Hanan Ashrawi and the attempt to write Jewish refugees out of history

Sep 7, 2012 | Sharyn Mittelman

Hanan Ashrawi and the attempt to write Jewish refugees out of history

Hanan Ashrawi, who sits on the PLO Executive Committee and is a former Sydney Peace Prize winner, has caused controversy by recently writing in an article intended for an Arabic-speaking audience that there were no Jewish refugees from Arab countries. She wrote, “the emigration of Jews was a voluntary act that was influenced by factors of pressure and temptation by Zionist movements and the Jewish Agency.” Ashrawi explained that: “If Israel is their homeland, then they are not ‘refugees;’ they are emigrants who returned either voluntarily or due to a political decision.”

However, Ashwrawi is clearly ignoring history for political reasons. In 1945, there were more than 870,000 Jews living in the various Arab states, some communities dated back 2,500 years. From the 1940s onwards many of these Jews were persecuted, their property and belongings confiscated and in some countries they were expelled – including Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Of the 820,000 Jewish refugees from Arab nations, 586,000 were resettled in Israel without any offer of compensation from the Arab governments who confiscated their possessions, which were often very substantial.

In fact, contrary to the common view that assumes that Israel’s earliest emigrants were mainly Holocaust survivors, Jews from Arab countries amounted for 56 percent of the total immigration to the newly founded State of Israel. Only 136,000 of the immigrants to Israel were in fact remnants of the displaced Jews of World War II (though to be sure, some Holocaust survivors did reach British Mandate Palestine before Israel’s independence was declared in 1948).

While it is true that many Jews from Arab countries may have come to Israel to pursue Zionist aspirations, Zionism was very much a minority view in most of these communities up until persecution and harassment forced many of these communities to begin to realise that their future in their home communities was bleak.

It is also a historical reality that escalating attacks on Jews in Arab nations occurred well before 1948, and then intensified with the establishment of Israel in 1947-8.  During the 1947 UN debates, Arab leaders openly threatened the Jews living in their countries with expulsion and violence if partition were to occur. Egypt’s delegate told the General Assembly: “The lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by partition.”

It is also important to remember that Arab/Muslim antisemitism did not ‘begin’ with the establishment of Israel in 1948. Some historians – see particularly the work of historian Jeffrey Herf argue that ‘racial’ modern day versions of antisemitism was imported from Europe, particularly with the Nazi occupation in North Africa and the Nazi dissemination of Arabic propaganda on a large scale. In addition, Jewish emigration from Muslim countries continued into the 1980s, driven largely by external events which increased the insecurity of Jewish life such as the Iranian revolution in 1979 and an increase in antisemitism in Turkey.

Ashrawi’s remarks appear to be a response to Israel’s recent campaign to raise awareness of the issue of ‘Jewish refugees’ which included having a national day of recognition, establishing a museum, and launching the Facebook page, “I am a refugee” for people to share their family stories and experiences.

The Jewish refugee tragedy is largely untold because the Jews that had fled persecution and/or were expelled from Arab countries were largely integrated into Israel with full citizenship, or built new lives in other countries (France houses the second largest community), unlike Palestinian refugees who were not given citizenship from surrounding Arab nations, and compelled to remain in camps and maintain their Palestinian refugee status.

Ashrawi responded to the criticism of her remarks, and chose to double-down on her claim that Middle Eastern Jews were not refugees, writing in the Huffington Post:

“At the very core of Zionist ideology is the idea that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. If this is the case, and Jews living in Israel are citizens of their singular national homeland, then the state cannot consider them refugees — they cannot be returnees to Israel and refugees from another homeland at the same time. Demanding that the international community treat Jewish immigrants as refugees is therefore an act of ‘dezionization.’ If, however, they are refugees and Israel is not their homeland, then their primary right is the right to return.”

However, Ashrawi’s comment ignores the fact that all refugees other than Palestinian refugees (because they are treated differently under UNWRA) lose their refugee status when they obtain citizenship of a new country. Therefore, the Jews that fled Arab nations can arguably both have been refugees and now citizens of Israel.

The ‘claim of return’ certainly does not define refugee status, as Ashrawi seem to think. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees – responsible for all refugees but not Palestinians – emphasises three tracks toward “durable solutions” for them – “voluntary repatriation; local integration; or resettlement to a third country,” with the last two describing what has happened to Jewish refugees. Further, many experts do not even recognise the “right of return” which Ashrawi insists is the essence of being a refugee. Indeed, under Ashrawi’s definition, it is not clear if anyone, anywhere, has ever been a refugee – except for the Palestinians.

And even if you argued that Jews from Arab lands movng to Israel were not refugees, what about the over 200,000 that emigrated to other parts of the world?

This blog post provides a brief outline of Arab countries in which Jews were expelled and/or left to escape persecution (main source: Jewish virtual library) and the stories of the fate of these ancient Jewish communities – which Ashrawi and others seem determined to deny:


There was severe antisemitic violence in Tripoli in November 1945, when over several days more than 130 Jews (including 36 children) were killed, hundreds were injured, 4,000 were left homeless and 2,400 were reduced to poverty. Five synagogues in Tripoli and four in provincial towns were destroyed, and over 1,000 Jewish residences and commercial buildings were plundered in Tripoli alone.

In 1948, around 38,000 Jews lived in Libya. Pogroms in June 1948 resulted in 15 Jews being killed and 280 Jewish homes destroyed. Between the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and Libyan independence in December 1951 over 30,000 Libyan Jews emigrated to Israel.

In 1961 citizenship for Jews was revoked. In 1967 during the Six-Day War, the Jewish population of 4,000 was again subjected to pogroms in which 18 were killed and many injured. The Libyan government “urged the Jews to leave the country temporarily” permitting Jews to take one suitcase and the equivalent of US$50. In June and July over 4,000 travelled to Italy where they were assisted by the Jewish Agency – 1,300 went on to Israel, 2,200 remained in Italy, and many went to the US.

In 1970 the Libyan government passed new laws, which confiscated all the assets of Libya’s Jews, issuing in their stead 15 year bonds. However, when the bonds matured no compensation was paid.


Prior to 1948 there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. By 2003 there were only around 100 left.
In June 1941 a pro-Nazi regime was formed in Iraq, headed by Rashid Ali al-Galyani. Following a propaganda campaign, an anti-Jewish pogrom erupted leading to the deaths of 180 Jews, Jewish property was seized – affecting around 50,000 Iraqi Jews.
Following the pogrom, around 10,000 Jews left Iraq between 1941 to 1949. Many displaced Iraqi Jews began fleeing for Israel reaching a rate of 1,000 per year by 1949.
Between April 1950 and June 1951, there were five bombings of Jewish targets in Baghdad. While Iraq encouraged Iraqi and Kurdish Jews to leave in 1950, by 1951 the government ordered “the expulsion of Jews who refused to sign a statement of anti-Zionism”. In 1969, some 50 of the remaining Iraqi Jews were executed, 11 were publicly executed after show trials and several hundred thousand Iraqis marched past the bodies.


Prior to 1948 approximately 75,000 Jews lived in Egypt, and today there are about 100, mostly in Cairo. The Jews of Egypt began fleeing in 1948, and most of the remaining, some 21,000, were expelled in 1956.

Jews first began to leave Egypt following the 1945 Cairo pogrom, but the exodus became significant in 1948 following attacks on Jews. In June 1948, a bomb exploded in Cairo’s Karaite quarter, killing 22 Jews. In July 1948, Jewish shops and the Cairo Synagogue were attacked killing 19 Jews. Hundreds of Jews were arrested and had their property confiscated. Nearly 40% of the Jewish population of Egypt had left the country by 1950.

In October 1956, when the Suez Crisis erupted many Jews were ordered to leave the country. They were allowed to take only one suitcase and a small sum of cash, and forced to sign declarations “donating” their property to the Egyptian government. In addition, it has been recorded that:

  • 1,000 Jews were arrested and 500 Jewish businesses were seized by the government.
  • A statement branding the Jews as “Zionists and enemies of the state” was read out in the mosques of Cairo and Alexandria. 
  • Jewish bank accounts were confiscated and many Jews lost their jobs. Lawyers, engineers, doctors and teachers were not allowed to work in their professions.
  • Foreign observers reported that members of Jewish families were taken hostage, apparently to insure that those forced to leave did not speak out against the Egyptian government.
  • Some 25,000 Jews, almost half of the Jewish community left, mainly for Europe, the United States, South America and Israel, after being forced to sign declarations that they were leaving voluntarily, waived any right to ever return, and agreed with the confiscation of their assets.

In 1967, Jews were detained and tortured, and Jewish homes were confiscated. Following the Six-Day War, the community practically ceased to exist, with the exception of several dozen elderly Jews.


In June 1948, riots in Oujda and Djerada killed 44 Jews and wounded many more. Also, in 1948 an unofficial economic boycott was instigated against Morocaan Jews.

In 1956, Morocco declared its independence, and by 1959 Zionist activities became illegal. In 1963 more then 100,000 Moroccan Jews were forced out from their homes and moved to Israel. During these years, more than 30,000 Jews left for France and the America.


In 1947, rioters in Aleppo burned the city’s Jewish quarter and killed 75 people. As a result, nearly half of the Jewish population of Aleppo opted to leave the city. In 1948, there were approximately 30,000 Jews in Syria. The Syrian government placed severe restrictions on the Jewish community, including on emigration. Over the next decades, many Jews managed to escape.


In 1948, the Tunisian Jewish community had numbered 105,000, today there around 2,000 Jews in Tunisia. When Tunisia achieved independence in 1956, Jews suffered greatly. The rabbinical tribunal was abolished in 1957, and a year later, Jewish community councils were dissolved, and the government ordered that the Jewish quarter of Tunis be destroyed.
In 1967, following the outbreak of the Six-Day War, there was anti-Jewish rioting and the Great Synagogue of Tunis was burned. These attacks increased the stream of emigration to Israel and France.
There were also attacks in 1982, 1985, and most recently in 2002 when a bomb in Djerba took 21 lives (most of them German tourists) near the local synagogue, in a terrorist attack claimed by al-Qaeda.


In the late 1950s there were some 130,000 Jews in Algeria. When Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, Jews in Algeria were deprived of their citizenship and most immediately left the country for France and Israel.


In 1922, Yemen reintroduced an ancient Islamic law that decreed that Jewish orphans under age 12 were to be converted to Islam. In 1947, after the partition vote, rioters joined by the local police force and engaged in a pogrom in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes and economically destroyed businesses.
Early in 1948, looting occurred after six Jews were falsely accused of murdering two Arab girls. 50,000 Jews were forced out of Yemen in 1948.
By 1959 over 3,000 Jews from Aden arrived in Israel, many more left for the US and England. Today, there are no Jews in Aden. There are an estimated 1,000 Jews in Yemen today.


There were around 5,000 Jews living in Lebanon prior to 1948. There were instances of rioting and incitement of violence around the establishment of the State of Israel, but unlike other Middle Eastern countries, Lebanon was under Christian-Arab rule, which provided relative tolerance for Jews.

Despite their treatment, many felt insecure and there was a mass emigration in 1967 to France, Israel, Italy, England and South America. Since the civil war in Lebanon, there are around 150 Jews living in Lebanon today.


Sharyn Mittelman



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