid Conference of 1991 the United States put pressure on the Syrian government to ease its restrictions on Jews, and in 1992 the government of Syria began granting exit visas to Jews on condition that they not emigrate to Israel. At that time the country had several thousand Jews; today, under a hundred remain. The rest of the Jewish community have emigrated, mostly to the United States and Israel. There is a large and vibrant Syrian Jewish community in South Brooklyn, New York. In 2004 the Syrian government attempted to establish better relations with the emigrants, and 12 Syrian-Jews visited Syria. [4].


Main article: History of the Jews in Algeria

Almost all Jews in Algeria left upon independence in 1962. Algeria's 140,000 Jews had French citizenship since 1870 (briefly revoked by Vichy France in 1940), and they mainly went to France, with some going to Israel.


In 1948, there were approximately 5,000 Jews in Lebanon, with communities in Beirut, and on villages near Mount Lebanon, Deir al Qamar, Barouk, and Hasbayah. While the French mandate saw a general improvement in conditions for Jews, the Vichy regime placed restrictions on them. The Jewish community actively supported Lebanese independence after World War II and had mixed attitudes toward Zionism.

Negative attitudes toward Jews increased after 1948, and by 1967, most Lebanese Jews had emigrated - to the United States, Canada, France, and Israel. The remaining Jewish community was particularly hard hit by the civil wars in Lebanon, and by 1967 most Jews had emigrated. In the 1980s, Hizballah kidnapped several Lebanese Jewish businessmen, and in the 2004 elections, only one Jew voted in the municipal elections. By all accounts, there are fewer than 100 Jews left in Lebanon.


The area now known as Libya was the home of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, dating back to at least 300 BCE. In 1948, about 38,000 Jews lived there.

A series of pogroms started in November of 1945, when more than 140 Jews were killed in Tripoli and most synagogues in the city looted. The pogroms continued in June of 1948, when 15 Jews were killed and 280 Jewish homes destroyed.[6]

Upon Libya's independence in 1951, most of the Jewish community emigrated from Libya. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, another series of pogroms forced all but about 100 Jews to flee. When Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power in 1969, all remaining Jewish property was confiscated and all debts to Jews cancelled.

Although the main synagogue in Tripoli was renovated in 1999, it has not reopened for services. The last Jew in Libya, Esmeralda Meghnagi died in February of 2002. Israel is home to about 40,000 Jews of Libyan descent, who maintain unique traditions.[5] [6]


Bahrain's tiny Jewish community, mostly the descendants of immigrants who entered the country in the early 1900s, numbered 600 in 1948. Over the next few decades, most left for other countries, especially the United States and England; some 30 remain (as of 2000.)[7]

Relations between Jews and Muslims are generally considered good, with members of Bahrain's Jewish community playing a prominent role in civil society: Ebrahim Nono was appointed in 2002 a member of Bahrain's upper house of parliament, the Consultative Council, while a Jewish woman heads a human rights group, the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society.

Of the nearly 900,000 Jewish refugees, approximately 600,000 were absorbed by Israel; the remainder went to Europe and the Americas. Today, almost half of Israel's Jewish citizens are the original refugees and their descendants, mostly Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Temani Jews. A major political issue among Israelis is the perceived conflict between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. This issue appears to be diminishing over time, as intermarriage between Western and Eastern Jews increases and the various groups integrate their communities with each other.

These refugees were forced to abandon virtually all of their property, especially as they fled from the most hostile countries: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were temporarily settled in the numerous tent cities called Maabarot in Hebrew. Their population was gradually absorbed and integrated into the Israeli society, a substantial logistical achievement, without help from the United Nations' various refugee organizations. The Maabarot existed until 1958.

Jewish refugee advocacy groups

There are a number of advocacy groups acting on behalf of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. For example, Justice for Jews from Arab countries seeks to secure rights and redress for Jews from Arab countries who suffered as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. [8] Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) publicizes the history and plight of the 900,000 Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa who were forced to leave their homes and abandon their property, and who were stripped of their citizenship. [9]

See also:


  1. Shields, Jacqueline. Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries. Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved on 2006-05-22.

  2. Avneri, 1984, p. 276.

  3. Stearns, 2001, p. 966.

  4. For the events of Fez see Cohen, 1995, pp 180-182. On Marrekesh, see the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906.

  5. Levin, 2001, pp. 200-201.

  6. Harris, 2001, pp. 149-150.


External links

David Sassoon, Jews, Muslim lands

July 3, 2006