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Recognizing the 850,000 Jews that fled in fear for their lives from their ancestral homes in Arab countries

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Over 55,000 Yemenite Jews were among those communities in Arab and North African countries forced to leave their homes (Photo Zoltan Kluger - National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography dept.)

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Every year since 2014, on November 30t, Israel marks a Memorial Day for the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. The day is based on a law that was sponsored by Member of Knesset Shimon Ohayon and passed in the Israeli Knesset in the summer of 2014. 

One might ask why such a day is needed. Jewish refugees from Arab lands? The world certainly knows of the Jewish people who were fleeing Europe during the Holocaust, but they were not alone in their suffering.  

The Mizrachi (Yemenite) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews, who numbered approximately 850,000 in the 1940’s, were forced out of their homes in a deluge of persecution that intensified the day after the UN Partition Plan went into effect on November 29, 1948. 

The number of Jews forced to flee, or outright exiled from, their ancestral homes is astounding. 259,000 Moroccan Jews fled from their homes in fear for their lives, not the only ones in the North African region. There were 140,000 Jews from Algeria, 100,000 from Tunisia, 75,000 from Egypt, and 38,000 from Libya. Of course, there were also a significant number of Jews exiled from Arab countries in the Middle East, much of which occurred after Israel’s independence. 135,000 Jews were exiled from their homes in Iraq, and 55,000 from Yemen. Other countries also forced the Jewish population to flee for their lives. There were 34,000 from Turkey, 20,000 from Lebanon, and 18,000 more from Syria. Iran’s campaign of persecution forced out 70,000 Jews. Arguably, the most significant exile of Jews from Arab lands occurred in Iraq.

The Jewish community of approximately 150,000 people in Iraq existed for 2600 years. They lived peacefully amongst their Arab neighbours, mainly in Baghdad, and accounted for a third of the city’s population. Under the influence of Nazi propaganda for 9 years, and a British victory in the Anglo-Iraqi War, Iraqi soldiers and citizens blamed the Jews for their troubles. Riots known as the Farhud (violent dispossession) erupted in Baghdad and, like the pogroms of Europe, the Jews were targeted. 180 Jews were killed and 240 were wounded. 586 Jewish businesses were looted and there were 99 Jewish homes destroyed.  

In 1948, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, told the British that if their proposed United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was not satisfactory, severe measures would be taken upon all Jews in Arab countries. Iraq’s Foreign Minister followed that up stating that “any injustice imposed upon the Arabs of Palestine will disturb the harmony among Jews and non-Jews in Iraq; it will breed inter-religious prejudice and hatred.” 

Iraq was placed under martial law in 1948 and Zionism was declared illegal. Jews were no longer allowed to hold positions within the civil service, quotas were established on Jews holding university positions and Jewish businesses were boycotted. One of the most important Jewish businessmen in the country, Shafiq Ades (who happened to be anti-Zionist) was arrested and publicly hanged for allegedly selling products to Israel. This was a turning point for the Jews of Iraq. Many were forced to flee and leave all of their possessions behind.  

Following the Six-Day War, hundreds of Jews were imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel. About 50 of them were executed following show trials and there was an infamous public hanging of 14 men in Tahrir Square, 9 of whom were Jewish, after which a procession of a hundred thousand Iraqis marched past to observe the bodies. It is estimated that by the year 2003, 35 Jews remained in Baghdad. 

Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman is an endocrinologist who immigrated to Montreal in her teens in 1976. She graduated from McGill University with a medical degree in 1985 and moved to Toronto in 1989. A Jewish refugee from Iraq, she speaks to groups and educates people about the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, particularly form her birthplace of Iraq. There were two particular incidences that she describes as having inspired her to tell the story of Iraqi Jewry.

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When Caroline’s daughter was approximately 6 years old, she informed her teacher that her mother was Jewish and Arab. The teacher, thinking the child was confused, mentioned this to Caroline who confirmed that she was indeed a Jew from Iraq. She agreed to come and speak with her daughter’s class about her background. A further inspiration to actively educate others occurred when Caroline participated in an adult trip run by March of the Living. Most of the participants were shocked that there were Jews from Arab lands.  Since that time, she has been a speaker on a number of Jewish adult trips to Israel.  

When Jews started immigrating to Israel from Iraq, approximately 125,000 went within a year and a half. They had to live in tents and were warned that making Aliyah would lead to hardship for a period of time. Caroline’s parents chose to stay in Iraq along with approximately 10,000 other Jews and married in 1956. In 1958, a coup d’état took place in Iraq and the military took control of the government from the monarchy. The Bath Party’s treatment of the Jews of Iraq was reminiscent of that of the Nazi party in Germany during the 1930’s and WWII. Jews were spied upon by the Iraqi secret police, they were forced to carry yellow identity cards indicating that they were Jewish, their commerce activities were restricted, their phones were tapped, their mail was opened and read. They were not allowed to leave Iraq nor were they issued passports. 

In 1966, the Iraqi government began arresting and torturing Jews and disappearances continued. Two of Caroline’s uncles – a pharmacist and a doctor, neither revolutionaries – were arrested and tortured, and her father was arrested on three separate occasions. When the infamous hanging took place in Tahrir Square in 1969, Caroline was dismayed to learn that one of the Jewish victims was a 16-year old boy she knew. 

In 1971, a peace agreement between the Iraqis and the Kurds made it possible for Caroline’s family to contact some Kurdish people and pay them to smuggle the family across to Tehran until they finally made their way to Israel. Caroline’s family remained in Israel until 1976 when they immigrated to Montreal, Canada.

Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman is pictured reunited with her grade 6 Jewish school report card, seized by the antisemitic Iraqi regime and stored for decades (Photo: Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman)

But the story of the Bassoon family does not end there. After the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government, U.S. officials made a startling discovery. While searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction in the sublevels of the Iraqi secret police headquarters, they discovered two rooms, stocked with material about Israel and about Jews.

The U.S. government made a deal with the new Iraqi government to take all of the found documents and many of the texts, clean them up, and digitize them. From 2013 to 2017 those records comprised a travelling exhibit called the Iraqi Jewish Archives.

Amongst the items on display were some holy items and a grade 6 Jewish school report card belonging to a young Caroline, which includes her photo. Caroline learned of this when a friend sent her an email in November 2013. While some of her circle thought that this discovery was “cool”, she did not. Not only had the Iraqis gathered up all of the wealth and possessions that the Jews had left behind when they fled, but they had also gathered up documents detailing minute aspects of Jewish Iraqis lives. To her, the implications were chilling. Caroline spoke at the Florida showing of the exhibit in early 2016.

Many experts estimate that the number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is closer to the 1,000,000 mark. Refugees who, until the 1940’s, despite many challenges chose to remain in a land that they considered home.  

The number of those who remain is less than 4,000. 

Corey Margolese is the founder of JTeach.ca, a not-for-profit organization that offers training and resources in the dangers of antisemitism, Holocaust education, and in Judaic traditions, culture and religion. He is a public school teacher.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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