Uriel Heilman - Reluctant Exiles: Jews from North Africa and the Mideast
Reluctant Exiles: Jews from North Africa and the Mideast

Reluctant Exiles: Jews from North Africa and the Mideast

When an American Jewish journalist visiting Tunisia in 2007 asked the leader of the local Jewish community how things were going for the nation's 1,500 Jews, the man offered an upbeat picture.

Jews were free to come and go as they pleased, Roger Bismuth said, and they lived in relative safety. The North African country, which is 98 percent Muslim, even welcomed Israeli tourists, he noted.

Bismuth reserved his highest praise for the country's autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in office since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1987. The president, Bismuth noted, directed government funds to restore old synagogues and made sure the Jewish community was protected, particularly from the rising tide of Islamic extremism elsewhere in the Muslim world.

"The president is good to us," Bismuth told the reporter, Larry Luxner of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). "We are very careful. Our security is very tight, even if you don't see it."

But after Ben Ali was ousted in a popular revolution in January of this year and denounced by his countrymen as a corrupt and nepotistic dictator, Bismuth abruptly changed his tone.

"He was behaving like a crook," Bismuth said in January of Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. "He and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on."

The stark reversal was a sign of the delicate balancing act Jews who live in Arab and Muslim lands must practice to maintain their safety and way of life. In countries where autocratic regimes are the rule and Islamic anti-Semitism an omnipresent threat, the Jews' well-being depends on a good relationship with those at the helm of power.

A popular saying among French Moroccan Jews captures this sentiment. "Which party are you for - this one or that one?" goes the adage. The reply: "Nous sommes avec les gagnants - We are with the victors."

A revolution, a new king, a war in Israel that stirs political passions-any of these can presage a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.

"They always, always are wondering what will happen the next day," said Norman Stillman, author of "The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times" and director of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma.

Indeed, in Tunisia it took less than a month for popular anger against the regime to spill over into anti-Jewish violence. On Jan. 31, arsonists set a synagogue in Tunisia's southern Gabes region ablaze, burning the Torah scrolls. A Jewish community leader criticized the police for not stopping the attack.

"I was in Morocco in 1971 when there was a coup attempt against King Hassan II. I remember everybody sitting by the radio waiting for the news," recalled Stillman of his Jewish family in Morocco. "Everybody was ready if they were able to get their bags packed and get out."

The insurrection was put down and the king survived, and many Jews took to the streets to celebrate.

Today, there are about 45,000 to 50,000 Jews living in the Muslim lands of the Middle East and North Africa-about the same as the Jewish population of Minnesota. The largest communities are in Iran, which has more than 20,000 Jews, and Turkey, which has a few thousand less. Morocco has the third-largest number of Jews - an estimated 2,500 to 5,000. Then comes Tunisia. The Jewish populations elsewhere in the Middle East are minimal, ranging from a couple dozen in Lebanon to the 150 or so Jews who were estimated to be in Yemen at the end of 2010.

Their circumstances vary widely. In Morocco, a land of more than 30 million people, the country's Jews live in relative stability and peace, enjoying positive relations with their Muslim neighbors and complete freedom of movement. Though Israel and Morocco do not have formal diplomatic ties, Moroccans are free to travel to Israel and Israelis are free to visit the North African kingdom. Morocco is considered the easiest place to be Jewish in the Muslim world.

"We respect Islam, and Islam respects us," said Serge Berdugo, the president of the Moroccan Jewish community. "Even the rabbis have good relations with imams." Last December, the American Sephardic Federation honored Morocco's King Mohammed VI at its annual Gala Benefit Dinner.

In Tunisia, things were similar until the revolution in January introduced a high degree of uncertainty about the future. After Tunisia's president was deposed, one family considering immigrating to Israel packed their bags and left, saying Tunisia's instability was the determining factor in their decision to make aliyah.

One of the largest Middle Eastern Jewish communities is in Turkey, which has some 15,000 to 20,000 Jews. Turkey remains distinct from the rest of the Muslim Middle East because it is a non-Arab secular democracy with little history of government-sponsored discrimination against Jews. In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel.

In many Middle Eastern countries, there are just a handful of Jews, remnants of long-standing communities decimated by emigration, repression or expulsion. Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Iraq, whose Jewish populations once collectively numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now have no more than 400 Jews altogether.

In Bahrain, a tiny kingdom in the Persian Gulf, there are only about three dozen Jews - one of whom, Houda Nonoo, is the country's ambassador to the United States:. In Lebanon, where the few Jews who remain keep their religious identity a secret, an effort was recently launched to rehabilitate a historic synagogue in Beirut .with support across Lebanon's political spectrum-including, reportedly, Hezbollah. The project's aim appears to be to facilitate tourism, not Jewish worship.

The largest Jewish community in the Muslim world is in Iran, where there are approximately 20,000 to 25,000 Jews, mostly in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. The story of why Jews have stayed in Iran, and how they live under the fiercely anti-Zionist Islamic regime, is emblematic of what has happened to Jews in the Muslim world since the founding of the State of Israel.

1948: A Watershed Moment

The balancing act required of Jews of Arabia and Persia is not new.

The first Jewish community to be subject to the shifting winds of autocratic Arab rule was comprised of the children and descendants of the patriarch Jacob. At first, they lived well in Egypt under the protection of Joseph and a beneficent pharaoh. But then a new pharaoh came to power "who did not know Joseph," the Bible relates. Enslavement, murder and oppression followed, before the exodus that finally set the Jews free.

The story of the Jews of Arabia in the 20th century is not so different. When Israel was established in 1948, there were approximately 1 million Jews living in the Islamic world. Large communities existed in Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen, with smaller communities in Syria and Lebanon. Of course, there were Jews in pre-state Palestine, too.

Just as Israel was being born, so were a host of Arab countries, some of which were also gaining independence after years of British rule. The independence movement went hand in hand with a surge in Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism that destroyed the tolerant attitude Muslims rulers and people had had toward local Jews for generations. The negative sentiment only intensified with the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967.

"There began to be a situation where the Arab world began to see and use their Jewish populations as weapons in the struggle against establishment of State of Israel," said Stan Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.

For centuries, Jews had lived as second-class yet mostly protected citizens in Islamic lands. Under Muslim tradition, the Jews were afforded the protection of dhimmi, the people of the book. They were subject to a special tax and barred from many professions, but their practice of Judaism was tolerated and, for the most part, protected. Compared to Europe and Russia, where Jews endured pogroms, expulsions and persecution practically since the beginning of the exile two millennia ago, the Arab world was a much safer place.

That didn't mean, however, that the Jews who lived in Arabia were free from harassment.

"Jews were tolerated, but they lived in insecurity," said Prof. Maurice Roumani, founder and director of the J.R. Elyachar Center for the Study of Sephardi Heritage at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "They were at the mercy of the mob, sometimes whipped up by the regime to distract them from rising against the regime."

There was a long history of attacks, forced conversions and extrajudicial property seizures for Jews living in Muslims lands, according to Roumani.

Things got much worse when Israel was founded. In the space of just a few years, numerous Arab countries expelled their Jews or orchestrated their rapid departure, seizing Jewish properties. Others placed severe restrictions on Jews and incited against them.

In Iraq, a deal was worked out to ship 100,000 of the country's Jews to the newly established Jewish state. In exchange, Iraq was supposed to take an equal number of Palestinians, according to Urman, but that transfer never happened.

In Yemen, rising Arab antipathy toward local Jews prompted the organization of Operation Magic Carpet: Between 1949 and 1951, the operation brought nearly all of Yemen's 50,000 Jews to Israel - many of them on Alaska Airlines aircraft.

In Egypt in 1956, the government expelled about 25,000 Jews and seized their property, declaring Egyptian Jews enemies of the state. Those who remained were harassed and subject to discriminatory laws.

"I remember very clearly having to hide the fact that I was Jewish. It was a scary thing," recalled Prof. Aimee Israel-Pelletier, who left Egypt with her family in 1961 at age 12. She is now a professor of French literature at the University of Texas at Arlington.

In Libya, there was violence.

"I remember the pogroms very vividly," said Roumani, who grew up in Libya. "Arab nationalists took over the political climate of the country."

Roumani was threatened, experienced stone-throwing while praying in synagogue and saw the authorities shutter his Jewish elementary school in Benghazi in 1954. The police, he said, did little to intervene.

Roumani watched things get progressively worse until, he emigrated to the United States in 1960 after securing a scholarship to attend Brandeis University,. He gradually helped family members get out, but not before half a dozen relatives were killed in Arab riots. In 1967, Libya expelled the few thousand Jews who remained, forcing them to leave most of their possessions behind. When his sister left five years earlier, he said, the family departed so quickly the table was left set for dinner.

In Syria, as in many other Muslim lands, the years before Israel's creation were marked by increasing emigration prompted by growing insecurity. In 1947 in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, home to some 10,000 Jews, Arab mobs rampaged through Jewish neighborhoods, ransacking and burning synagogues, Jewish schools, homes and businesses. Many Jews were killed.

Unlike in Egypt or Iraq, however, Syria didn't let its Jews go. Rather, those who had remained were held as virtual hostages, subject to repressive decrees and watched closely by the Syrian authorities. A few managed to escape, but those who failed faced prison time, hard labor, torture or worse. This continued with varying degrees of severity until the early 1990s, when the 4,000 or so Jews who remained in Syria finally were allowed to leave under a quiet deal worked out under U.S. pressure. Today, fewer than 100 Jews remain.

Most of the Jews who left Muslim lands in the 1940s, '50s and '60s eventually ended up in Israel. For the French-speaking Jews who left North Africa, France became a major destination. Many Jews from later migrations, like the Syrian Jewish exodus and the Jews who left Iran after the 1979 revolution, ended up in the United States.

For a long time, Iran was, like Turkey, an exception. Jews had lived in Persia for more than 2,500 years, and most of the approximately 100,000 Jews who lived there in 1948 stayed put even after Israel was born.

Unlike the Sunni Arab countries elsewhere in the Middle East that quickly were swept up in the fervor of anti-Zionism, Shiite-dominated Iran established diplomatic ties with the new Jewish state, and for decades El Al Airlines flew direct flights between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

But when the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah's regime in 1979 ties with Israel were cut, and Tehran adopted a decidedly anti-Western position. By the turn of the millennium, Iran was funneling money and arms to groups fighting Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas. Today, the country's president makes a hobby of expressing skepticism about the Holocaust and predicting Israel's demise.

But the changes for Iran's Jewish community have been less pronounced. In many ways, Iran's Jews are freer today than were the Jews living in Arab countries in the 1950s and '60s.

Jewish Iranians can practice their religion, send their kids to Jewish schools and even leave Iran. There is some discrimination-Jews officially are second-class citizens and are barred from holding certain positions, and all Jewish schools must have a Muslim principal. But, generally speaking, one can live as a Jew in the Islamic Republic.

That doesn't mean the Jews there live without fear. How much, however, is hard to say. When Iranian Jews speak well of their treatment in Iran, it's hard to tell whether that's because it's true or because they're afraid the regime will make life worse for them if they're critical.

Indeed, the Jews of Iran generally view expressing support for Iran and antipathy toward Israel as crucial to maintaining their security. When Israel and Hamas went to war in late 2008, Iran's Jews made sure to stage a public protest in Tehran against Israel.

"They prefer to make sure their community at home is not identified with Israel," said Prof. Daniel Tsadik, assistant professor of Sephardic and Iranian Studies at Yeshiva University.

By the same token, the government of Tehran points to its treatment of Iranian Jews as evidence that it is not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel.

Yet there is a constant risk that the regime's harsh rhetoric against Israel and Zionism will translate into attacks against Jews, possibly with government sanction. In early January, Jewish advocates outside Iran expressed concern when Iranian authorities removed the designation of the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in the central Iranian city of Hamadan as an official pilgrimage site and a state news agency cast the Purim story as a Jewish massacre of Iranians.

"The situation is very delicate," said Arielle di Porto, the director of aliyah from North Africa and the Middle East at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Most famously, 13 Iranian Jews were arrested in 1999 on charges of spying for Israel; 10 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 13 years. Jewish groups protested the arrests as politically motivated; it was seen as highly improbable that Israel would risk the safety of Iran's Jews by enlisting them as spies. By early 2003, all those sentenced to prison had been released.

The inhospitable political atmosphere for Iran's Jews was one of many factors that prompted Iran, too, to become a place of mass Jewish emigration after 1979. Today, only about a quarter of those who were still there in 1979 remain.

In all, only four Muslim countries still have significant Jewish populations: Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia.

"Most of the countries-Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Egypt-are almost devoid of Jews at this point," Stillman said. "There's no reason to think they're going to return."

Those Who Remain

Yet tens of thousands of Jews have chosen to stay behind. Why?

For the same reasons Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora have chosen to stay in their home countries rather than move to the Jewish state.

They feel at home in the places they and their families have lived for generations. They don't want to learn another language and start over as immigrants in a foreign country. They feel themselves more Persian or Moroccan or Tunisian than they do anything else. Some are quite elderly and can't move. Some have businesses they don't want to give up or can't afford to move. Some just can't imagine living anywhere else.

For Israel-Pelletier's family, the main reason for staying in Egypt past when things began to get really bad for the country's Jews after the Suez War of 1956 was economic: Israel-Pelletier's father and uncle had a successful engineering firm they couldn't sell. When the family finally left in 1961, they had to leave the business behind along with practically all they owned, except for a few suitcases filled with clothes.

Israel-Pelletier's father never quite adjusted to their new life in New Jersey.

"My father was 41, 42. He was an engineer. It wasn't very easy for him to understand the American system, American behavior. Just culturally, he was not very comfortable, even till the very end of his life," Israel-Pelletier said. "The fathers in particular had to endure a great deal of humiliation. Men were the ones who supported families. When they left, many in their 40s with families, it was very difficult to pick up where they left off."

These are the same reasons that kept many Jews from Muslim lands in their home countries even as their well-being came under increasing threat after Israel's establishment. Leaving was never easy, and the Jews in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere had created rich, vibrant communities they couldn't simply recreate in the New World or the new Jewish state.

"Jews - and others - remain in trying circumstances far longer than they should because no matter how challenging the situation, it is still home," explained Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which for the greater part of a century has helped resettle Jews from Muslim countries (and elsewhere) in the United States. "When you pack your bags and leave home, you are leaving behind all that is familiar for all that is unknown."

Historically, many Jews of Arabia held on until the moment they were forcibly expelled from their homes or had to flee for their own safety.

In some countries, that point never arrived, which explains the Jewish presence today in places like Morocco, Tunisia and Iran. In all these places, there are Jewish schools, old-age homes and hospitals, youth movements, synagogues and myriad other community institutions.

In North Africa, the proximity to Europe, Berber cultural influences, and decades of French and Italian colonial rule helped cultivate a cultural milieu that was not as hostile to Jews as the Arab Middle East. In Iran, the Persians, too, saw themselves as apart from the Arab world.

"These places were far enough from the Middle East not to be directly involved in the Mideast conflict," Stillman said.

To be sure, it's not as easy to be Jewish in these places as it is in America or Israel - which together are home to approximately 80 percent of the world's Jews. With the exception of Turkey, none of these Muslim countries are real democracies, the Jews are dependent on the whims of the government and the threat of Muslim anti-Semitism is a constant concern.

And even in Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia and Iran, the overwhelming majority of Jews have left. They're still leaving. In Morocco and Tunisia, where the Jews live in French-speaking enclaves with the rest of those countries' upper middle classes, many young people go to France for university and never return. They're drawn to better economic and social opportunities overseas, particularly if they're looking to marry a Jew.

"I left because everybody was leaving," said Mendel Marciano, who left Morocco eight years ago at age 19 for New York. "There aren't good universities over there. All the young generation -- when they reach 18 and they get their high school diploma, they leave to study."

Most never move back. The few who do usually return to join family businesses.

Many stay in Muslim countries for economic reasons. The cost-of-living disparities between places like Morocco, Tunisia and Tehran versus places like New York, Los Angeles or Tel Aviv mean that what might buy a nice home and comfortable lifestyle in Iran or North Africa buys much less in Israel or the United States.

"In Morocco they have very, very good quality of life -- even the average Jewish person can afford to have a maid or a driver," Marciano said. "When you're a certain age and you go to America or Canada or even Israel, it's hard for you when you're used to a certain quality of life."

As communities like those in Morocco get smaller, a paradox takes hold. Young Jews are less likely to stay, because the community is dwindling, but their parents and grandparents are less likely to leave-evinced by their passing up so many earlier opportunities to emigrate. Those who have stayed behind are the hard core.

Yemen is a prime example of this. Until about two decades ago, the country was thought to be devoid of Jews. But reports of a Jewish community of 1,500 persons in the rural north of the country was confirmed in the early 1990s, and international Jewish organizations like the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee mobilized secret rescue operations to get them out. With the help of the U.S. State Department, a secret pact was negotiated with the Yemeni government in Sana'a, and the Jews were brought out in dribs and drabs throughout the 1990s. Even when the operation became public, the Yemeni government allowed it to continue.

By the early 2000s, when there were only about 250 Jews left, the international Jewish aid organizations ran into a new problem: The remaining Jews did not want to leave.

Cajoling and the offer of generous relocation packages helped little. Jewish emigration got a bump only when a Yemenite Jew was murdered by a local Arab in 2008 and the Yemeni government moved the Jews to a guarded compound in Sana'a for their own safety. A few more Jews left-amid a bit of a spat among Jewish organizations, including a Satmar Hasidic group in New York State, over whether the Yemenite Jews would go to Israel or America-but about 150 or so insisted on staying put.

After years of trying to get them to change their mind, Jewish organizations involved in their exodus have suspended their "rescue" efforts. Of course, new unrest in Yemen could change the calculus for local Jews at any time.

Similar tiny remnants of Jewish communities exist in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. While in Yemen the Jews have stuck together and persevered as a community, albeit a small one, the Jewish communities elsewhere are largely defunct, coming together only for some holidays, if at all. Most of those who have stayed behind-some 75-100 in Syria, less than 10 in Iraq, a handful in Egypt and Lebanon-are not practicing Jews.

Lisa Nahmoud, a Jew in Lebanon, told the BBC in an interview last year that she long ago had destroyed any documents she had identifying her as Jewish.

"I am Lebanese," she said. "All my friends are Muslims and Christians."

© Uriel Heilman 2012. All rights reserved.