What About the Jewish Nakba?

By May 31, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 78

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Every year, the Palestinians mark the “Nakba,” the “catastrophe” that befell them with the establishment of the State of Israel. Long forgotten, however, is that Jews in Arab countries suffered a catastrophe many times worse; a Jewish “Nakba” of historic proportions. The difference is that, like tens of millions of other refugees around the world, the Jews preferred to heal their wounds and move forward to build a healthy society. In contrast, Palestinians have preferred bleeding to rehabilitation; created an industry of lies to propagate the myth of “Nakba”; and turned it into a national ethos. This article seeks to demonstrate that suffering in the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the monopoly of one side. This essential truth is a necessary component of any Arab-Israeli peace.

This Perspectives Paper was originally published in expanded form in Hebrew in Maariv on May 16, 2009 and is republished here in abbreviation with permission of the author. Considerable additional detail on pogroms and systematic discrimination against the Jews of Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen can be found in the full version of this article at http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/891/209.html.


Every year on May 15, the Palestinians – and many supporters around the world – “celebrate” what they call the Nakba. This day marks the great catastrophe, in their view, that resulted from the establishment of the State of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs became refugees. Some fled, some were deported. The story of the Nakba has grown to such enormous proportions that it today prevents a solution to the dispute.

It is important to remember that in the 1940s, population exchanges and deportations for the purpose of creating national states were the accepted norm. Tens of millions of people were caught up in such migrations, but only the Palestinians and their supporters have been propagating the myth of a Nakba.

However, there is also a Jewish Nakba. During those same years, there was a long line of slaughters, pogroms, property confiscation and deportations – against Jews in Islamic countries. The Jewish Nakba was worse than the Palestinian Nakba. The critical difference is that the Jews did not turn that suffering into a founding ethos, but concentrated on rebuilding their lives.

The Palestinians, in contrast, preferred bleeding to rehabilitation. The industry of lies that sprung up around the Palestinian cause has created and magnified the myth of the Nakba and turned it into the ultimate crime. The Nakba narrative has spawned innumerable publications and conferences, to the point of distorting the actual historical record and becoming a bar to reconciliation.

There is no use in setting out a ‘Palestinian narrative’ versus a ‘Zionist narrative.’ We need to shake off narratives in favor of the truth. And the truth is that the number of Jews murdered was greater, their dispossession was greater, and their suffering was greater.

War of Extermination Against the Jews

A long series of massacres was perpetrated against the Jews in Arab countries. The Jews did not declare war on the countries in which they lived, but were loyal citizens. Unfortunately, that did not help them; their suffering was erased, their story never told.

A stunning testimonial from those years, which actually comes from the Arab side, sheds light on the issue. In 1936, Alawite notables sent a letter to the French Foreign Minister in which they expressed their concern for the future of the region. They also referred to the Jewish question:

“The Jews brought civilization and peace to the Arab Muslims, and they dispersed gold and prosperity over Palestine without damage to anyone or taking anything by force. Despite this, the Muslims declared holy war against them and did not hesitate to massacre their children and women … Thus, a black fate awaits the Jews in case the Mandates are cancelled and Muslim Syria unites with Muslim Palestine.”

We must remember what happened just a few hours after the declaration of Israel’s independence on May 15, 1948. The Secretary of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzamaha, announced the declaration of war against Israel: “This war will be a war of annihilation and the story of the slaughter will be told like the campaigns of the Mongols and the Crusaders.” Similarly, the Mufti, Haj Amin Al Husseini, who was close to Hitler during World War II, proclaimed a mini-Holocaust of the Jews in Arab countries: “I am declaring a holy war. My brother Muslims! Slaughter the Jews! Kill them all!”

Research that was conducted by Prof. Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General, shows that the Arab League formulated a bill that would place a series of sanctions on the Jews, including confiscation of property and bank accounts. The preamble to the bill stated, “All Jews will be considered members of the Jewish minority in the State of Palestine.” The bill was indeed the background to the sanctions against the Jews in Arab countries. According to the industry of lies, the Jews in Arab countries lived peacefully in their environment, under the protection of the government. It was only because of the Zionist movement and the harm done to the Arabs in Palestine that the Jews began to suffer.

This lie has been repeated innumerable times. True, Jews in Arab countries did not undergo the horrors of the Holocaust. But, even before the advent of Zionism, their situation was not any better. There were periods in which the Jews enjoyed relative peace under Muslim rule, but those periods were the exceptions. Jews in Muslim lands experienced humiliations, expulsions, pogroms and a systematic deprivation of rights.

Treatment of Jews in Muslim Lands Pre-1948

Conflict against the Jews can be traced back to the days of Muhammad. Muhammad wanted to convert the Jews, but they refused. The result was a confrontation that ended with the expulsion and slaughter of hundreds.

The Jews, as “People of the Book,” were given the right to live under the protection of Islam and to practice their religion. In many cases, the Jews lived as protected people (“Dhimmis”), albeit with inferior status (and even this was not always afforded).

Jewish prosperity under Muslim rule in Spain is considered proof of coexistence between Jews and Muslims. However, the reality was different. It encompassed a series of violent attacks against Jews. In 1011 in Cordoba, under Muslim rule, hundreds to thousands of Jews were murdered in pogroms. In 1066 in Granada, Yosef Hanagid was executed, along with 4,000-6,000 Jews. One of the worst periods began in 1148, with the rise of the Almohad dynasty (al Muwahhidūn), and lasted during the 12th and 13th centuries in Spain and North Africa.

Similarly, Jews of Morocco suffered from the worst series of massacres. In the 8th century, whole communities were wiped out by Idris the First. In 1033, in the city of Fez, 6,000 Jews were murdered by a Muslim mob. The rise of the Almohad dynasty produced waves of mass murders. According to testimony from that time, many Jews were slaughtered in Fez and in Marrakesh. In 1465, another massacre took place in Fez, which spread to other cities in Morocco.

There were pogroms in Tetuan in 1790 and 1792, in which children were murdered, women raped and property looted. Between 1864 and 1880, a series of pogroms against the Jews of Marrakesh, left hundreds slaughtered. In 1903, Jews were killed in pogroms in Taza and Settat.

In 1907, there was a pogrom in Casablanca in which 30 Jews were killed and many women were raped. In 1912, there was another massacre in Fez in which 60 Jews were killed and about 10,000 were left homeless. In 1948, another series of pogroms began against the Jews which led to the slaughter of 42 in the cities of Oujda and Jrada.

Similar pogroms and systematic discrimination took place in Algeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Egypt. Tens of thousands were murdered simply because they were Jewish. (See the footnote below for expanded detail on this). The fairytale of Moslem-Jewish coexistence in Arab lands, and the blaming of Zionism for undermining that coexistence, is yet another baseless myth.

Treatment of Jews after the Creation of Israel

Before the UN vote on partition in November 1947, Egypt’s ambassador to the UN, Heykal Pasha, warned, “The lives of a million Jews in Muslim countries will be in danger if the vote is for partition… if Arab blood is spilled in Palestine, Jewish blood will be spilled elsewhere in the world.” Four days afterwards, the Iraqi foreign minister, Muhammad Fadil al Jamali said, “We will not be able to restrain the masses in the Arab countries, after the harmony in which Jews and Arabs lived together.”

As shown above, there was no prior harmony. There had been a massacre of Jews just a few years earlier. El Jamali lied, as the same Iraqi government had encouraged the harassment of Jews and issued orders to confiscate all Jewish property.

Additionally, the Iraqi leader of the time, Nuri Said, had already presented a plan for expelling the Jews in 1949, even before the hasty – actually forced – exit of the Jews from Iraq. He also explained, “The Jews are a source of trouble in Iraq. They have no place among us. We must get rid of them as best as we are able.” Said even presented a plan to lead the Jews via Jordan in order to coerce them into passage to Israel. Jordan objected, but the expulsion was implemented anyway. Said even admitted that this entailed a type of population exchange.

The massacres, the pogroms, and the great expulsion of Jews after partition were a continuation of their suffering under Muslim rule.

There have always been Muslims who came out in defense of the Jews, who are worthy of mention. There were also periods of prosperity, however, most of this prosperity – as in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s, in Algeria in the 19th and 20th centuries, and in Iraq in the 1920s – was under colonial rule. In most cases, the situation of the Jews was bad before the European invasion and worsened once again with the end of the colonial era.

No Jewish Pogroms

Throughout the relations between Jews and Arabs, in Arab countries or in Israel, there was not one case of a Jewish pogrom against Muslims of the type committed by the Arabs against the Jews. Even in worst cases, such as Deir Yassin, on April 9, 1948 which must be condemned, they occurred as part of a military confrontation.

While such cases that should be condemned, Arab slaughter of Jews differed because they occurred simply because they were Jews. Arabs were killed as part of military campaigns. Despite this, any injury inflicted on the Arab population resulted in innumerable investigations and references. The worst abuse of all, the abuse of Jews by Arabs, was erased and forgotten.

The Deir Yassin massacre, the ultimate symbol of the Nakba, has become one of the milestones in the Palestinian Nakba. There is no need to hide what occurred (even though the issue of the massacre is in dispute). Innocent people were killed, and there were other instances of abhorrent behavior.

It was an immoral act, but we must note that it was preceded by a series of murderous terrorist attacks against the civilian population. Waves of incidents, pogroms by an incited mob, attacked the civilian population. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered – women, children and the elderly.

The months before Deir Yassin were the worst of all. Thirty-nine workers were murdered at the Haifa refineries, 50 Jews were killed by car bombs in Jerusalem, to name only two instances. In total, in the four months between the vote on partition and the declaration of establishment of the State of Israel, 815 Jews were murdered, most of them before the Deir Yassin incident, some afterwards (the slaughter of the Hadassah hospital convoy, 79 killed, April 13, 1948). Most were civilians. Most died in massacres and terrorist attacks.

There were far more murdered Jews. But they have all been forgotten. Moreover, close to a million Jews lived in Arab countries at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel. Only a few remain today. Most left the Arab countries because they suffered from pogroms and threats to their lives. That is the Jewish Nakba, whose victims, in Israel and around the world, are mentioned less and less. It was a crueler expulsion than the one suffered by the Arabs of Palestine, who paid the price for the declarations of war and annihilation made by their leaders.

Various investigators have tried to estimate the value of the confiscated Jewish property following the forced departure of the Jews from Arab countries, compared with the Arab property left in Israel following the forced departure of the Arabs. Economist Sidney Zabludoff, an international expert in the field, estimates that the value of the Arab property is $3.9 billion, compared with the value of the Jewish property which is $6 billion (at 2007 values).

So even in this area, the Palestinians’ claims are refuted. They dragged the Arab countries into war. They paid the price. And they are the ones who caused the Jews to pay an even higher price, both in property and in blood.


This article is not intended to cultivate a self-pitying Jewish narrative of Nakba and victim-hood. The purpose is the opposite: To demonstrate that suffering, expulsion, loss of property, and loss of life, is not the monopoly of one side.

Once this is clearly understood, perhaps the Arabs and especially the Palestinians will realize that the past is a matter best left for the history books. If, however, we embark on a political accounting and roll its debts forward to present-day diplomacy – well, then, they are in overdraft and are in our debt. The Jewish Nakba was far greater.

It is therefore worth presenting the story of the Jewish Nakba. Not for the purpose of increasing hostility, but for the purpose of presenting the truth, and for the purpose of reconciliation between the nations. Inshallah.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation.

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Ben-Dror Yemini

Ben-Dror Yemini is the long-time opinion page editor of the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv.