December 3, 2002, 11:45 a.m. The Forgotten Refugees An exchange of populations. By David G. Littman
Last Thursday, a new terrorist group calling itself, "The Government of Universal Palestine,
the Army of Palestine" claimed responsibility for a murderous jihadist terror attack against
Kenyans and Israelis in Kilambala, Kenya. The attacks were timed to mark the eve of the
anniversary of the November 29, 1947 decision by the United Nations to partition Palestine
and allow the creation of the Jewish state.
The next day, in New York and Geneva, the United Nations hosted its annual "International
Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" — without a hitch.
Amid this ongoing savagery and carnage worldwide, some basic truths need to be reaffirmed
about the Middle East tragedy. Aside from the thorny Jerusalem issue, the major stumbling
block has always been the question of the return of — or compensation for — Arab refugees
from Palestine in 1948 and 1967. But Israel's steadfast refusal by the Arab Palestinian
leadership and Arab countries since the 1920s also led to another great refugee tragedy.
In 1945 there were about 140,000 Jews in Iraq; 60,000 in Yemen and Aden; 35,000 in Syria;
5,000 in Lebanon; 90,000 in Egypt; 60,000 in Libya; 150,000 in Algeria; 120,000 in Tunisia;
and 300,000 in Morocco, including Tangiers. That comes to a total of about 960,000 — and
more than 200,000 in Iran and Turkey.
Jordan covered 78 percent of Palestine as designated by the League of Nations in 1922.
Turning a blind eye to article 15 of the League of Nations Mandate, Great Britain decided in
1922 that no Jews would be authorized either to reside or buy land in what was now the
Emirate of Transjordan. This decision was ratified by the kingdom of Jordan in its law No. 6,
sect. 3, of April 3, 1954 (reactivated in law no. 7, sect. 2, of April 1, 1963), which states that
any person may become a citizen of Jordan if he is not a Jew. Even when Jordan made peace
with Israel in 1994, this Judenrein legislation remained.
In these ancient Jewish communities, which date from Biblical times, less than 40,000 Jews
remain today — and in the Arab world there are fewer than 5,000, one-half of one percent of
their number at the end of World War II.
During the 20th century, thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, young and old, were
brutally massacred in the Maghreb, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Aden — even under French
and British colonial rule — and also in Palestine after the British conquest and during the
As to why and how these countries became Judenrein ( "cleansed" of Jews), the heading of an
article from the New York Times of May 16, 1948 — a day after Israel declared its
independence — says it all: "Jews in Grave Danger in all Moslem Lands. Nine Hundred
Thousand in Africa and Asia Face Wrath of Their Foes". On January 18, 1948, the president of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Stephen Wise,
appealed to U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall: "Between 800'000 and a million Jews in
the Middle East and North Africa, exclusive of Palestine, are in 'the greatest danger of
destruction' at the hands of Moslems being incited to holy war over the Partition of Palestine
... Acts of violence already perpetrated, together with those contemplated, being clearly aimed
at the total destruction of the Jews, constitute genocide, which under the resolutions of the
General Assembly is a crime against humanity."
Already in Iraq (1936 and 1941), Syria (1944-45), Egypt and Libya (1945), and Aden (1947)
— all before the state of Israel's founding — murderous attacks had killed and wounded
thousands. Here is a description from the official report in 1945 by Tripoli's Jewish
community president, Zachino Habib, describing what happened to Libyan Jews in Tripoli,
Zanzur, Zawiya, Casabat, Zitlin, Nov. 4-7, 1945: "The Arabs attacked Jews in obedience to
mysterious orders. Their outburst of bestial violence has no plausible motive. For fifty hours
they hunted men down, attacked houses and shops, killed men, women, old and young,
horribly tortured and dismembered Jews isolated in the interior... In order to carry out the
slaughter, the attackers used various weapons: knives, daggers, sticks, clubs, iron bars,
revolvers, and even hand grenades." (1)
A recent example of such murderous acts was seen on April 11, 2002 when the jihadist
bombing of the ancient al-Ghariba synagogue of Djerba in Tunisia killed 17 and badly
wounding many others, most of them elderly German tourists. A spokesman for al Qaeda
claimed they had been behind the bombing. Now Tunisia's remaining Jewish community will
seek security in Israel and elsewhere — like 99 percent of their coreligionists before them.
Pogroms and persecutions, and grave fears for their future, regularly preceded the mass
expulsions and exoduses of the Jews, whose ancestors had inhabited these regions from time
immemorial, a millennium and more before the successive waves of Arab conquest and
occupation from the 7th century. Beginning in 1948, more than 650,000 of these Oriental
Jewish refugees were integrated into Israel — even as the country was being threatened with
annihilation by neighboring Arab League states, which, for over 40 years, refused the U.N.'s
1947 Palestine Partition Plan. Approximately 300,000 more Jews found refuge, and a new
homeland, in Europe and the Americas.
Roughly half of Israel's 5 million Jews — from a population of 6.2 million, of whom roughly
20 percent are Arab, Druze, and Bedouin Israelis — is now composed of those refugees and
their descendants, who received no humanitarian aid from the United Nations, and who
indeed did not ask for it. It was Jews worldwide, just emerging from the Shoah, who worked
together with Israel to achieve this integration.
Yet it was this defiance of international legality by the Arab League in 1947-1948 —
maintained decade after decade in unsuccessful attempts at politicide — that led to the
ongoing Arab-Palestinian catastrophe. A parallel commitment on behalf of the less numerous
Arab refugees of Palestine (in 1948 they numbered about 550,000, although a figure of
750,000 is often claimed) for their integration into some of the 21 Arab states (covering 10
percent of the world's land surface) was considered too great a symbolic and monetary
sacrifice, even despite their immense oil resources.
George Orwell's remark about everyone being equal — but some being more equal than
others — could well be applied to refugees since the 1940s: Apparently some refugees areconsidered more equal than others. But the forgotten million — Jewish refugees from Arab
lands — were not helped by the U.N. , nor were they kept for over half a century in refugee
camps, breeding hopelessness, frustration, and — under U.N. auspices — a culture of hate
and death, in which jihadist bombers thrive today.
The transfer of populations on a large scale, as a consequence of war or for political reasons,
has always been a characteristic of human history, particularly in the Islamic Orient.
Deportations, expropriations and expulsions of dhimmis — Jews, Christians, and other
indigenous peoples — recurred throughout the long history of dhimmitude, including in
Palestine. One should question today the real motivation of a selective, historically flawed
memory which systematically spotlights the Arab-Palestinian refugees — suffering from the
Arab League's own policy — but conveniently forgets the Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967 — also adamantly refused then
by the Khartoum Arab League Summit Conference with the formula: "No peace with Israel,
no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel, no concessions on the questions of
Palestinian national rights" — refers to "a just solution to the refugee problem". This term
applied implicitly also to Jewish refugees from Arab countries — who had been obliged to
seek security outside their native lands — and not only to the Arab-Palestinian refugees who
are not specifically referred to in the resolution.
The dire hardships endured by the great majority of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries
have never been considered by the United Nations, nor has the loss of their inestimable
properties and heritage dating back over 3, 000 years. The time has surely come for this great
injustice to be addressed seriously, within the context of a just and equitable global solution to
the ongoing Middle East tragedy, once the Palestinian leadership ends its jihad-war of
attrition and takes the democratic path to peace.
On April 24, 2002, at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, we referred to this
matter as a representative of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Speaking in a "right of
reply," the delegate of Iraq (Saad Hussain) stated, unashamedly, that he was "responding to
the lies that we heard in the statement of the gentleman called David Littman, known for his
animosity toward the Arabs, Muslims, and Islam. The Arab history, the Arab and Islamic
history for fourteen centuries, has not witnessed any harm to the Jews — quite the contrary.
The Jews have lived, and continue to live in peace, and their sacred places and their property
have been protected until today (...) They live in Arab countries today in perfect safety,
despite the events — the horrible events taking place in Palestine." (2)
Not surprisingly, the truth is very different. Jews have always been forbidden to reside in
Saudi Arabia and Jordan; there are now no Jews in Libya; under 100 in Egypt and Syria; and
only 17 remain in Iraq! We shall again briefly raise the question of the forgotten million
Jewish refugees from Arab countries at the next session of the U.N. Commission on Human
Rights — when the chairperson will be the lady ambassador from Libya! At the last six-week
session (March-April 2002) , more than 50 percent of the commission's time was taken up by
Palestinian issues — to the dismay of very many observers.
(1) Renzo di Felici, Jews in an Arab Land: Libya, 1835-1970 (University of Texas, 1985, pp.
193-94., n. 19, p. 365)
(2) U.N. English interpretation, as recorded verbatim from the statement delivered in Arabic. — David G. Littman is an historian and a representative of two nongovernmental
organizations to the United Nation in Geneva: the Association for World Education and the
World Union for Progressive Judaism.