The Baghdadis, a Jewish family in Aleppo, Syria, around 1940. In Aleppo, and in other cities and towns across north Africa and the Middle East, some 850,000 Jews were pushed out of their homes beginning in the mid-20th century. (Courtesy of Asher Ron)
On May 15, many in the Arab world and elsewhere mark the Nakba, or the “Catastrophe,” mourning the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war with Israel. This year, as always, the commemoration will obscure the collapse at the same time of a different Arab society that few remember.
I have spent a great deal of time in the past four years interviewing people born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. Some of these people, most of whom are now in their eighties, are descended from families with roots in Aleppo going back more than two millennia, to Roman times. None of them lives there now.
On November 30, 1947, a day after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews, Aleppo erupted. Mobs stalked Jewish neighborhoods, looting houses and burning synagogues; one man I interviewed remembered fleeing his home, a barefoot nine-year-old, moments before it was set on fire. Abetted by the government, the rioters burned 50 Jewish shops, five schools, 18 synagogues and an unknown number of homes. The next day the Jewish community’s wealthiest families fled, and in the following months the rest began sneaking out in small groups, most of them headed to the new state of Israel. They forfeited their property, and faced imprisonment or torture if they were caught. Some disappeared en route. But the risk seemed worthwhile: in Damascus, the capital, rioters killed 13 Jews, including eight children, in August 1948, and there were similar events in other Arab cities.
At the time of the UN vote, there were about 10,000 Jews in Aleppo. By the mid-1950s there were 2,000, living in fear of the security forces and the mob. By the early 1990s no more than a handful remained, and today there are none. Similar scripts played out across the Islamic world. Some 850,000 Jews were forced from their homes.
If we are to fully understand the Israel-Arab conflict, the memory of these people and their exodus must be acknowledged — not as a political weapon, a negotiating tactic or as part of a competition about who suffered more, but simply as history without which it is impossible to understand Israel and the way the Arab world sees it.
Everyone knows the Palestinian refugees are part of the equation of Mideast peace, and anyone who is interested can visit a Palestinian refugee camp and hear true and wrenching stories of expulsion and loss. Among the Jews expelled by Arabs, on the other hand, one can find few who think of themselves as refugees or define themselves by their dispossession. Most are citizens of Israel.
Of the 20 families in my fairly average Jerusalem apartment building, half are in Israel because of the Arab expulsion of Jews, and that is representative of Israel as a whole. According to the Israeli demographer Sergio dellaPergola of Hebrew University, though intermarriage over two or three generations has muddled the statistics, roughly half of the 6 million Jews in Israel today came from the Muslim world or are descended from people who did. Many Arabs, and many Israelis, consider Israel a Western enclave in the Middle East. But these numbers do not support that view.
These Jews have shaped Israel and are a key force in the country’s political life. They also make Israel very different from the American Jewish community, which is overwhelmingly rooted in Europe. They are a pillar of Israel’s right wing, particularly of the Likud party. They maintain a wary view of Israel’s neighbors — a view that has been strengthened by the actions of the Palestinians but that is rooted in their own historical experience and in what might be considered an instinctive understanding of the region’s unkind realities.
The legacy of their exodus in the countries they left behind is harder to detect, but it, too, is significant.
In many Arab towns and cities there is an area where Jews used to live. In some cities, like Cairo, this area is still called harat al-yahud, the Jewish Quarter. Reporting there several years ago I found people who could show me the location of a certain abandoned synagogue, which they knew by name. A man who once showed me around Fez, Morocco, knew exactly where the old Jewish neighborhood, the mellah, had been, though there was not a single Jew there and had not been for many years. There are remnants like this in Aleppo, Tripoli, Baghdad and elsewhere. The people who live in or around the Jews’ old homes still know who used to own them and how they left; this extinct Jewish world might have been forgotten elsewhere, but millions in the Arab world see evidence of it every day.
As I have reported this nearly invisible story, it has occured to me that we often hate most the things or people that remind us of something we dislike about ourselves, and that here lies one of the hidden dynamics of the Israel-Arab conflict. It is one papered over by the simple narrative of Nakba Day, which posits that a foreign implant displaced a native community in 1948 and that the Palestinian Arabs are paying the price for the European Holocaust. This narrative, chiefly designed to appeal to Western guilt, also conveniently erases the uncomfortable truth that half of Israel’s Jews are there not because of the Nazis but because of the Arabs themselves.
Israel is not as foreign to the Middle East as many of its neighbors like to pretend, and more than one native community was displaced in 1948. If many in the Arab world insist, as they do each Nakba Day, that Israel is a Western invader that must be repelled, it is a claim that belongs to the realm not only of politics but of psychology — one that helps repress their own knowledge that the country they try to portray as alien is also the vengeful ghost of the neighbors they wronged.