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The Expulsion of the Jews from Muslim Countries, 1920-1970: A History of Ongoing Cruelty and Discrimination, by Shmuel Trigano


The Expulsion of the Jews from Muslim Countries, 1920-1970: A History of Ongoing Cruelty and Discrimination

Shmuel Trigano


  • Between 1920 and 1970, 900,000 Jews were expelled from Arab and other Muslim countries. The 1940s were a turning point in this tragedy; of those expelled, 600,000 settled in the new state of Israel, and 300,000 in France and the United States. Today, they and their descendents form the majority of the French Jewish community and a large part of Israel's population.

  • In the countries that expelled Jews, a combination of six legal, economic, and political measures aimed at isolating Jews in society was instituted: denationalization; legal discrimination; isolation and sequestration; economic despoilment; socioeconomic discrimination; and pogroms or similar acts.

  • It is the custom to say that Zionism was responsible for this development. However, the region's anti-Semitism would have developed even without the rise of the state of Israel because of Arab-Islamic nationalism, which resulted in xenophobia.

  • The fact that these events have been obscured has served in the campaign to delegitimize Israel, and therefore to a large extent, the same population that suffered this oppression. The fate of Palestinian refugees, their proclaimed innocence, and the injustice they endured form the main thrust of this delegitimization. The Jewish refugees have suffered more than the Palestinian refugees and undergone greater spoliations. However, they became citizens of the countries of refuge, especially Israel and France, while Palestinians were ostracized from the Arab nations.


Between 1920 and 1970, 900,000 Jews were expelled from Arab and other Muslim countries: from Morocco to Iran, from Turkey to Yemen, including  places where they had lived for twenty centuries. The 1940s were a turning point in this tragedy; of those expelled, 600,000 settled in the new state of Israel, and 300,000 in France and Canada. Today, they and their descendants form the majority of the French Jewish community and a large part of Israel's population.

How does one explain this exodus? It is the blind spot of contemporary political consciousness and an object of denial. There is not even an expression to name this major event. "The Forgotten Exodus" is the most commonly used term. But it actually masks the nature and impact of this historical event. "Forgotten" by whom, other than ideologues? "Exodus" is an apt description of the situation but not of its causes, which the adjective "forgotten" occults even more. For those who underwent the expulsion have not forgotten it at all. Moreover, it is also an important historical fact.

This is a major transnational phenomenon. Jewish communities were expelled either in their entirety or almost so. Communities of some significance remain in Iran, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia. All the countries that expelled Jews have one thing in common: they belong to Islam (including Turkey and Iran, which are not Arab countries). However, it is hard to view this exodus as a whole. It largely took place over a thirty-year period (1940-1970) and covered a huge geographical area, from Morocco to Iran, from Turkey to Yemen.


The "Statute of the Jews"

Nevertheless, if one compares the facts in the various countries[1] an identical model emerges: Jews were systematically expelled after a de facto "Statute of the Jews" was instituted. A combination of six legal, economic, and political measures aimed at isolating Jews in society was instituted:

  • Denationalization

  • Legal discrimination

  • Isolation and sequestration

  • Economic despoilment

  • Socioeconomic discrimination

  • Pogroms or similar acts


1)    The Denationalization of the Jews

The Jews were isolated from their society by a legal process in many lands.

This was the preliminary stage of their exclusion, which was followed by expulsion. A number of legal measures in various countries illustrate this point.

In Egypt the most articulate evolution occurred. It began with the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), a peace treaty between the Allies and the Ottomans that dismembered the Ottoman Empire and opened the way to the further creation of Arab (and Israeli) states. It addressed the question of nationality in Egypt and can be considered the first infringement of the rights of autochthonous Jews. The notion of belonging to a race (article 105) rather than a nation was introduced, thereby dissociating Jews from the majority of the population of the country. The next step was the nationality laws of 1927 and 1929, which favored jus sanguinis (or right of blood). An Egyptian was from then on defined as somebody who had Arab-Muslim affiliation.

The London Convention (1936) granted Egypt independence under King Farouk, and it was followed by a worsening of the nationality laws. According to additional nationality laws (in 1950, 1951, 1953, and 1956), autochthonous Jews became stateless: 40,000 people were turned into "foreigners" in their own country. In 1956, after the Sinai War, a new dimension was added: Egyptian nationality was taken away from anyone who committed acts in favor of enemy states or states with no relations with Egypt. In practice, all Jews were suspected of dual loyalty. This led ultimately to the accusation that all Jews were Zionists.

In Iraq, by the law of 9 May 1950, Jews who left Iraq were stripped of their nationality.

In Libya, the nationality laws of 12 June 1951 (art. 11, clause 27) decreed that the personal status of non-Muslims would be governed by their (religious) courts, in the manner of dhimmis during the premodern period. Jews were no longer allowed to vote or to hold political office.


2) Legal discrimination

A number of legal measures imposed restrictions on businesses and associations. Jewish communities and organizations were placed under supervision. Arabic became the sole language of public services.

In Libya, in 1953, Jews were subjected to restrictions and became victims of economic boycotts. The Maccabi sports club was forcibly opened to Arab members in 1954. A decree was issued on 9 May 1957 obliging Libyans with relatives in Israel to register at the Libyan boycott office, even though at that point, 90 percent of the Jews had already left. On 3 December 1958, Tripoli's Jewish community ceased to be an independent entity. Thereafter it was overseen by a state-appointed commissioner. Legal exclusion worsened. In 1960, Jews were prohibited from acquiring new possessions. They were no longer allowed to vote, hold public office, or serve in the army or the police. On 2 April 1960, Alliance Israélite Universelle schools were closed.

Similar developments occurred in Lebanon. As early as 1947, Jewish students were expelled from Beirut University. Jewish "Zionist" organizations (such as the Maccabi sports club) were forbidden. Jews were discharged from public service positions and Jewish youth movements banned.

In Iraq, Jewish history and Hebrew language instruction were prohibited in Jewish schools during the 1920s. Jews were expelled from public service and education in the 1930s. The Jewish schools' curricula were censored in 1932.

In Iran, Zionist activities (differentiated from "Jewish" activities) were banned in 1979. In 2000, discrimination developed in public service, universities, and public companies.

In Yemen, sharia law was instated in 1913, worsening the situation of the dhimmi. Decrees specifying forced conversion for orphans were issued between  1922 and 1928, while Jews were excluded from public service positions and the army.

In Syria, real estate purchase was prohibited to Jews in 1947, and Jews began to be discharged from public service positions. In 1967, Muslim principals were appointed to Jewish schools.

In Morocco, after independence in 1956, a process of Arabization of public services began, cutting the Jews off from the larger society. A dahir (decree) Moroccanizing Jewish charitable organizations was issued on 26 November 1958, endangering their freedom.

In Egypt, a long process of discrimination in the public service began in 1929. In 1945-1948, Jews were excluded from the public service. In 1947, Jewish schools were put under surveillance and forced to Arabize and Egyptianize their curricula. Community organizations were forced to submit their member lists to the Egyptian state after May 1948 and until 1950. In 1949, Jews were forbidden to live in the vicinity of King Farouk's palaces.

In Tunisia, a law concerning Judaism (11 July 1958) put an end to Jewish communities, replaced them with temporary "Israelite worship commissions," and suppressed the personal status of the Jews (inherited from the dhimmi status, which obliged the Jews to depend on their religious tribunals for all matters related to their personal status). In Tunisia too, independence (1956) led to the Tunisification of public services.

Turkey under the Young Turks (1923-1945) created hard-labor battalions for non-Muslim conscripts in May 1941.


3) Isolation and sequestration

Administrative harassment pushed the Jews into a state of isolation: the refusal to deliver passports, holding families' passports hostage, various boycotts by the Arab League, and interruption of postal relations with Israel created a difficult atmosphere. Jews became de facto prisoners.

For example, in July 1948, Iraq prohibited Jews from leaving the country.

By a new nationality law (12 June 1951), Libyan Jews were not allowed to have passports or Libyan nationality certificates, but only traveling documents whose renewal was not automatic. Postal relations with Israel were suspended in 1954, emigration to Israel was restricted, tourism to Israel banned.

Yemen prohibited Jews from leaving the country in 1949. Tunisia stopped postal relations with Israel in 1956. In 1973, Syria forbade Jews to communicate with people abroad. In Morocco too, starting in 1956 there were difficulties for Jews in obtaining passports (families were held hostage), and in 1958, postal relations with Israel were suppressed. In Iran it became difficult for Jews to obtain a passport starting in the 1980s. In Egypt, in the 1950s, passports were also taken away from people leaving the country. In June 1948, martial law banned Jews from leaving Egypt for Israel.


4) Economic despoilment

Jewish economic assets were also targeted. Their liquid assets, bank accounts, and property were submitted to sequestration and nationalization, held for ransom, and stolen when they departed.

In Turkey, capital taxation was imposed only on Jews in 1942. Iran confiscated Jewish possessions and real estate in 1979. Morocco held Jews,  anxious to emigrate to Israel, for ransom in 1961, and the World Jewish Congress had to pay $250 for each Jew who was permitted to leave the country. In Tunisia, in 1961-1962, Jews who were leaving the country were allowed to take with them only one dinar (the equivalent today of three U.S. dollars). Yemen, in 1949, listed Jewish possessions and properties in order to hold them for ransom. In 1947, Syria discharged Jews from public service positions; in 1949, it seized Jewish financial assets. 

Syria enacted a law to seize Jewish possessions (houses, estates, shops) in Aleppo and in Qamishli in April 1950, and to settle Palestinian refugees in Jewish quarters. From 1958 to 1961, Jews leaving the country were forced to transfer their possessions to the Syrian state and to pay considerable departure expenses. In 1960 and 1975, a Canadian Jewish sponsor paid a ransom to get people out of the country. In 1967, Jewish workers were fired in order to hire Palestinians, and Jewish doctors and pharmacists were laid off.

In Libya in 1961, Law #6 decreed that the possessions of Jews leaving for Israel be sequestrated. A general registrar was put in charge of liquidating them. In 1970, Jewish properties were confiscated.

In Iraq, considerable fines were imposed on wealthy Jews in July 1948, and in March 1951, the possessions of Jews leaving the country were frozen and the Jews were obliged to give up their citizenship.

In Egypt, in February 1949, the possessions of autochthonous Jews and those who were abroad were sequestrated.


5) Socioeconomic discrimination

Furthermore, the Jews suffered socioeconomic discrimination in Muslim and Arab countries. In some cases companies were made into cooperatives so that the Jewish entrepreneurs lost ownership.

In Iraq, the law of 12 January 1950 concerning bank control led to bankruptcy of stockbrokers, most of whom were Jewish.

Syria prohibited Jews from working in agriculture in February 1950.

In Libya, a ban against employing Jews in petroleum companies was instituted in the 1960s. Starting on 15 July 1961, a nationality certificate was required for every commercial action, but Jews could not obtain one.

In Morocco, starting in 1960, Jewish entrepreneurs and businessmen were obliged to have a Muslim partner.

The same development occurred in Tunisia in 1956: the national economy (industry and trade) became "cooperative," and Jewish entrepreneurs and businessmen were obliged to have a Muslim partner.

In Egypt in 1947, a law concerning companies decreed the Egyptianization of public and trade affairs: 75 percent of employees had to be "real" Egyptians (Arabs or Muslims). It was, in fact, an Islamization of personnel so that the majority of Jews would lose their jobs.

In 1948, the Yemeni ruler Imam Ahmad obliged Jews to pass on their expertise in crafts and trade to Yemeni Arabs before leaving the country.


6) Pogroms and related events

A series of pogroms and related events, such as riots, arrests, murders of public figures, and destruction of synagogues, occurred while colonial powers and Arab state police looked on passively. That gave the Jews the signal that it was time to leave.

In Egypt, anti-British and anti-Semitic riots broke out in several towns on 2-3 November 1945. Massive arrests occurred on 14-16 May 1948; one thousand Jews were detained and accused of being Zionists. On 2 November 1948, riots and lootings took place in Cairo and on 26 January 1952, "black Saturday" saw riots and acts of violence.

In Turkey, in June-July 1934, pogroms occurred in Thrace.

In Iraq, on 1-2 June 1941, in the Farhoud pogrom in Bagdad, 180 people were killed and 600 injured. In 1948, a wave of official anti-Jewish persecutions, including arrests and considerable fines, took place. Shafik Adass, a Jewish millionaire who was accused of selling surplus military stockpiles to Israel, was executed in September 1948. During 1949, Zionist-movement members were persecuted. Persecution also took place in Kurdistan in June 1950, when Jews were obliged to give up their possessions and houses. A synagogue was attacked in Baghdad on 14 June 1950; three people were killed and twenty injured.

In Libya, riots against those living in the Jewish quarters occurred in Tripoli in January 1945. Sixty percent of Jewish possessions were destroyed and 135 people were killed; soldiers acted as accomplices to the rioters. Jews were forced to evacuate. Jews in Hara, Tripoli, and Benghazi were put on remand. In 1948, there were more riots. An eighty-four-year-old Jewish leader, Halfalla Nahum, was murdered in Tripoli in 1963; during the summer of that year, other Jewish figures were attacked and injured. In 1967, riots broke out and ten people were killed. In 1969, an anti-Semitic campaign was initiated against the Jews, and Jewish cemeteries were razed in 1970. Sixty-four synagogues were destroyed in 1978, and seventy-eight synagogues were transformed into mosques, or, in the case of Benghazi, into Coptic churches.

In Lebanon, Jews were kidnapped and murdered during 1967. Following a series of kidnappings and murders of Jews, the murder of one of them, Dr. Albert Elia in September 1971, signaled to Jews that it was time to depart.

In Iran, a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism occurred in 1968. In 1979-1980,

Habib Elkanian, chairman of the Jewish community, was accused of Zionism. He and three other Jewish community figures, Avraham Brouhim, Albert Daniel, and Manotsar Kedochim, were executed.

In Syria, pogroms took place in several towns, synagogues were torched, and several hundred Jews were arrested in November 1947. The Almenasheh synagogue in Damascus was attacked on 5 August 1949; thirteen people were killed and thirty-two injured.

In Algeria, in 1929-1930, many incidents between Arab and Jews occurred in several towns in the Constantine area. On 5 August 1934, a pogrom in the name of jihad took place in Constantine. Twenty-seven people were killed, but the soldiers did not intervene. In 1957, there were murders in Oran and Medea; in March 1958, grenades in Boghari; and the day before Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) in 1959, grenades in Bou Saada. The Algiers synagogue was ransacked on 12 December 1960. In 1961, the Oran Jewish cemetery was desecrated and famed musician Raymond Leyris was murdered in Constantine. On 2 September 1961, a Jew was murdered on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). In Oran, especially in the Jewish quarters, murders and massacres were perpetrated on 5 July 1962, the very day of Algerian independence.

In Tunisia in January 1952, riots occurred in the hara (ghetto) of Tunis, with one person killed. In 1956, attacks on Jews took place at night. The old Tunis Jewish cemetery was expropriated in 1957, and the great Tunis synagogue was destroyed in 1960. Violent acts were perpetrated after the Bizerte affair of July 1961, in which the Jews were accused of having fought alongside French troops during bloody clashes between Tunisian and French troops around the French military base. A wave of departures of Jews ensued (15,000 in 1961 and 10,000 in 1962, all to France). The Tunis Jewish quarter was plundered on 6 June 1967, and the great synagogue was ransacked. Jews were murdered in Djerba in 1982, and the Djerba synagogue was attacked on 11 April 2002.

In Morocco, the Jewish quarter of Fez was ransacked in 1912. In May 1938, pogroms occurred in Oujda (with four Jews killed) and Jerada (thirty-nine killed, thirty injured). On 7-8 June 1948, anti-Jewish riots took place in Oujda and Jerada, and on 3 August 1954, in Sidi Kassem-Petitjean (with six people killed). In January 1961, at the time of Nasser's visit, during the "ten black days," there were twenty incidents in which police arrested and detained two hundred to three hundred Jews including twenty-five students. The kidnapping and forced conversion of a dozen young girls occurred in 1961-1962.

In Yemen, a series of riots and lootings took place in 1931 and 1947 (with eighty people killed). An accusation of ritual crime was leveled against the Jews in Sana'a in 1948.  

All these events together created a massive complex of systematic - often gradual - discrimination. As a result of these abuses and violent acts, the Jewish communities were liquidated in two ways: expulsion, as in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria, or exclusion, as in Tunisia after independence, Morocco (1956-1961), Syria-Lebanon (after 1947), Turkey (1923-1945), Yemen, and Iran (1950s and 1970s).



Anti-Semitism would have developed even without the existence of the state of Israel because of Arab-Islamic nationalism, which resulted in xenophobia. In the twentieth century, hostility toward Jews was spreading well before Israel's creation: in Yemen, Syria, Mandatory Palestine, Turkey, and Algeria.

It is the custom to say that Zionism was responsible for this development. But Zionism is to be understood, in the worldview of the Islamic mind, in another perspective. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of intolerant Arab nationalism, long-dominated nations (such as the Armenians and the Jews) sought independence. This was understood by the Arab world as a rebellion not only against the new Arab nation-states but also against Islamic law, which puts non-Muslims in the inferior status of a dominated nation: the dhimmis.

Both the Armenians and the Jews were subjected to violent repression. The former were massacred by the Ottoman Empire in 1894-1895 - around 300,000 victims - and suffered a genocide - 1,200,000 victims - by the Turks in 1908. The latter in Mandatory Palestine suffered pogroms in 1920, 1929, 1936, and 1939. And the Jews in Muslim countries, as we have seen, were forced to leave. Hardly any Jews remain in the abovementioned countries, and the number of Christian Arabs is now dwindling in them as well.

The new Arab anti-Zionism contained classic anti-Semitic policies, as demonstrated by the "Statute of the Jews" that could be compared to the Vichy Statute of the Jews, except that it developed over a long time, in a huge geographical area, and at different periods. Jews were accused of being coresponsible with Israel for the war that the Arab states declared against the new state and then lost. Regardless of their ideological affiliation - communist, nationalist, Zionist, religious, and so on - they were subjected to special laws specifically aimed at Jews. They were expelled from all Arab-Muslim countries because a collective responsibility was imputed to them. This is typical anti-Semitic reasoning.

The Jews from Arab-Muslim countries were powerless. They had no army. They did not take part in the conflict. They were not responsible for triggering hostilities between the Arab states and Israel. That the Yishuv, the quasi-Jewish state that developed in Mandatory Palestine, became a state according to the United Nations Partition Plan was not also responsible for the war except for the scandal of its existence. Instead, the cause of the situation was the intolerance and imperialism of the new Arab states: before these attained independence, there were indeed no such states. Before the Western colonial empires there was another Islamic colonial empire, the Ottoman one. Palestine never existed as a political or cultural entity. The new nation-states - Israel included - were a product of the Western colonial empires and all were "invented." Why were these Jews in Arab countries persecuted and expelled if not as a result of an anti-Semitic ideology and policy? It was a continuation of the traditional Islamic anti-Judaism but defined in reference to the symbol of the rebellion of the Jewish dhimmis: Zionism.


Toward a New Narrative

The fact that these events have been obscured has served in the campaign to delegitimize Israel, and therefore to a large extent, the same population that suffered this oppression. The fate of Palestinian refugees, their proclaimed innocence, and the injustice they endured form the main thrust of this delegitimization.

About 600,000 of the Jews forced out of Islamic countries in those years attempted to reconstruct their life in Israel. They have suffered more than the Palestinian refugees and undergone greater spoliations.[2] They became citizens of the countries of refuge (Israel and France especially), while Palestinians were ostracized from the Arab nations. Unlike Israel, the Arab states have refused to integrate (Palestinian) refugees in the hopes of keeping hotbeds of conflict alive.

Today, 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs, while the few thousands of Jews still living in Arab and Muslim states (almost exclusively Iran, Morocco, Turkey, and Tunisia) are tiny quasi-dhimmi minorities, probably destined to disappear. Except in Turkey, they depend on a despotic or monarchic regime that needs them for specific interests in international politics. Since 1922, a Palestinian Arab state has already existed on the territory of Mandatory Palestine: Jordan, with 75 percent of its population Palestinian. The Palestinian Authority rules part of the remainder in what became "Cisjordania" after its annexation by Transjordan in 1948, which then became Jordan.

The Palestinians' fate is mainly the result of the policy of their leadership, who have always rejected the further division of Mandatory Palestine (as proposed in 1937 and 1947). The creation of Transjordan in 1922 apparently was not sufficient. Arabs from Palestine were the allies of the five Arab states that attacked the newly created state of Israel: Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon, as well as the Arab League. Even today, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reject the division of the land, denying Israel its natural right to a national existence while defining Palestine as exclusively Arab and Islamic.

The Jewish people are a people with a long history - contrary to the Palestinians - and have the right of sovereignty in a land that has been the seat of three  Jewish states since earliest antiquity. Zionism is the culmination of a process of self-determination, from a dominated nation in the Arab-Muslim world to an emancipated one within this world - that is, in the Middle East. There has been a population exchange. Israel's "original sin" is a fiction. These are the historical and political facts on which Jewish discourse must be founded. It is time to take back the initiative and restore the Jewish narrative.


*     *     *



[1] All the facts and events mentioned here are taken from the works of nine historians, contributors to the multiauthored volume: Shmuel Trigano, ed., La fin du judaïsme en terres d'Islam (Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2009).

[2] Sidney Zabludoff, "The Palestinian Refugee Issue:  Rhetoric vs. Reality," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 20, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2008),

*     *     *

Prof. Shmuel Trigano is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre. He is director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, editor of Pardes, a journal of Jewish studies, editor of Controverses, a journal of ideas, and author of numerous books, especially on Jewish philosophy and Jewish political thought. Trigano is also the founder of L'Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life. 

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