Avi Benlolo: Remembering the troubled but rich history of Jews in Arab countries

Israel prepares to mark annual memorial day commemorating expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran

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Despite the fact that the Jews were scattered over the predominantly Arab lands for over 2,000 years, their rich history has been mostly silent. However, attention to their plight has gained momentum in recent years, culminating with the designation of November 30 as the official commemorative day to mark their expulsion and departure from Arab countries and Iran. The date was chosen for symbolic reasons because it was shortly after the announcement by the United Nations, on November 29, 1947, of a plan for the partition of Israel and an Arab state, that the Jews of the Arab countries and neighboring Persians began to experience hostility there.


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With the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism increased, and Jews living in Muslim-majority countries had no choice but to flee. While German Nazism inspired and emboldened violence against Jewish communities between 1940 and 1945 in predominantly Arab countries, the soil was fertile for Arab states to turn against their own Jewish citizens once a state was declared. independent Jew made in Tel Aviv.

So came the beginning of the end of an incredible and rich story. Palestinians often claim that 1948 was the “nakba” for their descendants. But what is often overlooked is that the more than a million Jews living on Arab lands would also experience their own “catastrophe” which has never been recognized or compensated for. They became refugees overnight, uprooted from their homes and communities. Most found refuge in the nascent state of Israel, while others moved to France, Canada and America.


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Jews living on Arab lands also reportedly experience their own “catastrophe”

Their communities, their families and their cultures have been shattered into a million pieces. To put this devastation into perspective, some 265,000 Moroccan Jews left their homes behind; 140,000 Algerians and 105,000 Tunisian Jews locked up their old synagogues and cemeteries; 75,000 Egyptians and 135,000 Iraqi Jews have closed their schools and businesses; 63,000 Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel; and Syrian, Lebanese, Persian, Turkish and Libyan Jews made their dangerous journeys to Israel on barges and through deserts.

Despite the fact that many Jews in Arab lands were educated professionals, they faced hardship and often discrimination in Israel. My own grandparents, having lived a modern and affluent cosmopolitan life in Casablanca and having been educated in the French Alliance school system, were sent to a refugee camp in the southern town of Ashkelon. In one of his last letters before dying from an illness at the age of 46, my grandfather, Emile Azoulay, spoke of his daily challenges to adapt to his new life.


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Alongside the Jews from Arab lands is a tapestry of Jews from Spain and Portugal, often referred to as Sephardic. In the Sephardic tapestry are many other nationalities, including Jews from Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece. After the Spanish Inquisition, many more Jews dispersed to Arab lands, mainly Morocco and Turkey. Christian historians remember 1492 as the year Columbus sailed to the New World. Jewish historians remember the date Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain issued a decree requiring Jews to convert, leave, or die. This is how Ladino (Yiddish for many Sephardic Jews) came to be spoken primarily throughout the Ottoman Empire.

The ancient Greek Jewish community of Thessaloniki was completely wiped out by the Nazis who murdered 46,700 people. In fact, if the Holocaust had lasted a year or two longer, Jews living on Arab lands would have been Hitler’s next target.


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  1. A woman takes part in an anti-Semitism rally outside the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center in Toronto on March 13, 2017. A student protest in support of Palestinians in Toronto last week was condemned by critics as a call for ethnic cleansing of the Jewish people of Israel.

    Avi Benlolo: If schools are serious about inclusiveness, they need to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism

  2. Visitors cast their shadows in front of the Holocaust Names Wall memorial in Vienna, after it opened to the public on November 10, 2021. - The names of 64,440 Austrian Jews murdered during the Nazi era are inscribed on 160 stone elements.

    Avi Benlolo: With Shoah Wall, Austria faces its moment of truth and reconciliation

The Nazis were establishing fronts across the Middle East, preparing for their next phase of world domination once Europe was taken. Their control of Vichy France now puts them within the reach of Jewish communities across the region. In Morocco, the Nazis began to draw up lists of Jews and were forced to settle in ghettos (mellahs). In Algeria, they were stripped of their French nationality and in Tunisia, the SS Einsatzkommando began its operations, subjecting 5,000 Jews to forced labor. In Egypt, SS Commander Erwin Rommel created a mobile extermination unit to assassinate Jews there and in the Holy Land.


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Some would characterize the departure of the Jews from Arab lands as an exodus of modern times to the Jewish homeland. The promised land of our ancestors – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The land that Moses would never see, but which was promised to him by Gd. The land to which Sephardic Jews – as well as Ashkenazi Jews – had prayed for millennia. “Next year in Jerusalem,” they would cry out in prayer from the synagogues they had built after being dispersed 2,300 years earlier with the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem.

The Sephardic Jewish community is rich in culture and tapestry. Yet despite its incredible scholarly and Judaic tradition, it has been left on the fringes of history. Among its greatest luminaries was Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. His “Guide to the Perplexed” is one of the most valuable books in my library and is revered by most religious and philosophical scholars.

Justice for the Jews of Arab lands means bringing their vibrant history and heritage out of the fringes of history.

National post

Avi Abraham Benlolo is the founder and chairman of The Abraham Global Peace Initiative.


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