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From Time Immemorial – The Joan Peters Project

Summary of Chapter 7: Remnant of a Tradition - The Arab-Jewish Diaspora

By Paulette Volgyesi

March 14, 2018


This chapter deals with the remnants of those Jewish communities in Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa.  By 1982 the largest Jewish population, about 18,000, was in Morocco. Their numbers have drastically declined to date by approximately two-thirds.  The chapter ends with a thoughtful analysis as to why German Jews were so reluctant to leave Germany, while the communities profiled here ended up contributing over half of Israel’s population post-statehood.

Approximate Jewish Population in the Arab World

Of more than 850,000 Jews in Arab countries before Israel’s statehood, fewer than 29,000 remain.” (p.116)  As the table shows, the long history of the Jews in Arab lands has ended with many countries virtually free of Jews.

Saudi Arabia has been omitted from the list because Jews had always been excluded even from visiting that country. Visiting journalists are regularly given a copy of The Protocol of the Elders of Zion.

Jordan is not on the list as no Jews were living there in 1948.  By 1948, even though there had been a long established Jewish presence in the more than 75% of Palestine that the British had allocated to the Arabs as Transjordan, most Jews had already had been either expelled or killed through periodic Arab violence. The ones that survived found refuge in the Jewish settled areas of the coastal plain. In 1954 Jordan passed a law that Jews could not become Jordanian citizens.



Morocco is the most liberal of the Arab lands, although most of the Jews who live there lead a marginalized life. In spite of Morocco’s claims that it wants to play, “…a constructive and moderate role to achieve a pacific solution”, it did send its soldiers to help both Egyptian and Syrian forces in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.


The majority of the Jewish community is dependent on outside sources such as the Joint Distribution Committee for subsistence. Some have done well as small businessmen, but they only remain because they cannot persuade government officials to let them leave with their possessions.




The 4500 Jews in Syria were forbidden to emigrate. They lived primarily in Aleppo and Damascus under threat of persecution and terror.  Any Jews caught trying to leave Syria are tortured and killed; if someone managed to escape, the remaining family would suffer.  Syrian statements that Jews were happy and comfortable living in Syria were proven to be false. However, even then, the world paid little attention to the plight of the Syrian Jews.  While Syria was a steadfast Arab state and a staunch Soviet ally, the West continued to consider it to be a “moderate” state; all “interviews” with journalists were monitored by government officials.  Reports of the extraordinary brutality of the Syrian security could only be obtained from the rare escapee.  The security services, mukhabarat were similar to the SS in their methods.  The government allowed “the Mukhabarat ,……., to conduct a reign of terror and intimidation, including searches without warrant, detentions without trial, torture and summary executions” (p 119).

In 1977 President Carter and President Assad had agreed that some Jewish girls should be allowed to exit Syria to be married.  Soon afterwards Joan Peters and a small group of State Department officials, including American Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke were allowed to visit the Jewish section of Damascus on a “fact-finding mission”. There they found a very dilapidated section of Damascus with the Jewish residents very fearful of talking with them. They did manage to speak candidly with a few Jews who said that the information about Jews, given even by Jews, was completely false and that they lived in fear and poverty.


Information about the situation in Syria was often contradictory. Between long periods of no information, many contradictory reports surfaced in the media. Donald Kirk of the Chicago Tribune reported in an interview in March, 1976, “So many journalists write about the Jews of Damascus …….. They see there is no discrimination …. We treat the Jews as we do any other Arabs. It is only Zionist propaganda that tries to make the world think we persecute them.” Kirk’s reaction: “Whatever one may think of such claims, one thing is certain: Members of the Syrian Jewish community can talk to foreigners only when escorted by Syrian information officials, and they are not likely to complain openly…” (p.122)


In 1978 some 400 Syrian Jews, including entire families escaped. As a result, the Syrians increased their surveillance. The Jews were effectively living in a jail. A Jew who legally left, temporarily had to post a huge security bond and leave his family as a hostage to ensure his return.  Many young Syrian Jews left in the middle of the night, so that their families would not know and thus be protected.



There are only about 250 Jews left in Egypt. They are mostly old and some are unmarried women. After the 1973 war President Anwar Sadat invited the Jews back to Egypt.  The world announced that Egypt was a country of moderation and that Sadat was the most moderate of Arab leaders. In 1975 Joan Peters went to Cairo to meet both ordinary Egyptians and those in power. Peters interviewed as varied a cross-section of Egyptian society as she could find. Anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli views were eagerly and widely expressed from the highest government official to the average man on the street.

The western idea that Egypt had become “a moderate” in its views was completely false.  One former Egyptian general predicted: “Once we can convince the Jews especially the six million in the U.S. that it is Egypt who is the ‘moderate’ and Israel is ‘intransigent’ and ‘standing in the way of peace’ we will have won the two hundred million Americans. Who among the two hundred million will be for Israel if the six million American Jews are not?” (p129)

In mid-1977 Peters returned to Egypt – but nothing had changed. President Sadat confided to Peters that “Seventy per cent of this Arab-Israeli conflict is a psychological problem – it has only thirty per cent substance.”

“Both of us have no confidence in the other.” (p.131)

By 1979 however, a peace treaty had been signed between Egypt and Israel and Israel returned much of the Sinai to Egypt.  However not one Jew was allowed to remain in the Sinai. Unfortunately, a peace treaty between two countries does not guarantee that the citizens of those countries will like or respect each other.  Ms. Peters writes: “The devout desire was that such Egyptian ‘psychological’ residue in time would diminish and disappear into the black hole of Egypt’s historical hostility towards Jews.  Whether the dynamics of peace be the stronger, only time would tell.” (p.133)


A Backward Glance

In 1984, Ms. Peters reflected upon the different reactions of the Middle East Jews compared with the German Jews, to the threats in their respective homelands. Only a tiny remnant of Jews was left in Arab lands, except for Syria—which would not let them go—and Morocco, which had more moderate policies.  Most Arab Jewry had emigrated to Israel or elsewhere at the earliest opportunity.


German Jewry was much slower to respond to the rising threats during the 30s. They had thought themselves assimilated and in fact part of the German people. They had not in centuries lived the violence and the second-class citizenship of the Arab Jews.  They could not imagine that anything like a Holocaust could possibly happen. On the other hand, Arab Jews, were never totally accepted in their homelands.  For them there was also a positive pull towards Israel, Sephardic Zionism. As well, some Sephardic Jews had actually experienced the Holocaust and all had witnessed the 1930s rise of Muftism.**

**The obvious affinity of the Arabs, represented by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, with Nazism and their close collaboration in plans to exterminate Jews in the Middle East as well as those in Europe - editor.

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