story of the ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern Jews

Last Thursday, November 30, close to 400 people recognised the plight of the approximately 850,000 Jews who were expelled or had to flee from Arab lands and Iran in the 20th century. This was the third annual event hosted by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, together with the Sephardi Synagogue and the Sydney Jewish Museum, to tell the forgotten story of the ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern Jews.


Jews have lived in the Middle East for millennia, in fact pre-dating the arrival of Islam in some countries by over 1000 years. By 1948, almost one million Jews were living in Arab lands and Iran. However, the rise of political Zionism, the alliance between some Muslim leaders and the Nazis and the 1947 Partition Plan combined as pretexts for most Muslim countries to ethnically cleanse their populations of Jews. From the early 1940s until the 1960s and beyond, Jewish communities in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen experienced pogroms, seizure of property, imprisonment and even execution. Whilst the world rightly remembers the plight of other 20th century Middle Eastern refugees, particularly Palestinian Arabs, and it recognises the horrors facing refugees today from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, it is important to also acknowledge the Middle East’s Jewish refugees and hear their stories.

Last wek’s event was held at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park and included the screening of the short film The Forgotten Refugees and the telling of personal stories by members of the Jewish community from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The audience was particularly moved when Alfred Shaul Gabbay presented megillot originally belonging to his family in Baghdad; Cely Benchoam, a plate made of wood and mother of pearl typical of Egyptian art and covered with beautiful Arabic writing; Esther Hirschowitz, a silver Kiddush cup from Iran; Claude Hakim, a Middle Eastern backgammon set; Neta Labi, a photo of her maternal great-grandfather from Libya; Sylvia Hazan, a magnificent set of Berber jewellry given to her by her Berber grandparents and Ilan Ben-Menashe, a documentary film made about the extraordinary life of his maternal grandmother.

The focus of the event was on Yemen as this year is the 70th anniversary of the pogroms against the Jews of Aden that followed the announcement of the 1947 UN vote for the partition of Palestine. Eitan Madar shared the experiences of his mother, who was born in Aden in 1938 and was 10 years old in 1949 when Israel began Operation Magic Carpet in response to the increase in antisemitic violence in Yemen. Operation Magic Carpet saw 49,000 Jews secretly airlifted out of Yemen between 1949 and 1950 on over 380 flights.

The event was attended by a number of community leaders and organisations including the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, Multicultural NSW, the Australian Egyptian Council Forum, the Assyrian Universal Alliance, the Australian Iranian Community Organisation, the United Kurdish Association of NSW, the Kurdistan-Israel Friendship Association in Australia, Australian Middle East Media Group, friends from the Indian, Chinese, Catholic, Uniting Church and Salvation Army, educators and journalists.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies has led a local campaign to recognise the Middle East’s Jewish refugees, with the Sydney Jewish community the first Diaspora community to hold an annual recognition event on November 30 – beginning in 2015. This was just one year after the State of Israel designated a date to remember the Jews who fled Arab lands and Iran. The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, in partnership with the Sephardi Synagogue and the Sydney Jewish Museum, has taken on the duty to acknowledge the history and contribution of Mizrahi Jews, who make up over half of Israel’s population today and almost a quarter of the Sydney Jewish community. The Museum has this year added a display to its permanent collection, is recording personal testimonies and is planning a temporary exhibition all on this topic.