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Jews from Muslim Lands: The Forgotten Refugees of 1948

Noah Beck


This past June 20 was World Refugee Day, dedicated to nearly 60 million people worldwide who were forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution. One group of refugees rarely acknowledged is the Jews who were indigenous to Muslim lands but compelled to flee around the time when the State of Israel was established.

A Google search for “1948 refugees” produces about 6 million results. All but a few (at least through page six) are about the Palestinian Arab refugees, as if they were the only refugees of 1948. But it is estimated that from the beginning of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War through the early 1970s, up to 1,000,000 Jews fled or were expelled from their ancestral homes in Muslim countries. 260,000 of those refugees reached Israel between 1948 and 1951 and comprised 56% of all immigration to the fledgling state. By 1972, their numbers had reached 600,000.

In 1948, Middle East and North African countries had considerable Jewish populations: Morocco (250,000), Algeria (140,000), Iraq (140,000), Iran (120,000), Egypt (75,000), Tunisia (50,000), Yemen (50,000), Libya (35,000), and Syria (20,000). Today, the indigenous Jews of those countries are virtually extinct (although Morocco and Iran each still has under 10,000 Jews). In most cases, the Jewish population had lived there for millennia.

Few know this history because the Jewish refugees of 1948 were granted citizenship by the countries to which they fled, including Israel. By contrast, many Muslim countries refused to integrate the Palestinian refugees, preferring to leave them as second-class citizens in order to maintain a domestic demographic balance and/or a political problem for Israel.

Media bias also explains why so few people know about the 1948 Jewish refugees from Muslim lands. A search for “1948 refugees” on the BBC news site generates 41 articles (going back to 1999); 40 discuss the Palestinian Arab refugees of 1948. Only three of those 40 (dated 9/22/11, 9/2/10, and 4/15/04) even mention the Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, and two do so only in a single, superficial sentence that presents the issue as a claim rather than a historical fact.

A search for “1948 refugees Jews from Arab lands” on the New York Times site produces 497 results (replacing “Arab” with “Muslim” halves the results), while “1948 Palestinian refugees” yields 1,050 results. Consider a comparison using Sri Lanka, another war-torn, multi-ethnic country that gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The nearly 26-year ethnic conflict there began in 1983 and claimed 80,000–100,000 lives, many multiples of the total casualties from the nearly 100-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sri Lanka’s conflict also produced hundreds of thousands of refugees, including at least 200,000 Tamil refugees in Western Europe alone. Yet a search for “Tamil refugees” generates only 531 articles – less than 5% of the 11,300 results for “Palestinian Arab refugees.”

Institutionalized favoritism at the UN has also enabled the Palestinians to monopolize the refugee issue, which undoubtedly reinforces the media’s bias. All non-Palestinian refugees around the world (nearly 55 million) are cared for by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which works under the guidelines of the Convention on Refugees of 1951. But Palestinian refugees (whose original


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