The two decades following World War II witnessed a rapid dissolution of the major Jewish communities in the Arab Muslim world (and beyond, including Afghanistan, as well as the significant attrition of the Jewish population in Turkey). During the first post-war decade alone, the overall Jewish population of the Arab countries declined by half. The decline was far greater in several countries. Iraq, Yemen, and Libya had lost over 90 percent of their Jews, and Syria 75 percent, by the end of 1953. At that time, the French-ruled Maghreb contained most of the Jews who remained in the Arab world. Not long afterward, however, the three countries of that region (i.e., Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) achieved their independence. And within little more than two decades after the end of World War II, most of the North African Jews were gone as well.
This mass Jewish exodus was set in motion by a wave of violence against Jews throughout the Middle East. That violence actually began a few years before the end of World War II.
Particularly brutal was the Baghdad pogrom (the “Farhud”) of June 1941—fomented by Hajj Amin el-Husseini, during his WW II sojourn in Iraq. Thereafter, recurrent anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic incitement from 1943 to 1945 culminated in a series of anti-Jewish riots during November of 1945. Egypt was the site of the first of these riots—in both Cairo and Alexandra—fomented by Islamic groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Young Men’s Muslim Association. Hundreds were injured during the rioting and looting of some 110 Jewish businesses in Cairo, while the disturbances in Alexandria claimed the lives of 5 Jews.
One day after the rioting in Egypt had subsided, much more extensive and devastating anti-Jewish violence erupted in Libya. The terror subsequently spread to the nearby towns of Amrus, Tagiura, Zawia, Zanzur, and Qusabat.
Minor anti-Jewish violence also occurred on November 18, 1945 in Syria, when “…a mob broke into the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, smashed votive objects, burned prayer books, and beat up two elderly men who were studying there.”
On November 24, 1947, Egyptian delegate Heykal Pasha, a “well-known liberal,” addressed the Political Committee of the U.N. General Assembly with regard to the proposed Partition Plan for Palestine (Resolution 181), which would divide the land west of the Jordan River into two parts: an Arab state and a Jewish state. He said:
"The United Nations…should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries. Partition of Palestine might create Antisemitism in those countries even more difficult to root out than the Antisemitism which the Allies tried to eradicate in Germany…If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of the large number of Jews…A million Jews live in peace in Egypt [and the other Muslim states] and enjoy all rights of citizenship. They have no desire to emigrate to Palestine. However, if a Jewish state were established, nobody could prevent disorders. Riots would break out in Palestine, would spread through all the Arab states and might lead to a war between two races."
Five days later -- on November 29, 1947 -- the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 181.
From December 2nd to 5th, demonstrations were held throughout the Arab Muslim world to protest the U.N. decision. These demonstrations sparked anti-Jewish violence in Bahrain, Aleppo, and the British protectorate of Aden. The riots in Aleppo and Aden were severe—many Jews were killed, significant physical devastation occurred, and roughly half of Aleppo’s Jewish population fled.
Such violent anti-Jewish outbursts following the November 1947 U.N. vote to partition Palestine further demoralized Jews living in eastern Arab countries whose confidence had already been shaken by the 1941 Baghdad Farhud and the 1945 riots in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The steady re-emergence of Islamic (or its corollary “Arab”) national identity in these countries also subjected the Jews to chronic discrimination in employment.
The ongoing isolation and alienation of Jews from the larger Arab Muslim societies in which they lived accelerated considerably after the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948, and the immediate war on the nascent Jewish state declared and waged by members of the Arab League. A rapid annihilation of Israel and its Jewish population was predicted and savored by Arab leaders such as Azzam Pasha, the secretary of the Arab League, who declared:
"[T]his will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the crusades."
Such widely held expectations may have subdued violent mob reactions of the Arab masses against Middle Eastern and North African Jews at the outset of the war. However, once the Arab offensive in Palestine experienced setbacks several weeks after the war began, anti-Jewish violence erupted in Morocco and Libya. On June 7 and 8 in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda and Jerada, 42 Jews were killed and roughly 150 injured, many of them seriously, while scores of homes and shops were sacked. One day after the first truce was declared between the Israeli and Arab forces in Palestine, on June 12, Muslim mobs attacked the Jewish Quarter in Tripoli, Libya, and upon being repelled by Jewish self-defense units—which had been organized there as in other cities that had suffered pogroms in recent years—turned upon undefended neighborhoods outside Hara, murdering thirteen or fourteen Jews, seriously injuring 22, causing extensive property damage, and leaving approximately 300 families destitute. Jews in the surrounding countryside and in Benghazi were subjected to additional attacks.
These events were followed by a series of violent disturbances in Egypt, despite a second truce in Palestine declared on July 18, 1948. During the next three-month period, Egyptian Jewry was under siege, as bombs destroyed Jewish-owned movie theaters and large retail businesses, including the Adès, Gategno, and Benzion establishments. Overall, these attacks on the Jews of Egypt claimed approximately 50 lives in the summer of 1948, accompanied by enormous property losses. Hundreds were left injured, homeless, and unemployed.
The signing of Arab-Israeli armistice agreements in the spring and summer of 1949 rekindled a cautious optimism among many upper-class (and some middle-class) Egyptian, Iraqi, and Syrian Jews. This optimism quickly faded for the Jews of Syria and Iraq, lasted perhaps until the 1956 Suez War among Egyptian Jews, and never existed for Libyan or Yemenite Jewry. French disengagement from colonial rule in North Africa between 1954 and 1962 created anxiety in the Jewish populations of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.
These tensions and fears were mirrored in the waves of mass exodus of Jews: almost immediately and completely for the Jews of Libya and Yemen (between 1949 and 1951); a slightly delayed mass exodus of Iraqi Jews by the end of 1951 (after which only 6,000 remained out of ~ 140,000, circa 1945); the rapid attrition of Syria’s population, “…of mass proportions in relation to the smallness of the community,” by 1953; the flight of 60% of Egyptian Jewry within 12 months after the 1956 war, despite being required to abandon almost all their assets except for some items of clothing; a dramatic rise in Jewish emigration from Morocco and Tunisia in anticipation of their independence from France, a trend which continued steadily once independence was achieved; and a precipitous and nearly complete exodus of Algerian Jewry in anticipation of Algerian independence (which would take place in July 1962).
Historian David Littman has summarized the remarkable demographic decline of all the populations of Jews living in Muslim countries, especially the Arab nations, since 1945:
"In 1945 about 140,000 Jews lived in Iraq; 60,000 in Yemen and Aden; 35,000 in Syria; 5,000 in Lebanon; 90,000 in Egypt; 40,000 in Libya; 150,000 in Algeria; 120,000 in Tunisia; 300,000 in Morocco, including Tangier—a total of roughly 940,000 (and approximately 200,000 more in Iran and Turkey). Of these indigenous communities, less than 50,000 Jews remain today—and in the Arab world, their number is barely 5,000—0.5% of the overall total at the end of the Second World War." [emphasis added]
All told, some 900,000 Jews fled from Arab (and non-Arab Muslim) nations, thereby liquidating most of the ancient Jewish communities from which they hailed.
Adapted from "Remembering a Mass Jewish Exodus," by Andrew G. Bostom
(July 19, 2007).