What the Mizrahim Lost, and What Fairness Demands Be Done About It

The majority of Israeli Jews, Lyn Julius points out in her book Uprooted, are not new to the Middle East—they were moved from one part of it to another.

Mizraḥi Jews from Yemen celebrating their first Tu b’Shvat in Israel at a camp for new immigrants. Wikipedia.

Mizraḥi Jews from Yemen celebrating their first Tu b’Shvat in Israel at a camp for new immigrants. Wikipedia.

Feb. 26 2020
About the author

Emily Benedek, the author of five books, has contributed to, among other publications, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Tablet, and Rolling Stone.

Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century”—the most recent American effort to advance a plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians—was released last month. Among those potentially affected by the implementation of such a plan, one group in Israel had been watching with particular interest: Mizraḥi Jews whose families had lived continuously in Arab and Muslim lands from biblical times until the late 1940s when they became the targets of organized violence on the part of their own governments and in the ensuing years suffered wholesale expulsion from their homes.

These ancient communities, whose roots in the Middle East predated by a millennium the advent of Islam, numbered close to one million people. After 1948, they were cast out root and branch from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, North Africa, and Iran. Most found refuge in the newly established Jewish state. There, the Knesset, initially slow to demand compensation for their losses, would eventually mandate that no settlement with the Palestinians would be acceptable if it failed to include recompense for individual and communal properties—estimated, in area, to amount to nearly 40,000 square miles, about five times the size of Israel, and valued at $150 billion—that had been confiscated by Muslim governments in the Middle East from their Jewish citizens.

The new American plan does indeed address the case of the Mizraḥi Jews. Noting that the Arab-Israel conflict “created both a Palestinian and Jewish refugee problem,” and that the numbers displaced were approximately equal on the two sides, the plan goes on to state unequivocally that, separate from any peace agreement, “a just, fair, and realistic solution” for the Jewish refugees, “including compensation for lost assets” as well as compensation to Israel for the cost of absorbing them, must be “implemented through an appropriate international mechanism.”


All of this, of course, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, and whether or not the Trump plan ever comes to fruition, the Mizraḥi story deserves telling and retelling. For an engaging treatment, the 2018 book Uprooted by Lyn Julius, a British-born descendant of Iraqi Jews, can serve as a useful introduction.

Uprooted opens with glimpses of the exotic bands of Jews, many barefoot and dressed in traditional robes and headdresses, who seemed to materialize out of the mists of time to tumble across Zion’s borders from the 1880s, when the first Yemenite migrants walked there across the desert. The Mizraḥi exodus continued for more than a century until, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ethiopians arrived via two daring airlifts.

The Mizraḥi diaspora itself dates back millennia earlier to the Babylonian victory over the kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE, when captive Jerusalemites were marched off to Mesopotamia. Evidently, the new environs proved not entirely unwelcome. For when, a half-century later, Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild their Temple, many preferred to remain in their new homes in the fertile land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Indeed, so many stayed that, by the 3rd century CE, Babylon had become the epicenter of Jewish thought and practice. Not only do Jews of all stripes today consider the Babylonian Talmud (written between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE) to be foundational, but the gravesites of no fewer than seventeen biblical figures are, according to tradition, located in what are now the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Even in the early 20th century, the social and cultural importance of the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands stood out. Jews were popular singers, actors, and athletes; the first novel published in Iraq was written by a Jew; in 1870, Egypt’s first national theater was founded by a Jew; Egypt’s first opera was written in 1919 by a Jew; both the Egyptian and Tunisian film industries were started and dominated by Jews; and Iraq’s first minister of finance, Sir Sasson Heskel, was a Jew. As late as 1939, Baghdadi Jews formed fully a third of the city’s population: a greater proportion, by comparison, than was to be found at that time in either Warsaw (29 percent) or New York (27 percent).

By 2015, in the entire country of Iraq, only five Jews remained. The rest, along with almost every other Jew in the region, had been expelled. Although the details varied from country to country, everywhere the story was roughly the same. The root of it, Julius writes, was revealed in a plan laid out by the Arab League at meetings in Syria and Lebanon prior to the 1947 UN vote for partitioning Palestine into two states. As she puts it, the League envisioned a movement to “rob the Jews, threaten them with imprisonment, and expel them, having first dispossessed them.” On the eve of the UN vote, Egypt’s delegate solemnly warned the international body that should the measure pass, “the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in Muslim countries.”

After the vote, intention became deed as the Arab League plan, in Julius’s words, “became a blueprint, in country after country, for the actions that devastated the Jewish communities in Arab lands; and for the forced exodus that was to follow.” In all of the affected countries except Lebanon and Tunisia, Jews were stripped of their citizenship. In all but Morocco, Jewish assets were frozen and property confiscated on the authority of Nuremberg-style laws. Freedom of movement was curtailed for Jews in Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen. Employment discrimination forced Jews from jobs in all of the above-mentioned countries plus Egypt and Lebanon. Zionist activity was outlawed, and all Jews were considered Zionists.

By 1972, 90 percent of the Jews in the Arab world had fled. The wealthy and well-connected, about 200,000 in number, tended to move West to Europe or the U.S., while the remaining 660,000 went to Israel. (The chronology in non-Arab Iran is somewhat different; perhaps a third left between 1948 and 1953, while the rest departed between the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and today.)

Violent pogroms played a role in showing the Jews to the door, as did continuing governmental scheming, including, according to Julius, secret recommendations of the Arab League from 1950-55 “designed to put pressure on the Jews remaining in Arab countries to leave their homes ‘without giving the impression of expelling them.’” Jews in Yemen and Iraq, under increasing stress, in the end were ransomed by Israel, and in the early 1960s the World Jewish Congress paid $250 a head to Morocco to let its Jews leave.


One of Julius’s central aims in Uprooted is to put the lie to the claim that, until modern-day Zionism came along to poison the atmosphere, Jews under Muslim rule had enjoyed a long “golden age” of tolerance and interfaith understanding. Adopting Bernard Lewis’s judgment that this concept of Muslim tolerance represents, in her summary, “one of the great myths of history propagated by 19th-century intellectuals,” Julius enumerates the many massacres of Jews that took place throughout Muslim and Arab history, asserting that “for fourteen centuries, life for a defenseless minority [had been] precarious and insecure.”

To illustrate, she leads us into the “Jewish quarter” to demonstrate what life was like as dhimmis, possessing the inferior status imposed on non-Muslim monotheists by order of the Pact of Omar (variously dated to the 7th or 9th century). Those who submitted to their Islamic conquerors and gave up the right to bear arms were granted a pledge of security and thus saved from death, slavery, ransom, or deportation. But being a dhimmi required the payment of a harsh tax and submission to a second-class life of humiliation and degradation in which safety was never assured. Dhimmis were required to wear special clothes and badges, to step aside for Muslims in the street, and to suffer any insult or assault that was meted out. Forbidden from building homes or houses of worship taller than buildings belonging to Muslims, they were also forbidden from riding horses, marrying Muslim women, or testifying against a Muslim in court. Constant pressure was applied to both Jews and Christians to convert to Islam and thus save themselves from the onerous tax.

The institution of “dhimmitude” continued in place for more than a millennium until it was discouraged by European colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries (even as they turned a blind eye to violent Islamic expressions of anti-Semitism). But, argues Julius, its conception of the Jews as an inferior people remained very much alive as a motivating factor in the expulsions of Mizraḥi Jews from Arab lands, and still today it persists in the stubborn rejection of Israel. The early Arab fury against Zionism, in this view, had little or nothing to do with concern for the Palestinians (who had not yet rejected the partition of the land they shared with the Zionists). Instead, it had everything to do with a baked-in hatred of Jews and outrage that so debased and despised a people should be allowed to insert itself as a sovereign nation into the (purported) heartland of Islam.

Julius quotes Victor Hayoun, who survived a pogrom in Tunisia in 1941, describing the unpredictable relations between Arab and Jew under the social legacy of dhimmitude: “Our Arab neighbors, whose conduct toward us ranged from sincere fraternity to humiliation and even pogroms, . . . had sharpened my childish feeling that we were tolerated by the ‘masters of the place’ and they could get so angry as to make my status precarious.” Thus, rioting mobs in the late 1940s in almost every Arab country chanted “Itbach al-Yahud (murder the Jews) and Yahud klib al-Arab (the Jews are the dogs of the Arabs).


In Uprooted, Lyn Julius has not endeavored to write an academic history in the manner of Martin Gilbert’s In Ishmael’s House or Bernard Lewis’s The Jews of Islam. Nor is her book a work of original journalism. Nor, unlike such memoirs of Jewish life in Arab lands as André Aciman’s Out of Egypt and the late Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, is it constructed around a driving personal narrative. Rather, Uprooted is a personal cri de coeur that attempts to explain, from the inside, via anecdotes and particularly valuable references to little-translated works in French, the experiences of the now lost communities of Jews who were unjustly expelled from lands they had settled long before Muhammad dictated a single surah. It seeks, above all, redress for the relative silence, both in Israel and, especially, outside of it, that has greeted their traumatic experience.

In Israel, repeated Mizraḥi efforts to raise the issue of compensation have rarely gained traction. Rather than dwelling on the tragic losses of the past, not just of the Mizraḥim but also of the tattered remnant of European Jews recently absorbed by the new state, the national focus was on forging modern Israelis out of immigrants, many of them indigent or even illiterate, from more than one-hundred communities across the globe. “The submissive and apologetic Diaspora Jew,” Julius writes, “would be transformed into a proud and virile, Hebrew-speaking Israeli.”

As is well known, this effort led to its own humiliations and hardships. The classic Israeli film Sallah Shabati (1964) satirized, at once uproariously and bitterly, the austere new life that Mizraḥim found waiting for them in their new-old home. Already grappling with the wholesale destruction of their way of life, they resented the tent camps and makeshift cabins in which they were housed for too long. And of course there was discrimination by Israel’s Ashkenazim who looked down upon their “primitive” ways.

In the end, the resettlement was a success—or at least the story has a happier ending. Israel did what it was created to do: serving as a safe haven for imperiled Jews. Today, Mizraḥim, who just before the Holocaust made up only a tenth of the total number of Jews in the world, now constitute more than half of the Jewish population in Israel, and “intermarriage” rates between Ashkenazim and Mizraḥim are near 25 percent. As has been plentifully documented in Mosaic, Mizraḥim have changed the country profoundly, influencing politics, music, food, and religious observance.

Where the case for restitution is concerned, the picture is less pretty, and stubbornly unresolved. How to redress lost Jewish assets? Between 1969 and 2009, Israel’s Justice Ministry collected 14,000 property claims from Mizraḥi immigrants, an exercise hobbled by the refusal of Arab governments and Iran to provide property records or other necessary documentation. Locked official archives have also prevented access to Arab League policies in the 1940s and 1950s aimed at disenfranchising Jewish populations. At one point, Israel thought to offset lost Mizraḥi assets against claimed Palestinian losses, but this was vehemently opposed by Mizraḥim settled outside of Israel who questioned why their claims of confiscated property should be used to settle Israel’s accounts with the Palestinians.

More recently, after intensive lobbying by American and Canadian Jews, including ex-Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, the tide has begun to turn. After the 2000 talks at Camp David, President Bill Clinton suggested creating an international fund to address the losses of both sides; in addition to contributions from both Israel and the Arab countries, the fund would primarily be endowed by the international community. The initiative awaits an active peace negotiation for its implementation.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution directing the government to include in any official American documents referring to Palestinian refugees a “similarly explicit” reference to Jewish refugees. Canada followed suit in 2014, stating that the experiences of Jewish refugees should be “taken into consideration as a part of any just and comprehensive peace deal.” The Oslo Accords declared that the subject of refugees from both sides should be a “final status issue.” As we’ve seen, similar, but much more specific language has been adopted in the Trump plan.

In 2012, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, whose father was born in Algeria, led an international conference in Jerusalem titled “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.” The following year, Ron Prosor, then Israel’s ambassador to the UN, presented a film at the UN’s New York headquarters recounting stories of Jews who were forced from their homes in Arab countries. “Since 1947, there have been 687 [UN] resolutions relating to the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he told the audience, “and yet, as we speak today, not one resolution says a single word about the Jewish refugees”—even though the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has acknowledged that Jews fleeing from both Egypt and Libya met the organization’s definition of refugees.


Meanwhile, whatever steps have been made toward recognition of the issue, much if not most of the Arab world, having gotten rid of its Jews, is now bent on erasing all signs of their once-vivid presence. (Morocco is an exception.) Julius names one particularly painful monument: the shrine of Ezekiel at Kifl in southern Iraq. That biblical prophet and priest was exiled to Babylon in 598 BCE with King Jehoiachin, lived there for the rest of his life, and was buried there. In 1170, the traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Kifl and described finding a synagogue dating back to the First and Second Temple periods. During the 19th century, 5,000 Jews would visit the shrine every year during the festival of Shavuot. In 1910, the Baghdadi bibliophile David Solomon Sassoon wrote of the site:

The lovely building over the grave is extremely old, built from very big stones said to be the work of King Jehoiachin. Above the doorway was a plaque dated 1809/10, which has inscribed on it “this is the tomb of our master Ezekiel the prophet, the son of Buzi the Kohen, may his merit shield us and all Israel.”

This Jewish site is now a mosque, complete with external loudspeakers for summoning Muslims to prayer. With no Jews in the area to protect them, the Hebrew inscriptions described by Sassoon are at risk, and the Iraqi Ministry of Heritage and Tourism has apparently ceded control and administration of the site to a Shiite waqf. Julius warns that similar takeovers are occurring “with UN help”—meaning UN indifference and/or silent collaboration—in order to erase or discredit evidence of the Jewish origins of many Islamic sites in Arab lands. As is well known, similar efforts of Islamification have also been ongoing in relation to Jewish sites in Israel itself, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and the Temple Mount.


Addressing Western liberals, Lyn Julius warns against the temptation to say, or to think, that Israel was created in expiation of European sins for the Holocaust. Rather, Israel should be seen as the homeland of an indigenous and once-threatened people, intimately familiar with the true nature of Arab-Muslim rule, who have returned to their homeland and lately found their voices.

“The majority of Israeli Jews,” she writes of the Mizraḥim, “have never left the Middle East; they merely moved from one area of the region to another.” Thanks to them, and to their sheer numerical weight, any attempt to orchestrate a peace arrangement in the region without their active participation and approval will go nowhere.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Mizrahi Jewry, The Jewish World