Jews in the Muslim World Today

Excerpted from Israel HighWay Staff March 29, 2007

As Passover approaches, Jewish families the world over are preparing to come together for the traditional Pesach seder commemorating the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt approximately 3300 years ago. While the Exodus is a universally known event, not that long ago there was another, less known, mass exodus of Jews from the Arab world to Eretz Yisrael. This time the Jews were fleeing modern day despotic rulers of the Arab world and this time they were arriving on the shores of a new, modern State of Israel.

These Jewish communities had grown and often prospered throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa from as early as the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. On the eve of the birth of the State of Israel, in 1948, there were approximately one million Jews living throughout the Arab/Muslim world. Through forced emigration, pogroms and natural attrition, the once great Jewish communities of the Arab world have dwindled to no more than 10,000-12,000 scattered remnants. This mass migration from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, among others, has left most of the Arab world virtually devoid of the Jewish presence.

Today, these communities largely consist of elderly Jews, too old to make the move to Israel or the United States, who are living out their days in difficult circumstances. In 1948 there were approximately 265,000 Jews in Morocco; today there are about 5500. Tunisian Jewry numbered over 100,000 in 1948, and today there is less than one percent of that. In Algeria there were 140,000; now, fewer than 100. In the land of Babylon (now Iraq), home of the great Jewish academies and birthplace of the Talmud, there were over 150,000 Jews in 1948, and now there are perhaps 35.

Just last month, members of the tiny community of Jews in Yemen, numbering less than 1000 souls, were physically forced to leave their homes when faced with a threat from Islamic extremists associated with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida terrorist network. Locals and Yemenite Jews in Israel have stressed that this is not a government-sponsored threat and that the Jews of Yemen are not in imminent danger; however, they also admit that the community lives in difficult conditions with little hope of survival after this last generation slowly dies away.

The situation of the Jews in Yemen typifies the circumstances of the other tiny communities in other countries throughout the Arab world; the people who remain are elderly, generally poor, with minimal education and still in their country of birth seemingly against all odds. In the Arab world, only the communities in Morocco and Tunisia have enough Jews to sustain any real communal structure – and even that structure is generally quite limited. In Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Algeria there are only small handfuls of Jews left and, within another decade or two, these countries will be completely void of Jews.

In Iraq, the tiny Jewish community of 35 was free to pray together in the last synagogue in Baghdad even under the dictatorial reign of Saddam Hussein. However, the community, led by the last rabbi in Baghdad, Emmad Levy (pictured left, with his father), stopped praying together after the U.S. invasion for fear of being attacked by roaming bands of Iraqi gunmen.

Today, the largest Jewish community remaining in the Arab world is in Morocco. Estimates place the total Jewish population of Morocco at approximately 5500 people. The community still has functioning synagogues and other community institutions and is even served by a Chabad emissary, who oversees schools, camps and other educational institutions and centers throughout the country.

In Islamic, non-Arab Iran

In Iran, which is not an Arab country, there are still approximately 25,000 Jews. The community, which is generally more financially well-off than their brethren in other Muslim countries, is an anomaly. As many as 100,000 Jews lived in Iran prior to 1948. While most have fled to Israel and the United States since the Islamic Revolution, a sizable minority have remained and have no plans of emigrating. They state that they are equally proud of their Iranian/Persian heritage, which dates back 3,000 years to the time of King Cyrus, as they are of their Jewish heritage. At the time of the Revolution, the community was recognized as an official religious minority and is even represented by one Jewish member of parliament, Maurice Mahtamad. Mr. Mahtamad has spoken out publicly against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, showing that the community has some limited ability to speak for itself. However, there have also been periods of stress when community members have been arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel or when attacks were carried out against synagogues.

The legacy of Jews in Muslim lands is an important piece of Jewish history and heritage. The Jews of the Muslim Middle East have made many lasting contributions to the rich fabric of Jewish life, ritual and custom. Yes, remnants of these once-great communities still exist. At this year’s seder, make it a time to recount the second great exodus of Jews from the Arab world in addition to the story of the Jewish exit from Egypt thousands of years ago.

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