Not long after Yeshua walked the earth, the Jewish people were scattered in what would become known as the second exile, the first being the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. The diaspora was flung far and wide – north, south, east and west of Israel, just as God promised. Where they went and what happened next is a bit of a mystery to many. But it doesn’t have to be – their steps have been well documented.
Mizrachi Jews, Jews of the East
Many Jewish people ended up in what would eventually become Muslim countries; Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, and so on. Some Jews that were taken out of Israel in the first exile of 586 BC never returned, choosing to settle in Iran and Iraq and establishing large communities there. Jewish people lived and thrived in many different countries, and often enjoyed success and security in the places where they settled. There are Jewish gravestones in Iran that are some 2500 years old, meaning that Jewish communities have been there far longer than the Muslim conquerors that arrived in the seventh century from Arabia. Jews have also lived in Tunisia since 200 BC, in Libya since the third century BC and in Syria since 500 BC, as well as other countries of the Middle East, many centuries before Islam.
In short, there have been Jewish communities living in many different Middle Eastern countries for more than 2,300 years. As Islam spread, there was a point in history when almost all of the Jewish diaspora found themselves in Muslim countries, and the truth is that Muslims were often kinder to their Jewish communities than Christian countries had been.
Over time, many Jews headed west to Europe and north to Russia, but some later headed back to Turkey, Greece and the Middle East after experiencing persecution and expulsions in Europe. Few people realize that over 50% of Israel’s Jewish population did not come from Europe but from Middle Eastern countries.
It’s a story that many never get to hear about, but now each year, on 30th November, Israel has determined to commemorate the time when 850,000 Jewish people were expelled from Muslim lands, most of whom found refuge in Israel.
“The lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries will be jeopardized by partition,” warned Egypt’s delegate to the UN. The Muslim nations were furious about the Partition Plan of 29th November 1947, a resolution giving Jewish people part of the Holy Land, and vowed there would be consequences. It was no idle threat. Jewish people living in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Yemen, Morocco, Algeria and many other lands were forcibly expelled and in many cases their bank accounts frozen and their property seized. There were riots, pogroms and massacres. Jews were horrifically persecuted, and discriminated against by law in many places. Almost a million Jewish people were suddenly homeless and penniless, forced to make their way back to the land of their forefathers.
“The Jews had been in Iraq for more than two and a half millennia, since it was called Babylon, and remembered in Psalms. For centuries it was the centre of Jewish learning… In the 40s, everything changed. Nazism, Arab-nationalism and anti-Zionist feeling created a wave of anti-semitism. Violent pogroms flared up, young Jewish men were publicly hanged, Jews were forced from jobs. By the 1970s nearly all had left, many in 1951 when 110,000 people were flown to safety in Israel… Now those few Jews who remain are hidden away. They will certainly be the last of the ancient Babylonian Jewish line, says Canon Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’.”
Persecution, murder and theft began long before 1947
Six years before the UN partition plan of 1947, some 180 Jews were murdered in Iraq by Arab rioters in a pogrom (or farhud – an ancient word that means “violent dispossession of the governed”), 2,000 were injured and tens of thousands of others were robbed. “Like all the Jews, we shut ourselves up in the house because we were afraid,” Gladys Cohen recalled at a ceremony to mark the tragedies of the Mizrachi Jews. “I was 10 years old and asked what happened. They told me the Arabs had risen up against the Jews to hurt them, and all the Jews were running to hide.” She told of the horrors of old people and infants beaten to death, and her husband and his brother were taken and “disappeared”, never to be seen again.
Moriah Akiva remembers as a little girl seeing angry mobs beating Jewish people violently in the streets, one holding a severed baby’s leg in the air. Janet Bracha from Basra remembers her father’s shop being broken into and all the money taken from the cash register and half the merchandise. There was nothing they could do about it.
Even further back, despite the fact that there is often a cosy picture painted of coexistence under the Ottomans, the truth is that Jews were second class citizens under Muslim rule, even if it was a preferable situation to the extreme violence and persecution they experienced at the hands of Christian countries. Equal rights were only introduced across the Ottoman Empire in 1839 due to pressure from Europe on the Turks, who needed support in the struggle against Egypt.
“At the time of the Ottoman Empire the Jews’ fate depended on the Governor’s mood and whim and the amount of corruption that he exacted. So when there was a lull in the persecution – bless them – they called it “the golden age”. It was not a golden age. It was an age when the Jews were persecuted less,” writes Moshe Kahtan, Iraqi-born British Jew.
Jewish communities over 2,000 years old have been virtually wiped out across the Middle East
In 1917 the Jews comprised a third of Baghdad’s population, now only seven remain. It is a similar story in almost every country in the Middle East. Persecution, legally endorsed oppression and murderous riots have resulted in the Jewish people having to flee for their lives, often leaving with nothing.
|Jewish population in 1948
|Jewish population in 2017
Go back to Poland?
It is pure ignorance to think that Israel is a matter of European colonialism, housing Germans and Polish Jews in a Middle Eastern country that is not their own as a guilt response to the Holocaust. The Jewish people were scattered in all directions, and have been regathered back to their original homeland. A Jewish homeland was secured in the land of their fathers many years before the Holocaust, thanks to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and over half of the Jews who came to Israel were not fleeing the Nazis, but were forcibly expelled from Middle Eastern countries. And they cannot go back.
“It will also come about in that day that my Lord will again redeem
—a second time with His hand—the remnant of His people who remain
from Assyria, from Egypt, from North Africa, from Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Syria,
and from the islands of the sea.
He will lift up a banner for the nations, and assemble the dispersed of Israel,
and gather the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”
As hard as these tragic events have been, we can see God’s hand at work, redeeming and working despite some of mankind’s worst inhumanity. He is bringing his people home, just as he promised, from the north, south, east and west.
“While our brethren, the Jews of Europe, were persecuted and slaughtered, hatred and incitement came to us in the Arab countries,” said Janet Dallal, who had organised an event to commemorate the expulsion and flight of the 850,000 Mizrachi Jews. Janet had fled with her family from Iraq, and told HaAretz, “Every community dealt with it differently but, ultimately, there was an ingathering of the exiles. I don’t know whether it was thanks to Hitler or [Grand Mufti of Jerusalem] Haj Amin al-Husseini, but out of the bitter came the sweet.”
“When he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord.” (Hosea 11:10-11)
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 Lecture at the University of Haifa by Isaac Yomtovian, author of My Iran, 19 November 2017
 The Last Jews of Iraq, Producer: Hannah Marshall, A Loftus Audio production for BBC Radio 4.
 HaAretz, Jews of Arab Lands Israel Commemorates Flight of 850,000 Jews From Arab, Muslim Countries, Ofer Aderet, Nov 30, 2015
 Cited in “In Ishmael’s House, A History of Jews in Muslim Lands”, Martin Gilbert (Yale University Press, 2010)
 Ibid, p.80
 In Isaiah 11:11, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, and Hamath”, are ancient names for North Africa / Northern Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran / Persia, the Babylon area in Iraq, and Syria respectively.
Table compiled using statistics from Jewish Virtual Library and Stand With Us