Religious Life

The Expulsion of Jews From Arab Lands

The Expulsion of Jews From Arab Lands
7 Kislev 5778
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Vayeitzei, our ancestors left. They left Iraq where a large community of Jews lived for 2600 years. In June 1941, violent riots known as the Farhud erupted targeting the Jewish population, mainly in Bagdad. Killing 179 innocent people, injuring more than 2,100 and leaving 242 children orphans, this act of violence was celebrated across the Arab world and in Nazi Germany.

At the same time in Egypt, thousands of Egyptian Jews were put into internment camps, forced from their jobs, and arrested for supposed collaboration with an enemy state. Synagogues, Jewish homes, and businesses were bombed; many Jews were killed and wounded. And so, vayeitzei there too, our ancestors left.

Vayeitzei. In Yemen, at the end of November 1947, the Arab population decided to hold a 3-day strike in protest against UN Resolution 181, the Partition Plan. The protest quickly turned violent. Over 80 innocent Yemeni Jews were slaughtered, over 100 Jewish-owned businesses were completely looted, and homes, schools, and synagogues were burnt to the ground.

Vayeitzei, our ancestors left. They left behind their family and friends, their homes and their homeland in search of safety and security. From Libya, to Algeria, to Morocco, the stories are unique and yet largely the same. And they are stories worth remembering at this time of year and on this Shabbat.

On Thursday, we celebrated Thanksgiving and recalled the American exodus story, the story of pilgrims who fled the religious persecution of their homeland. They came to these shores looking for freedom and new opportunities. And over the centuries, wave after wave of immigrants and refugees followed suit arriving here and dreaming of a new life.

This coming Thursday marks another migration whose story is less well known- the flight of Jews from Arab lands. Though most of us are not Mizrachi Jews, it is nevertheless, incumbent upon us to know this story. Because it is our people’s history, bound to Israel’s history, because knowing this story instills in us gratitude for the freedom we enjoy, and because it teaches us to care for the stranger, “for we were once strangers in a strange land.”

I recognize that we are approaching Chanukkah not Pesach. Still, I can’t help but hear in our parasha echoes of the Passover story. The vayetzei-yitziat mitzrayim connection is made in a passage in the hagadah that links Jacob and Lavan to the Israelites and Pharoah. More on that later.

For now, a bit of background. We must understand that Jews lived peacefully in North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. In fact, Jews inhabited these lands for hundreds years before the birth of Islam. In those centuries, they were far better off than their fellow Jews in Europe under the Church. But with the rise of Arab nationalism in the 20th century, the place of Jews in Arab countries became more tenuous.

In retaliation for the UN vote and for Israel’s victory in the War of Independence, a series of attacks and measures began that threatened to destroy Jewish communities throughout the Arab world. State-sanctioned pogroms descended upon Jewish neighborhoods killing innocents and destroying ancient synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. Laws prevented Jews from public worship, forced them to carry Jewish identity cards, and seized billions of dollars in their property and assets. The total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles


Thus began a mass exodus. In 1948, there were 286,000 Jews in Morocco. By 1968, only 50,000 remained. In Algeria, there were 130,000. Twenty years later, only 1,500 were left. Over that same period, the 75,000 Jews of Egypt shrunk to just 1000. In all, some 850,000 Jews fled leaving behind, just 8,500 Jews today in Arab lands. Most went to Israel though many went to France and North America including members of our congregation, like the Mashaals and the family of Camille Kahn.

For some, this history is new. For others, it is known. But in either case, as a people, we have tended to disregard or down play this story. Have you ever been to a major museum or monument commemorating the expulsion and absorption of these Jews? European Jews wrote poems, they collected stories and made films to recount their story. But the story of Jews of Arab lands was largely ignored.

And I am not totally sure why. Perhaps these Jews were too busy starting life over and building a State to make a fuss over what happened. Perhaps they were traumatized and wanted to forget all that befell them. Perhaps it wasn’t in their nature to play the victim. Perhaps we tried to hide this story out of embarrassment for the cool reception we offered these “oriental” Jews and discrimination we imposed upon them. Perhaps we suppressed the story out of concern that this Jewish Nakba, this Jewish tragedy might be used to justify the displacement Palestinians in 1948.

Today, we need not be embarrassed by this story nor hide from it. This is our story, our history, our people. Indeed, back to our earliest days, we have been a wandering people.

“Tzei ulmad. Go out and learn.” This is a common Talmudic phrase instructing and inviting us to explore, to open ourselves to learning. Note, we do not say, “Come listen.” We are asked to go forth, to seek new understanding, to leave behind preconceived opinions and search for explanations. Apparently, not all wanderings are bad because in the process, we learn and grow. Such was the case for Jacob.

“Tzei ulmad mabikesh lavan haarami laasot l’yaakov avinu. Go and see what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob.” In its appearance in the hagaddah, this passage speaks of Lavan’s attempt to destroy Jacob and his family. We read about Lavan’s trickery in our parsha. In the eyes of the rabbis, Lavan was worse than Pharoah for he tried not just to enslave but to destroy the Jewish people. Thus, in the hagaddah, “arami oved avi” means, “an Aramean (Lavan) sought to destroy my father Jacob.”

But in its original context in Deuteronomy, this passage is presented as a concise encapsulation of Jewish history. Biblical pilgrims made their way to the Temple with the bounty of their field and recited these words before the kohanim, “Arami oved avi- My father was a wandering Aramean.” To whom does it refer? Rashi says it refers to Jacob. That makes sense. Jacob was told “berakh lekha, flee,” escape from here. And so Jacob left Canaan and wandered through foreign lands. Rashbam, on the other hand, says that the verse refers to Abraham, the original “Wandering Man.” Abraham is told “lekh lekha, go forth” so he took his family wandered from place to place.

Both explanations make sense. But I prefer the interpretation of 19th century Italian commentator, Shadal, Moshe Chayim Luzatto, who wrote, “the verse speaks of avi my father in the general sense without listing a specific father in order to include all of the patriarchs because all of them wandered from nation to nation.” And what was true of our avot was true of all of our ancestors. We are descendants of refugees and immigrants, of families who willingly and often unwillingly packed up and moved on from one land to the next: from Israel, to Babyolnia, to Spain, to Germany, to Poland, to Argentina and Australia, to America and to Israel.

Now take a moment to picture the pilgrim making his way to Jerusalem. In Temple days, he likely farmed on the same plot of land his father and mother had farmed many generations back. Still, he had to acknowledge that this history was his history. Before offering his first fruits in gratitude to God, he declares, “avi my father, my father was as a refugee, my mother was an immigrant.”

There is one more thing about this passage worth noting. The pilgrim had to share this story out loud. It was not enough for him to remember it to himself. He had to publically tell the story. In other places, at other times the Torah clearly calls upon us to remember. But these words are to be spoken. As Rabbi David Silber explains in his hagaddah, Tzei Ulmad, “remembering is an activity that can be done privately whereas telling requires the presence of another.” In truth, we are obligated to remember our history every day of the year. But once a year, we must tell it.

Thus today after recounting our American tale how our ancestors left the pogroms of Poland and set sail for Ellis Island, we tell the story of the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands. And the date is significant, not because of Thanksgiving, but because of what happened 70 years ago. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly approved the partition of Palestine and the creation of the Jewish State. As you know, it was immediately and unanimously rejected by Arab nations. Together with other events, it lit the spark that led to the eventual destruction of these Jewish communities. Not coincidentally, the Kenesset officially dedicated November 30 as yom hayitziah v’hageirush yehudim m’artzot arav as the day to commemorate the exodus and expulsion of Jews from Arab lands.

Today, we are rightly concerned over the fate of refugees around the world. It is davaka because of our history and because of our Torah that we take special interest in their plight and we fight for their rights. At the same time, we must reclaim and know our people’s story, im ein ani li mi li, for no one else will. Indeed, we must point out the hypocrisy of the UN which has discussed the status of Palestinian refugees 197 times since 1946 but has never discussed the flight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

It is no coincidence that the same passage “my father was a refugee” is also understood to mean, “they tried to uproot and destroy us.” For, the two form the reoccurring pattern of Jewish history. You know the old joke, “they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.” In some cases, as we are reminded of this Shabbat, the story is slightly different: “they tried to kill us, we left, let’s eat.” On Thanksgiving as on Jewish holidays, many of us tend to focus on the “let’s eat.” But truly, our story is meant to be the main course.

Shabbat Shalom.