Mizrahi Jews of North Africa & Middle East
The term “Mizrahi,” which means “Eastern,” dates from the time of the establishment of the State of Israel and refers to Jews from a wide range of unrelated Arab Jewish communities. Mizrahi Jews are of Middle East origin and generally self-identify as “Arab Jews,” or by their country of origin, e.g. “Iraqi Jew,” “Tunisian Jew,” “Iranian Jew,” etc., and retain particular traditions and practices. Jews lived in Yemen, Morocco, Arabia, and throughout the Arab and Muslim world for thousands of years. Many Mizrahi now follow the liturgical traditions of the Sephardi and are sometimes colloquially referred to as Sephardic Jews. Many Mizrahi may consider it culturally inaccurate to label them as Sephardic, even if some Mizrahi themselves have come to accept this generalized classification.
Until their forced exile after the birth of the State of Israel, there had been an uninterrupted presence of large Jewish communities in Arab lands from time immemorial, and the history of Jews with origins in North African and Middle Eastern countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq was one of maintaining Jewish identities despite centuries of intermittent prosperity and persecution:
The eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E., when Assyria and Babylon respectively conquered the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judea, marked the beginnings of the ancient Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, some 1,000 years before the Arab Muslim conquests of the these regions-including the Land of Israel-and about 2,500 years before the birth of the modern Arab states. [...]
The 1,400-year history of the Jews under Arab and Muslim rule is a long and varied one. Jews (and Christians) were considered dhimmi, a “protected” group of second-class citizens. The Jews' sojourn in Muslim lands was marked by some golden periods of prosperity, when Jews served as advisors to the ruling class; these periods were often marked by Jewish advances in medicine, business, and culture. Jewish philosophy and religious study also flourished. Often, however, the Jews were subjected to punishing taxes, forced to live in cramped ghetto-like quarters and relegated to the lower-levels of the economic and social strata.
There once was a vibrant presence of nearly one million Jews residing in ten Arab countries. Today, however, 99% of this ancient population no longer resides in the lands where they lived for thousands of years. Jews were stripped of their citizenship in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, and Libya; detained or arrested in Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt; deprived of employment by government decrees in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Algeria, and had their property confiscated in all of the Arab lands except Morocco, according to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), one of a number of organizations actively raising the awareness of the plight of Arab Jews.
Such was the fate of the Jews of Iraq, for example. “In 1941, a pro-Nazi government orchestrated anti-Jewish riots that left 200 dead and thousands injured. [M]ore than 135,000 Jews fled an increasingly intolerant Iraq in 1950 and 1951, with little more than the clothes on their backs. [Named Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,] it was a mass exodus-the largest human airlift operation in history.” As a result, an estimated 300,000 Iraqi Jews and their descendants now live in Israel and 40,000 live elsewhere.
Recently, JJAC congratulated the Iraqi people and Iraq's Governing Council on the adoption of the “Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period” signed in Baghdad on March 8, 2004, which states that “any Iraqi whose Iraqi citizenship was withdrawn for political, religious, racial, or sectarian reasons has the right to reclaim his Iraqi citizenship.” Some see these developments as harbingers of welcome change. “‘It appears that the stage has been set for a new system of justice and the rule of law,’ stated S. Daniel Abraham, founding chairman of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. ‘We hope that this signals the beginning of a process to rectify historical injustices and discriminatory measures perpetrated by previous Iraq regimes.’”
According to Jimena's Semha Alwaya, a Jew of Iraqi origin, “Since 1949, the United Nations has passed more than 100 resolutions on Palestinian refugees. Yet, for Jewish refugees from Arab countries not a single U.N. resolution has been introduced recognizing our mistreatment or calling for justice for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees forced out of our homes.[...] It's time for Arab countries to acknowledge that Jews in the Middle East were kicked out of their homelands.”
Another advocacy group, the International Federation of Jewish Refugees from Muslim-Arab Countries, based in France and created by Yves-Victor Kamami, is collecting eyewitness accounts of Arab Jews. Rather than the term “refugees,” Kamami prefers “an exchange of populations”-referring to the seven hundred thousand Palestinians who left or were forced out in 1948, less than the number Jews who were forced out of Arab lands. As a result, few Jews (or Christians for that matter) remain in Arab lands.
For example, Yemen, a small but dynamic Jewish community thrived for millennia, clinging to Jewish tradition even under adverse conditions. Professor Ephraim Isaac explains that Yemenite Jews, or “Temani” in Hebrew, are great religious scholars, the only Jewish people in the world who read the Hebrew Bible aloud accompanied by the recitation of the Aramaic Targum, according to the ancient synagogue custom described in the Talmud.
Although Yemenite Jews faced discrimination, they ranked relatively high within the tribal system of Yemen and those who spoke Arabic adapted well to their environment, flourishing economically as professional goldsmiths, silversmiths and managers of the Royal Mint. In spite of the pressure of Yemeni religious leaders' to expel the Jews, the government refrained from drastic actions due to economic considerations. In 1949-50, Operation Magic Carpet, a secret operation that was not made public until several months after it was over, brought 50,000 Yemenite Jews to the newly established State of Israel, where they are now estimated to number around 200,000. There are an estimated 500 to 1,000 Jews left in Yemen, where they live in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors.