Israel's advent altered outlook for Middle East Jews

(This is the first story in a special series running this week to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary)

A shepherd tends his sheep at a Jewish cemetery near the port city of Sidon in south Lebanon May 2, 2008. The ruined cemetery lies by the sea in Sidon, the worn Hebrew inscriptions on the headstones a reminder of Lebanon's once-thriving Jewish minority, which has all but vanished since the state of Israel emerged 60 years ago. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) - A ruined cemetery lies by the sea in Sidon, the worn Hebrew inscriptions on the headstones a reminder of Lebanon’s once-thriving Jewish minority, which has all but vanished since the state of Israel emerged 60 years ago.

The graveyard sits in wasteland across the road from an unstable mountain of garbage piled over rubble collected from buildings destroyed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

“The Israeli troops came and looked after the cemetery,” recalled Mohammed al-Sarji, a Sidon environmentalist and film-maker. “After they left in 1985, it was neglected.”

The 1948 war at Israel’s creation, which forced some 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homeland, hardened Arab attitudes to deep-rooted Jewish minorities across the Middle East.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews were displaced. Some migrated voluntarily from mainly Muslim countries to the newly proclaimed Jewish homeland. Others were forced out by dispossession, discrimination or violence. Thousands stayed on.

Israeli statistics show more than 760,000 Middle Eastern Jews had moved to Israel by 2006, with more than 40 percent arriving in the first three years of the state’s existence.

Over the last six decades of Middle East tension, Jewish communities have dwindled to insignificance in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but cling on in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and non-Arab Iran and Turkey.

Iran, seen by Israel as its deadliest foe, hosts 22,000 to 25,000 Jews, down from at least 85,000 before the 1979 Islamic revolution, when many went to the United States. Today, it is the biggest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel.

Morris Mottamed, who formerly held the Jewish seat in Iran’s parliament, noted that post-revolutionary turmoil and economic factors had prompted emigration among other minorities too.

Discrimination was not behind the Jewish outflow, he argued, adding that Iranian Jews enjoyed freedom of worship, education and travel. Their numbers had been stable for five years.

“I’m sure in future also there will be a very strong community of Jewish people in Iran,” Mottamed told Reuters.

Asked about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” he said he disagreed with it.

The United States says such hostility to Israel creates a threatening atmosphere for Iranian Jews. It also says they and other minorities suffer discrimination. Tehran denies this.


Morocco, which has warmer ties with Israel than most Arab countries, was home to around 400,000 Jews before 1948.

But after waves of migration, fewer than 4,000 remain, the residue of a 2,000-year history of peaceful, if unequal, cohabitation interspersed with episodes of bloody repression.

In the past, Moroccan Jews were considered subordinate to Muslims and discrimination was widespread. Every city has its Mellah, the poorest quarter to which Jews were once confined. Their residents were the first to leave when they could.

A Jewish cemetery, community centre and restaurant were among targets of Islamist suicide bombers who killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003. But such violence against Jews is rare.

“There is no anti-Semitism in Morocco,” Simon Levy, 75, who chairs the Moroccan Museum of Judaism in Casablanca, told Le Soir daily. “There is a growing Islamist sentiment, and the Muslim has this certainty he is better than everyone else.”

But Morocco remains Levy’s home: “I made my choice long ago to stay in this country as a Moroccan, like my ancestors.”

Tunisia’s 2,000 Jews live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors, reflecting the policy of its secular government.

“We are doing our best to teach our children the Jewish religion as Muslims learn their religion,” said David Didoshim, headmaster of a Jewish school on the island of Djerba.

The community was jolted when an al Qaeda suicide bomber attacked a Djerba synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people.

Yet Hayim Haddad, a Jewish resident, said no Jews had left the island afterwards. “All the people know how much we are attached to our country Tunisia, whatever happens,” he added.

Tunisian Jews numbered 100,000 until the North African country won independence in 1956. Most then moved to France.


Conflict in Palestine in the 1930s made life harder for Egyptian Jews, as militant nationalist groups became active.

Israel’s advent in 1948 and the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 added to their difficulties. In 1948, there were bomb attacks in Jewish areas and some Jews were killed in riots.

Jewish emigration accelerated after Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 and economic pressures mounted at home.

Many Jewish residents were entrepreneurs without Egyptian citizenship who opted to leave after the government nationalized their businesses and seized their wealth. Some were held in detention centers and coerced into leaving the country.

Egypt was home to 75,000 to 80,000 Jews in 1922. Today, only about 30 still live in Cairo, mostly ageing women with Muslim or Christian husbands. A few more than that survive in Alexandria.

Magda Haroun Silvera said she had often met bureaucratic obstacles when renewing her passport or identity card.

“My birth certificate says I was born in the Israeli hospital so they always ask me if I am really Egyptian. People have forgotten how big the Jewish community once was,” she said.

She said she had retained her Jewish identity despite marrying a Muslim and later a Catholic.

“My daughters are Muslims by their father. I tried to raise them with an open mind. In our household we do Ramadan, Christmas and then the Jewish feasts with my mother,” she said.

Silvera said the Jews of Egypt “do not relate to Israel” because they had mixed marriages and were attached to Egypt.


Only 200 to 300 Jews live in Yemen, remnants of a community that spoke a form of ancient Hebrew as a living tongue. About 50,000 moved to Israel thanks to an airlift begun in 1949.

Yemeni Jews say they have lived peacefully with their Muslim compatriots over the years, but in 2007 about 45 were evacuated from the north after attacks from rebel Zaidi Muslim tribesmen.

In Iraq, a Jewish community that traced its history back to Babylonian times has all but evaporated. Over 120,000 were flown to Israel after 1948 when government persecution intensified.

Some Iraqi and Syrian Jews made their way to Lebanon in the 1940s, boosting that country’s Jewish community to 14,000, and about 6,000 of them subsequently moved on to Israel.

Lebanese Jewish migration began in earnest after the 1967 Middle East war brought Palestinian guerrillas and more refugees to Lebanon, hastening its slide towards the 1975-90 civil war.

Several leaders of Lebanon’s rapidly shrinking Jewish community were kidnapped and killed by pro-Iranian Shi’ite militant groups that sprang up after Israel’s 1982 invasion.

Today only a few dozen Jews are thought to remain.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Tom Pfeiffer in Rabat, Jonathan Wright in Cairo, Lin Noueihed in Dubai and Peter Graff in Baghdad