On Passover, remembering these three Arab Jewish communities

Published April 11th, 2017 - 12:03 GMT
Libyan Holocaust survivors returning to the country from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945. (Yad Vashem)
Libyan Holocaust survivors returning to the country from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945. (Yad Vashem)

Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals, began yesterday evening at sundown, and continues today. It is traditionally celebrated to mark the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt, as told in the book of Exodus.

Jewish families across the world come together for the holiday and hold a special meal, known as a seder, where the story of Passover is retold.

While Jewish communities thrive today in many parts of the world - the two biggest are in the US and in Israel - many Jewish communities in the Arab world have all but disappeared in the last century.

Here are three places in the Middle East where today Jewish life is just a shadow of its former self:

Iraq

When the British arrived in Baghdad in 1917, Jews made up 20% of the city’s population: about 80,000 people. Iraq’s Jewish community was one of the oldest in the world, tracing their history back to Babylonian captivity, around 585BC.

Following the founding of Israel in 1948, after a war that saw the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from the area that became the Jewish state, Jews in Baghdad began to suffer reprisals and repression. As a result, a 130,000 Iraqi Jews chose to leave Iraq and were airlifted to Israel between 1951 and 1952.

When Saddam Hussein came to power, less than 10,000 Jews remained in the country. His Ba’ath regime redoubled the persecution of the community, hanging nine Jews publicly on false charges of spying for Israel in 1969.

The number of Jews in Baghdad after the American invasion and subsequent civil war is reportedly less than ten.

Amongst Iraqi Jews in Israel there is reportedly a revived interest in their history and culture after a period of its suppression, due to pressure to assimilate into Israeli society.

Yemen

Another Arab Jewish community that was brought to Israel in the years following the state’s creation were the Yemenites. They also traced their history back to the ancient times - possibly even before the destruction by the Babylonians of the first Temple in Jerusalem.

Following the decision by the UN to partition Palestine on November 29 1947, an anti-Semitic pogrom broke out in the southern port city of Aden. In three days of rioting, 87 Jews were killed, and survivors said that the British authorities did nothing to stop the violence.

Israeli governmental and non-governmental organizations organized the airlift of 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.

Some Yemenite Jewish families have alleged that their children were taken from them once they arrived in Israel. Documents released from the state’s archives reportedly showed negligence but not an organized initiative, as had been alleged.

19 Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel from the country last year, bringing with them their Torah scroll. 50 Jews reportedly remain in Yemen.

In 2015, three Yemenite sisters had Israel’s first Arabic-language number one with this song:

Libya

Another country where Jews have an ancient history, Libya was an Italian colony at the beginning of World War 2. 30,000 Jews lived in the country, and from 1940 they came under anti-Semitic restrictions ordered by the fascist government.

Through the course of the war, the country’s Jews would be used for forced labour, sent to concentration camps in the desert, and deported to European concentration camps. Some Libyan Jews ended up in Bergen-Belsen, although they miraculously managed to survive.

Of the 2,600 Libyan Jews sent to Jado concentration camp, in the desert, 562 died.

After the founding of Israel in 1948, anti-Semitic violence broke out in Libya, leaving at least a dozen dead. Soon after, the majority of Jews fled to Israel.

Of 4,000 Jews left at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, only 100 remained by the time Moammar Gadaffi took power in 1969. The dictator further tightened legal restrictions on the community, and by 2004 there were reportedly no Jews left in the country.

A recent memoir, Libyan Twilight, by Raphael Luzon, tells the story of the country's Jewish community from the point of view of its author, who left the country after the pogroms of 1967.

Jacob Burns

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