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The Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands:
Toward Redressing Injustices on All Sides

Filed under: Antisemitism, Radical Islam, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 12, No. 21     11 September 2012

  • For over 2,500 years, Jewish communities have existed in the lands now known as the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Iran. Around one million Jews lived there at the start of the twentieth century; today less than 3 percent of that one million still remain (including Iran).
  • Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, the status of Jews in Arab countries changed dramatically. The Arab world’s rejection of the Jewish state triggered a deliberate surge in state-legislated discrimination and abuse by Arab regimes and their citizenry, making Jewish residence in Arab countries simply untenable. As a result, the Jews were expelled.
  • There were nearly twice as many Jewish refugees as Palestinian refugees, and the value of the Jewish property confiscated by Arab governments during these expulsions is estimated to be at least 50 percent higher than the assets lost by Palestinian refugees. But the plight of Jewish refugees was not widely publicized, largely because they did not remain refugees for long.
  • In 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242, which stipulates that a comprehensive peace settlement must include “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” No distinction is made between Arab refugees and Jewish refugees.
  • Today, a large portion of Israeli citizens are descendants of Jews displaced from Arab countries. The rights of these Jewish refugees (and their descendants) should be recognized and addressed by appropriate measures such as an international fund, as part of any comprehensive negotiations to resolve the overall issue of refugees.
  • Such a solution would create a connection between the Jewish and Palestinian refugee problems and would offer a holistic, comprehensive, and just solution to the refugee issue for both sides.


After Israel’s Birth, Jewish Life in Arab Lands Became Untenable

For over 2,500 years Jewish communities have existed in the lands now known as the Middle East and North Africa, in Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, as well as in Iran. All of these Jewish communities, however, were severely endangered by the events of the mid-twentieth century. The spread of Nazi propaganda and extreme Arab nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s threatened the status of Jews throughout the Middle East, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 spurred almost all of these Arab countries to declare war, or support the war, against Israel.

This anti-Zionist sentiment in the Middle East was not directed solely at the State of Israel. Jews living in Arab countries were uprooted from their homes or became subjugated political hostages. In virtually all cases in which Jews fled, their individual and communal properties were unduly seized, expropriated, or confiscated without just compensation from the relevant Arab governments. Furthermore, these Jews were the fortunate ones; many Jews did not get to leave these Arab countries but rather were imprisoned, tortured, raped or murdered.

Around one million Jews lived in the Arab lands of North Africa and the Middle East at the start of the twentieth century. By the start of the twenty-first century, less than 3 percent of that one million still remain; mostly in Iran and Morocco. Approximately 650,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1972 – two-thirds of the Jewish immigrants in this period. Israel absorbed these immigrants at great expense, without receiving compensation from the Arab and Iranian governments which confiscated their possessions.

An estimated $6 to $30 billion (in today’s prices) was left behind by the Jews of Arab countries and Iran. The demand of the Jews from Arab countries is not only for financial compensation for their property and rights. What these Jewish refugees want, most of all is redress for the historical injustice that they and their communities suffered. Thus, the demand includes an historical reckoning with the tragic events that led to the mass exodus of Jewish individuals and communities from Arab lands, many of which had hosted large and flourishing Jewish communities for more than two thousand years.

History of Jews in Arab Countries

After the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judea and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, Jews began to settle in various regions of what is now called the Middle East and North Africa. In the centuries following the Muslim conquest of the region in the seventh century CE, Jews were considered second-class subjects but were nonetheless permitted limited religious, educational, professional, and business opportunities.1

Contrary to widespread perceptions that Jews led comfortable and safe lives, the reality was that the status of Jews under Islam was often precarious. While the rules of Dhimma, or “protected minorities,” afforded to Jews and other minorities a form of conditional protection, in no way did it grant Jews treatment as dignified equals. Different Islamic regimes over the centuries imposed serious restrictions on Jews in both the legal and societal arenas. These restrictions frequently were manifested as expressions of contempt, denial of dignity, and incidents of recurring violence targeting Jewish individuals and communities.2

In the nineteenth century the establishment of colonial regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, chiefly by France and Great Britain, allowed Jews to escape the miserable conditions so often provided to them under the rules of Dhimma. Under colonial rule, Jews enhanced their everyday lives and improved their status in society. Efforts by Jewish organizations such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which set up a modern network of schools throughout the Middle East, provided Jews with technical skills to integrate in their countries’ developing economies. Jews often used their skills and knowledge of foreign languages to act as intermediaries between the European colonialists and the indigenous Muslim population, and often found work in colonial administrations. In countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Libya, Jews became a crucial element in the development of key sectors of the economy.

The post-World War I period presented mixed signals for Jews residing in Arab lands. Jews continued to prosper in the social and economic arenas. However, signs of large-scale rejection by the Muslim majority were becoming increasingly apparent. Local independence movements, which were oriented around the rejection of colonial authority, frequently adopted pan-Arab and pan-Islamic rhetoric without providing a platform to non-Muslim minorities. The best example is the Nasserite regime which promoted pan-Arab nationalism. At the time, Jews were seen as collaborators benefiting from the colonial powers, and this perception was combined with the frustration felt by the Muslim masses that Dhimma rule had been suspended in the Jews’ favor. The volatile issue of Palestine became a pivotal aspect of pan-Arab propaganda, serving to further antagonize the Arab masses against the Jewish populations living among them. In Egypt, as the partition of Palestine and the founding of Israel drew closer, hostility strengthened, fed also by the press attacks on all foreigners that accompanied the rising ethnocentric nationalism of the age.3

World War II brought increased suffering for the Jewish communities in the Arab world. Communities in German-occupied Libya and Tunisia faced persecution, and hundreds of Jews were deported to local work camps or to European extermination camps. In Algeria and Morocco, ruled by Vichy France, Jews endured years of restrictions and fear. In Iraq, nearly 200 Baghdadi Jews were killed and 1,000 injured in a violent pogrom in 1941 called the Farhud, which was initiated by Arab anti-British mobs who identified Jews as collaborators with the British.4 By the end of the war, Jews’ sense of security in their countries of residence had been seriously undermined, as had their trust in the colonial powers to defend them. Increasingly, Jews looked to Jewish sovereignty in Palestine as a solution to their plight.

The End of Normal Jewish Life in Arab Lands

The increasingly tense atmosphere surrounding the events in Palestine and Israel’s subsequent independence signaled the end of normal Jewish life in Arab lands. During the 1947 Palestine Partition debate at the United Nations, the Egyptian, Iraqi and Palestinian delegates issued violent threats against the indigenous Jewish communities of the Middle East and Africa. These threats were carried out in the weeks and months after the November 29 partition vote, as hundreds of Jews living in Arab lands were massacred in government-sponsored rioting. This resulted in thousands of injuries and millions of dollars in destroyed Jewish property.

Upon the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the status of Jews in Arab countries changed dramatically as virtually all Arab countries declared war, or backed the war, against Israel. The Arab world’s rejection of the Jewish state triggered a deliberate surge in state-legislated discrimination and abuse by Arab regimes and their citizenry, making Jewish residence in Arab countries simply untenable – as some Arab leaders, including the Secretary General of the Arab League, had threatened all along. In many cases Arab governments evicted their indigenous Jewish populations as part of an expulsion campaign. These campaigns included discriminatory legislation, confiscation of citizenship, limitations on the freedom of movement of Jews, random arrests and forced imprisonment, exclusion from practice in the civil service and quotas in certain fields of employment. Such government-endorsed campaigns do not include the innumerable cases of individual citizens who carried out acts of violence, abuse, and theft targeting Jews. The value of Jewish property confiscated by Arab governments during these expulsions is estimated to be in the tens of billions of today’s dollars.

The plight of Jewish refugees was not widely publicized predominantly because they did not remain refugees for long. Of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees between 1948 and 1972, some two-thirds were resettled in Israel at great expense, all without any compensation provided by the Arab governments who confiscated their possessions.5

Moreover, Arab nations conducted misinformation campaigns portraying Jewish life in Arab lands as ideal and respectful, while downplaying the vulnerability and lack of rights suffered by Jews in these lands throughout history. Such efforts also have striven to eliminate the historical contribution of Jews to the larger Arab societies from local and international consciousness. These misinformation campaigns also bred the accusations that the Jews left Arab countries and Iran voluntarily and therefore forfeited their rights to any compensation.

Jewish and Arab Refugees in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran is salient when evaluating the general topic of refugees in the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As noted, at the start of the twentieth century there were around one million Jews living in Iran, North Africa, and the Middle East, not including those living in the Land of Israel. That number fell to 500,000 after the 1948 war and to 100,000 after the 1967 war. Today, that number is somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000, with the majority living in Iran (see Appendix). Thus, close to one million Jews become refugees as a result of the policy changes of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Today there are two categories of Palestinian refugees. The first category consists of refugees from the wars in 1948 and 1967. The exact numbers for both categories are unclear, and are derived from rough approximations, population trends and censuses. Studies suggest that in 1948 there were about 740,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel. During the war some 190,000 either remained or left and returned soon thereafter. Thus, the most plausible number of refugees is 550,000, though estimates range from 400,000 to 1,000,000. Studies suggest that the 1967 war created 300,000 refugees, though 100,000 returned after the war and another 100,000 were already counted as refugees from the 1948 war. These yield a sum of 100,000 refugees from the 1967 war and a total of 650,000 refugees from the two wars.6

The second category of Palestinian refugee consists of internally displaced persons (IDP). These IDPs were forced to flee their homes but were unable to regain them upon returning. Most international organizations put the number of Palestinian IDPs somewhere between 25,000 and 46,000, though Israeli estimates put that number slightly lower and Palestinian estimates much higher. All told, when the two refugee exoduses are compared, it can be concluded with a high degree of likelihood that the number of Jewish refugees was some 50 percent greater than that of Palestinian refugees.7

Value of Assets Lost by Jewish and Palestinian Refugees8

There are many estimates for the value of the assets lost by Jewish and Palestinian refugees spanning a wide range of values, with some grossly exaggerated or skewed by political considerations.

The best estimate for assets lost by Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war was compiled by John Measham Berncastle, who undertook the task in the early 1950s under the aegis of the newly formed United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine. Berncastle’s estimate was 100 million Palestinian pounds for land and buildings and 20 million for movable property. Other estimates add 4 to 5 million Palestinian pounds for Arab bank accounts blocked by the Israeli government. The total of 125 million Palestinian pounds amounts to $350 million in 1948, or $650 per refugee, a number consistent with per-capita value lost for similar situations, such as Poland in the 1930s.

Additional consideration should be accorded to the asset losses of the 100,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war and the 40,000 IDPs (included even though they usually received new property and/or compensation). At a similarly realistic $700 per capita, that would amount to another $100 million. Thus, the total of assets lost by Palestinians is some $450 million, which in 2012 prices amounts to $4.4 billion.9

Though it is also difficult to estimate the value of assets lost by Jewish refugees, a similar methodology has yielded an approximation of $700 million in 1948 prices or $6.7 billion in 2012 prices. This number is higher than the estimate for Palestinian refugees for a number of reasons. First, there were nearly twice as many Jewish refugees as Palestinian refugees. Second, Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, like their brethren in Europe, tended to live in urban areas and hold professional jobs, whereas the majority of Palestinian refugees lived in more rural communities. This significant difference in lifestyles could account for a difference in the amount of assets accumulated. Third, Arab governments limited the value of movable property that Jewish emigrants could take with them, while Palestinian emigrants had no such limitations. Fourth, Palestinian refugees have received more than 90 percent of the blocked bank accounts from the Israeli government, totaling some $86 million in 2007 prices, while there have only been a few instances of Jewish refugees receiving property back.

Some obstacles still remain. There have been financial demands from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides that have not been seriously considered, in part because of the reasons behind the demand, in part because of the astronomical dollar amount requested ranging in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and in part due to reasons connected to whether the refugee issue will be negotiated in the peace process and whether such negotiations will include Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees. Determining the value for some assets, such as property value, is more difficult than for others, and there is a question of whether to use government long-term bond yields or inflation rates for calculating current value. The bottom line, however, is that no matter what methodology is used, the losses of Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries are almost certainly at least 50 percent higher than those of Palestinian refugees.

The Legal Case for Rights and Redress10

The international definition of a refugee clearly applies to Jews displaced from Arab countries. A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees).

The issue of refugees, both Jewish and Palestinian, has been raised in UN discussions and resolutions. In 1948, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 (III),11 which called for the resolution of refugee issues, both Jewish and Palestinian, in its eleventh paragraph. General Assembly resolutions are not binding, but the Arab government representatives still voted against it.

On two later occasions, in 1957 and 1967, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determined that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees who fell within the mandate of the UNHCR.12 In 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242, which stipulates that a comprehensive peace settlement must include “a just settlement of the refugee problem.”13 No distinction is made between Arab refugees and Jewish refugees. Indeed, the intent to include both Jewish and Arab refugees in Resolution 242 is evidenced by the fact that during the UN debate, the Soviet Union’s delegation attempted to restrict the “just settlement” solely to Palestinian refugees.

Israel has also included the topic of refugees in its bi-national agreements with neighboring Arab countries. In the Camp David Accords of 1978, Israel and Egypt pledged to “work with each other and with other interested parties to establish agreed procedures for a prompt, just and permanent resolution of the implementation of the refugee problem14 and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979 resolved to settle financial claims as well.15 The “massive human problems caused to both Parties by the conflict in the Middle East” is cited in the paragraph about refugees in 1994’s Israel-Jordan peace treaty.16 Israeli-Palestinian agreements, such as the 1993 Declaration of Principles and the 1995 Interim Agreement, mention refugees but do not distinguish between Jewish and Palestinian refugees.17

According to international law, any human rights violation gives rise to a right to redress. The right belongs both to the victim and the beneficiaries of the victim. The duty to redress falls upon the state responsible for the human rights violations.18 Individual victims and their representatives are free to seek whatever legal remedies are open to them. Several have chosen to do so, either in the courts of the countries where they now live or the courts of the countries from which they fled, or through negotiations with the government of the countries from which they fled.

The Solution: An International Middle East Peace Fund

During two recent, seminal Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the issue of an “international fund” was raised as an essential part of any comprehensive Middle East peace plan.19 This proposed plan adopts and upgrades President Clinton’s proposal following “Camp David II” in 2000 and during the 2001 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Egypt.

The purposes of such an international peace fund would be four-fold. First, it would provide adequate funding for the development of the infrastructure for a new Palestinian state, including hospitals, schools and roads. Second, it would provide funding for Israel to establish secure defense perimeters along the new borders, as agreed upon by both states. Third, it would provide compensation for all refugees, both Jewish and Arab, who were victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fourth, it would retroactively compensate countries – such as Israel (for Jewish refugees) and Jordan (for Palestinians) who invested efforts and resources to the absorption of refugees.

The UN Compensation Commission and Fund20 provides a useful model that could be negotiated as part of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. In the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UNCC adopted a policy of paying individuals first, with the remaining sums owed entirely to government entities. The UNCC also created six categories for resolving claims from the Iraq-Kuwait war. These categories include claims for families killed or injured during the war, business losses, individual anguish, cost of resettling citizens, and damage to the environment. These categories could be adapted to fit the needs of an international peace fund for the Middle East.

The establishment of such a multilateral fund, to be endowed by the G-8 countries and others, would ensure international involvement and legitimacy for any comprehensive Middle East peace plan. This plan would involve contributions from Israel and Arab countries, as well as from international donors such as the United States. Such a fund would create “a huge pool of stakeholders in the peace process,” said Isaac Devash, a volunteer with the group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. “Now you have 2 million to 3 million Israelis who are going to be stakeholders in the process and 4.5 million Palestinian refugees who are also stakeholders.”21


Today, a large portion of Israeli citizens are descendants of Jews displaced from Arab countries. The rights of these Jewish refugees (and their descendants) should be recognized and addressed by appropriate measures such as an international fund, as part of any comprehensive negotiations to resolve the overall issue of refugees.

Such a solution would create a connection between the Jewish and Palestinian refugee problems and would offer a holistic, comprehensive, and just solution to the refugee issue for both sides. As part of a final Middle East peace plan, such a fund would redress historical injustices and ensure adequate compensation for all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The Displacement of Jews from Arab Countries: 1948-2005






























































































The data was derived from multiple sources, including:

“Trends andCharacteristics of International Migration since 1950 – Refugee Movements and Population Transfers,” United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs: Demographic Study No. 64.ST/ESA/Ser. A/64, 1978; The Jewish Case Before The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, 1946; Hayyim J. Cohen, Zionist Activity in the States of the Middle East (Jerusalem: WZO, 1973); David Sitton, The Sephardic Communities in Our Times (Jerusalem: Sephardic Council Press, 1974)

Andre Chouraqui, Marche vers l’Occident-Les Juifs d’Afrique du Nord (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1952).

Joseph B. Schechtman, On Wings of Eagles: The Plight, Exodus and Homecoming of Oriental Jewry (New York: Yoseloff, 1961).

David Littman, “Jews Under Muslim Rule in the Late Nineteenth Century.” London: The Weiner Bulletin. Vol. XXVIII, New Series Nos. 35/36, 1975.

American Jewish Yearbook, v.58, v.68, v.71, v.78, v.101, v.102, v.105.

Saad Jawad Qindeel, head of the political bureau of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, July 18, 2005.

Time Magazine, February 27, 2007.

*     *     *


* The opinions expressed in this article represent the authors and do not represent a position of the Ministry for Senior Citizens or of the Government of the State of Israel.


2. Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

3. Gudrun Krämer, The Jews in Modern Egypt, 1914-1952 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989).

4. Zvi Yehuda and Shmuel Moreh, (eds.), Al-Farhud: The 1941 Pogrom in Iraq (Jerusalem: Magnes Press and The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, and the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, 1992 [Hebrew], 2010 [English]); Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, Zionism in an Arab Country: Jews in Iraq in the 1940s (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).


6. Regarding the number of Palestinian refugees, see also Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

7. Sidney Zabludoff, “The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Rhetoric vs. Reality,” Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008).

8. Ibid.

9. This assumes U.S. dollar prices rise some 2.7 percent in 2012.


11. General Assembly Official Records, 3rd session, part 1, 1948, Resolutions, pp. 21-24.

12. Mr. Auguste Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Report of the UNREF Executive Committee, Fourth Session – Geneva 29 January to 4 February, 1957; and Dr. E. Jahn, Office of the UN High Commissioner, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Document No. 7/2/3/Libya, July 6, 1967

13. Resolution 242: The situation in the Middle East (22 Nov 1967):

14. The Camp David Accords, paragraph A(1)(f),

15. Article 8 of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979. Text of the Treaty:

16. Article 8 (paragraph 1) of the Israel–Jordan Peace Treaty. Text of the Treaty:

17. Israeli-Palestinian Agreements, 1993: Almost every reference to the refugee issue in Israeli-Palestinian agreements, talks about “refugees,” without qualifying which refugee community is at issue, including the Declaration of Principles of 13 September 1993 {Article V (3)}, and the Interim Agreement of September 1995 {Articles XXXI (5)}, both of which refer to “refugees” as a subject for permanent status negotiations, without qualifications.

18. Tal Becker, Terrorism and the State: Rethinking the Rules of State Responsibility (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2006), pp. 50-57, 78.

19.; Gilad Sher, The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations,1999-2001 (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 101, 247-249; Irwin

Cotler, David Matas, and Stanley A. Urman, “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress” (New York: Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, 2007), pp 5-6.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made the following assertion after the rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries were discussed at “Camp David II” in July 28, 2000 (from White House Transcript of Israeli television interview): “There will have to be some sort of international fund set up for the refugees. There is, I think, some interest, interestingly enough, on both sides, in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.”


21. Nathan Jeffay, “Jews Displaced from Arab Lands Finally Recognized,” Forward, March 10, 2010.