By: Kelly Jemal Massry

“We left. And we lost everything. We lost the business, the manufacturing shop, a very beautiful villa with a garden full of orange blossoms and lemon blossoms that I can still remember. But I did take with me a Star of David. It was made by my grandfather. Luckily I was able to get it out. And luckily, the Egyptian authority didn’t search me, because if they had, they would have pulled it from my neck.”

So recounts Joseph Abdul Wahed, a resigned, saddened old man and former refugee from Egypt. His story is one of many told in The Forgotten Refugees, and among the hundreds of thousands of stories of loss and displacement, of uncertainty and pain that nearly one million Jews were subjected to after 1948. But in spite of the huge number of people involved, these stories are rarely told.

Discrimination in Arab Lands

I attended the award-winning David Project documentary aired by the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, expecting to learn about a subject I knew nothing about. But I walked out changed. Changed by the raw emotion of the film’s participants—the breaks in their voices, the wrinkles cutting grooves in their faces, the soft, quiet strength emanating from each and every one of them. Coming on the heels of Yom Hashoah, it was shocking to learn that Hitlerian discrimination was rampant long before the Holocaust began; that before concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau were ever built, Jews were being interred in huts, driven from their homes, stripped of their assets and forced to start a new life with not even their personal identity intact.

Every year, we commemorate the six million Jews, 1.5 million of who were children, murdered in Nazi Germany—as we should. But not until recently have the stories of the Jewish Refugees from Arab countries garnered much attention. They are all but forgotten, and, when word of this documentary circulated, many of them came forward of their own volition, grateful that an organization was finally going to act on their behalf.

That organization was The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, a non-profit group dedicated to educating and inspiring strong voices for Israel. The association teamed up with Ralph Avi Goldwasser and Israeli director Michael Grynzspan of IsraTV to produce this invaluable film, The Forgotten Refugees. Spurred by the anti-Israel sentiment permeating college campuses, they worked to shed light on an oft-neglected chapter of our nation’s history.

“In talking to students,” said Goldwasser, “I realized that most Americans, including Jewish Americans, don’t know that most of the people in Israel are…actually Mizrachi and Sephardic from the Middle East and North Africa. And that triggered the need to educate.” Ignorance was thus the main catalyst for this film, a desire to bring this neglected piece of history to the fore and enrich our cultural awareness. Few of us properly appreciate our origins and heritage, or realize that until 1945 approximately one million Jews populated the Middle East, building their lives in Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria and other countries. Each of these countries boasted a prominent Jewish community—Iraq, formerly Babylonia, was where the Talmud was written—and each has its own story of exodus and destruction.

“We wanted to focus on the good, the bad and the ugly; the historical and the personal,” says Goldwasser. “We’re trying to show that Jews lived in Arab countries under some very difficult circumstances for thousands of years. It wasn’t all a golden age. Minorities in Muslim countries suffered.”

Massacre in Libya

I ran and they were chasing me until they caught me. They beat me up until they got tired of it. They wanted to cut my arms and legs. And my head too…with axes. Then they got tired. They thought I was dead.

This is the testimony of Yizhak Dvash, a survivor of the 1945 Libyan riots in which 130 Jews were massacred. In the film, a close-up image shows his hand, slashed and stitched back together. Yizhak looks upon his hand, frowning, distraught by the reminder permanently etched upon his skin—that meaningless hatred not only exists but mangles lives.

Lydia Hayoun, another survivor, squints her eyes while speaking, as if to shield herself from a vision that is too vivid even today: “The Arab rioters killed and burned. They stormed houses, killing, destroying and plundering. And we were so scared

Her voice trails off as if she still hasn’t found her way, as if she’s still lost trying to contemplate such horror. Indeed, it was more than horror that took place in Libya; it was akin to genocide. In a country that once had 38,000 Jewish residents and a thriving Tripoli Synagogue, no Jews remain.

The 20th Century Egyptian Bondage

Following the Six Day War, Jews in Egypt were arrested and put in concentration camps. They were forced to live in huts, surrounded by dust and exposed to the harsh elements. They also lost their jobs. The Egyptian Companies Law of 1947 required that 40 percent of every company’s directors and 75 percent of its employees be of Egyptian citizenship, resulting in the dismissal and eviction of all Jewish residents who weren’t citizens. It was common for Jews in the region to hold foreign citizenship, so the majority of Egypt’s Jews were subject to this law, and scores found themselves unemployed.

Caroline Shushan’s parents were French citizens living in Egypt in 1956 when they were suddenly, without warning, expelled from their homes. “They had 48 hours to leave,” she recalls. “They were a little confused, obviously. My mom was young; she had two little kids.”

The forced eviction took place at the time of the Suez Crises, and Caroline suspects that her family was targeted mainly because they were citizens of France—an enemy country. The war certainly exacerbated the circumstances, doubly crucifying Egyptian Jews —not only because of their religion but because of their loyalties.

“They had nothing.” Caroline laments. “One suitcase—no jewelry, no money. Nothing, really, just some clothes.”

They flew to Switzerland—a rare mode of escape as most people went by boat—and stayed with her mother’s uncle. Interviewed as one of the first refugees to come out of Egypt, her father told the authorities in Switzerland, “We just did what they said.” Unaware of just how bad the circumstances were, Caroline’s parents never truly believed they were the targets of anti-Semitism, but were worried about the random and injudicious imprisonment of Jews believed to be Zionists. People with Israeli connections were put in internment camps (which were not at all a German creation) in an effort to provoke fear and elicit confessions. Several of the Shushans’ friends, including her mother’s cousin, were sent away.

The Shushan family has expended enormous effort to seek reparations, without success. They have found themselves unwelcome in Egypt, and their trips to the country are fruitless. Sadly, there are hardly any Jews left in an area that was once bursting with them. Levana Zamir, another refugee, lamented, “We could say that the Jewish community in Egypt is not anymore. It’s finished. Vanished.”

A Long History of Persecution

Film narrator Eliana Gilad estimates that the oppression of Jews in Arab lands began as early as 622, with the creation of Islam and the Arab conquest of the Middle East. Jews under Arab rule were assigned the status of “dhimmi,” which literally means “protected people,” but in actuality translated into anything but protection. The Jews were guaranteed to have their lives spared in the event of war, but on the condition that they would never attempt to outdo their Muslim neighbors, and would always remember their place as lower class people. Jews could not ride horses and put themselves higher than Muslim pedestrians. They could not build new synagogues, and the ones that were established had to be lower than the mosques. Houses, too, had to be low to the ground and Jews even had to wear yellow patches on their clothes. The adornment of the Jewish Star—like so many other anti Semitic measures—was not a Nazi invention and actually existed as early as the 7thcentury.

Fast forward through centuries of dhimmi oppression and a fair number of blood libels, to modern times when Jews living in Muslim dominated Middle Eastern countries approached the one million mark. In the early 1930s, Arab nationalists rose to power and gave vitriolic speeches which focused primarily on blaming the Jews for the country’s ills. In Iraq, a pro-Nazi government was established. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini, met with Hitler and discussed plans to create a “final solution” to the “problem” of Jews in the Middle East. “Arabs rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights,” he pronounced on a Nazi radio station. “Kill the Jews wherever you find them!”And kill they did, rioting through the Jewish ghetto, pulling babies apart by their limbs, raping women in front of their families, and robbing Jewish houses while the owners ran from rooftop to rooftop trying to escape.

“I listen to Iraqi music,” says Linda Abu Azziz. “I read in Arabic, I cook the same food… so I’m very much Iraqi—and this is the problem. Because on the one hand I have a lot of affection for the Iraqi people, but on the other hand I am very much hurt by what happened to us in Iraq.” Linda’s conundrum was shared by many Iraqi Jews, who lived in a place they considered home but where life had become unbearable.

Mordechai Ben Porat, proud founder of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, walked to Jerusalem by foot in 1945 and then helped 120,000 others follow him. “I came to the decision that that country wasn’t our country, and we had to leave,” he says.

In the Shadow of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Fortuitously, there was a Jewish country in the making and, in 1948, Jewish refugees began coming to the fledgling State of Israel where they believed they would be safe. But for those who remained behind, the creation of a Jewish state further infuriated the Muslim world, leading to more massacre and distress.

“When Israel was created, it unshackled the Jew,”explains Joseph Abdel Wahad.“And for the Arabs and Muslims it was unacceptable for the Jew to be independent—because for fourteen centuries, the Jews were under them.”

The film briefly shows snippets of a May 16, 1948 headline from the New York Times entitled, “Jews In Grave Danger In All Moslem Lands.” The article details the persecution that spanned every sector of the Middle East once Jews gained their independence. Jewish bank accounts were frozen and used to finance resistance to the Zionist cause, Jews believed to be active Zionists were imprisoned, and the Iraqi government did not allow any Jew to leave the country without first paying an enormous sum as collateral. Jews in Syria began suffering even before the State’s creation, with the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. Mobs began rioting in Aden and Aleppo, and Jews were stripped of their jobs. The government also denied Jews freedom of movement, making it nearly impossible for them to leave their ravaged country.

A Personal Survival Story

Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Safra Synagogue is the child of survivors of the 1947 Syrian riots. The mobs—aided by police the Jews had once trusted—began burning synagogues and sifrei Torot in what became known as the harayik. One day, rioters entered the building in which Rabbi Abadie’s parents lived. Within minutes, Mrs. Abadie heard shrieks of terror. “They were beating Jews, destroying their property, looting stores, ruining businesses,” she recalled.

Escape was risky. Syrian police patrolled the border and imprisoned Jews who were caught trying to cross. Some were daring enough to bribe a well-connected official or walk outside the border where no one would see them. But many of these attempts were unsuccessful, and resulted in death, torture or incarceration. Rabbi Abadie’s parents hid in his grandparents’ house, and a few days later they made separate attempts at escape. His mother obtained a doctor’s permit and took her sons to the Lebanon Mountains, but his father was unsuccessful after several attempts to escape Syria. In one instance, he was caught by a Syrian guard whom he happened to know. The guardsaid, “The authorities are after you because you’ve tried to escape several times, and I have orders to arrest you. I’m coming back to arrest you tomorrow.”Mr. Abadie understood the hint, and the very next day, with the help of some friends, he boarded the train to Lebanon. A train official with whom he was acquainted hid him in the cargo hold, warning that if he would sneeze or move a muscle they’d both be caught and killed.

His father hid there silent and motionless for hours, his fear intensifying once the train reached the border. The police conducted a thorough search of the cargo. When they came to his wagon, he was certain he’d be discovered. Miraculously, the guard was distracted and moved on to the next wagon.      

As soon as the train crossed the border, Rabbi Abadie’s father jumped off the moving train and into a ravine. Somehow, he landed safely, suffering only minor bruises. He began walking through the Lebanese terrain in search of his family, traveling by night so as not to be seen. Eventually, he found his wife and children. They were entirely unaware of his escape, and were stunned when he walked through the door.

Stories of separation and reunion were not uncommon during those tumultuous times. Families were never allowed to leave the country together, as stray family members were seen as insurance that the deserter would return. For one man, his family’s decision to leave Syria in the seventies in favor of a more progressive country—namely the United States—meant a year and a half separation from his mother. He and his father ventured ahead, while his mother, brother and sister remained behind in Syria, awaiting nothing short of a miracle. He was just seven years old while this upheaval was taking place and was painfully uncertain of what was going on—if his mother would ever come, if they would have to return, or if his family would just remain separated forever. Finally, after enormous bribes were paid, connections tapped, and begging levied, his mother was allowed out of Syria.

In 1992, under pressure from many fronts, Bill Clinton issued a mandate requiring the release of the rest of the Syrian Jews as part of a deal with President Assad. Many migrated to the United States, Israel, and other friendly countries.

Bringing Their Plight to the Fore

Though The Forgotten Refugees has received a good deal of attention in recent years, the producers hope that this is just the beginning. It has been translated into six languages and was presented last February at the prestigious Herzliya Conference. It’s been shown to the U.S. Congress; Israeli government ministers; the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva; and the British Parliament. On March 31, 2008, the first-ever Resolution recognizing the rights of “The Forgotten Refugees” was adopted by the United States House of Representatives. The Resolution asks the President to ensure that, when the issue of Middle Eastern refugees is discussed in international forums, any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees must be matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish refugees.

Still, not enough is being done to remember and address the claims of the Jewish refugees. After the screening, the Honorable Irwin Cotler addressed the crowd to contextualize the documentary, point out its lessons and advocate for change. Professor Cotler, an international human rights lawyer and scholar, is a member of the Canadian Parliament and a former Justice Minister and Attorney General. He is a founding member of Justice for Jews of Arab Countries and has worked tirelessly on behalf of this cause.

He recalls his father teaching him the verse, “Sedek, sedek, tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Cotler has lived his life by this precept, focusing special attention to this missva. In the 1990’s, he challenged the oppressive Syrian regime and flaunted his talit in the streets. He was never allowed back in the country, but is confident his point was made.

“We have to appreciate that while justice has been delayed, it can no longer be denied,” Cotler said in his address to the audience. “This is a truth that is not known; it is a truth that needs to be heard.” And not just heard—but acted upon. Cotler listed four valuable lessons to be taken from this atrocity, including the danger of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide. He denounced the forgiveness of other countries who have the power to make a difference but have ignored the cruel reality taking place. We can no longer exculpate the villains of history, he insisted, protecting people like Ahmadinejad and inviting them to be guests at international forums. We have to understand the Jewish refugee story for what it is—a forgotten people, a forced exodus and the ethnic cleansing of entire communities. These people are the innocent victims of injustice and addressing their claims is a key requisite in the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.

Cotler poignantly described the chain reaction that needs to take place: “If there is no remembrance, there is no truth. If there is no truth, there is no justice. If there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation. And if there is no reconciliation, there will be no lasting peace towards which we all work and pray.”

“There are refugees other than the Palestinians,” says Mr. Goldwasser. “There were people who were dislocated as a result of war and conflict—and they’re totally invisible. Why isn’t the mainstream media talking about [them]?”

 “We don’t want to be forgotten anymore,” insists Mr. Wahed. “We want to tell our story!”

Both the producers and the victims hope that by spreading awareness of the refugees’ plight, we can begin to seek justice for one of the largest ethnic expulsions in modern history. As one woman exclaimed, “The Arab governments have taken away our homes. They have taken away our culture. They have destroyed our communities. But they can never take away our spirit to fight for justice.”

To organize an educational screening of The Forgotten Refugees film, e-mail The David Project at Contact jp@davidproject.orgto learn more about the Project’s Forgotten Refugees curriculum for middle school and high school students.