You Can’t Justify Zionist Persecution of Palestinians with a False Narrative About  Arab Jews

Maabara 1950
Maabara 1950

The Zionists have had to invent many tales to justify the expulsion, occupation, and now the mass murder of Palestinians. One of the methods they have used is equating the Nakba – the 1947-49 forced expulsion of 750,000 Arabs from the new state of Israel, the killing of an unknown number, and the destruction of over 500 villages – with the supposed expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in the 1940s-50s. Now that an even more horrible genocide is underway, the Zionists must again try to convince Jews that Arabs have an inborn desire to kill them, and that no greater injustice has been done to Palestinians than has been suffered by Jews at Arab hands.

As the actual history of the Nakba, which has always been hidden in Israel, began to be a bit better known in the 2000s, the Israeli National Security Council (NSC) recommended creating a link between the Palestinian refugees and Jews of Arab origin (MIzrahis), who would be said to have been expelled from their native countries and welcomed by Israel in even greater numbers than Palestinians who were driven out. In 2012, a council under the leadership of former NSC head Uzi Asad, with the blessing of Netanyahu, recommended that compensation claims by “Jewish refugees” become an inseparable part of any negotiations pertaining to Palestinian refugees’ demands for the right of return or compensation.1 It is vital that we understand that this position has no validity and was simply being propagated to hide the evils of the Nakba.

Previously, the narrative in Israel had been that the Mizrahis had come because of their own Zionism, although actually some had come gladly and others had been pressured by local anti-Semitism or by Zionist agents. Any Israeli, American or international voices that referred to Arab-Jewish immigrants as refugees had been quieted, as it was desired that the story of the irresistible appeal of Zionism be emphasized. Also, it was thought that compensation claims against Arab governments for creating refugees might inspire parallel Palestinian demands against Israel or disrupt agreements with Arab countries, such as Egypt, with whom peace accords had been signed. 1

 A display of the new policy emphasizing that Mizrahi immigrants were refugees occurred in 2014 in New York, during a showing of a film about the Nakba, On the Side of the Road, by the NYU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. A group of Israeli students held up a 6-foot sign proclaiming “856,000 Jewish refugees.”  The incident was then publicized in an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post (12/4/14) by the extreme Zionist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, which also recounted the usual Israeli anti-Arab view of the founding of Israel.

What Actually Lay Behind the Mizrahi Immigration?

As early as 1942, Ben Gurion stated his intention to populate a new state with two million Jews, to replace an estimated 500,000 Arabs that were to be transferred. 2 These new immigrants would not only increase the numbers of Jews, but immigrants from Arab countries could be used to replace the cheap Palestinian labor that was being lost. Indeed, Yemeni Jews had been imported for this purpose as far back as the early 1900s.3  (In 1993, Israel began to import non-Jewish foreign labor as it restricted access of Palestinians to its territory.)

In 1948, Zionist leaders saw the approximately one million Jews living in the Arab world as being invaluable to consolidating the Jewish state. They were needed to increase the Jewish population and to expand agricultural production with more workers or for conscription into the army. Altogether, over 600,000 immigrants after 1948 increased Israel’s population by 85%.5 Most were thrown into collective cultivation of land in areas that were not desired by the kibbutzim. They were concentrated in southern areas just over the border from Gaza, wherein 70% of the residents were refugees from the Nakba. Sderot, the largest southern Israeli town, is still majority Mizrahi, and 90% of its residents had to flee after the October 7attacks.14 The new immigrants were paid low wages and were denied managerial positions, thus serving the capitalist interests of the Ashkenazis.4 Widespread prejudice against them as dirty and ignorant was spread in the media and by politicians. Ben Gurion described them as “without a trace of Jewish or human education.”6

Where Did the Mizrahi Come From?

 The circumstances of Jewish life and the reasons for immigration were quite different in various Arab countries. The numbers of immigrants between 1948-72 were Morocco 259,000; Iraq 129,000; Egypt 90,000; Tunisia, Yemen/Aden about 50,000 each; Libya 36,000;Algeria 15,000; Syria and Lebanon 5000 each.9

The Iraqi Jewish community was a large one, concentrated in Baghdad, largely secular, well-educated, and well-integrated into Iraqi life. 5,6. Many were anti-Zionist and internationalist leftists. After the 1948 war, the Iraqi government became more anti-Zionist and ordered the expulsion of all Jews who did not sign an anti-Zionist statement.  Most did not want to go, but the Jewish community was terrorized by three bombs set off in Baghdad synagogues, and it is widely accepted that this was the work of Israeli agents.13 Together, these factors induced most Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel.

The situation in Egypt was similar to that in Iraq. Since the early 1900s, the Jews had lived peacefully and prosperously and were involved in public service. However, when anti-Arab hostilities erupted in Palestine, King Farouk and the Muslim Brotherhood also demanded anti-Zionist pledges and made life difficult for Jews, inducing most to emigrate to Israel or elsewhere.4

The largest group of immigrants came from Morocco, mostly in the mid 1950s. They were the poorest Jews in the Arab world, but had been protected from the Nazi invasion and the Vichy government by the King. It was the struggle for liberation from France that motivated most of the wealthier Jews to move to Europe and Canada, while the poor were induced by Zionist agents to seek better fortunes in Israel.4,7 There were also anti-Semitic riots in several cities in response to the 1948 war. By 1951, the Jewish Agency, an organization established by Britain in 1929 to represent the Jewish community in Palestine, briefly enacted restrictions in certain countries sending many poor immigrants, including Morocco, that 80% of immigrants should be under 35 years old, members of youth organizations or professionals, and in good health.8 After independence in 1956, emigration actually became illegal in Morocco, and the Mossad began smuggling Jews out by ship.  After one of these ships, the EGOZ, sank (some speculate by Israeli agency), legal emigration was allowed.9

In Libya, international Jewish agencies were deeply involved in Zionist and service activities in the Jewish community for many decades. As Libya gained independence in 1951, guarantees of minority rights were made but did not overcome the fears of many local or international Jews. When Libya joined the Arab League in 1953, anti-Semitic feelings increased, but the government discouraged emigration of Jews and granted only temporary exit visas. By this time nearly all had left.10

With these examples we have attempted to show that circumstances promoting Jewish emigration were variable but certainly there was no overarching policy of Jewish expulsion under which Mizrahi immigrants could be called refugees. Some were attracted by the Zionist ideal and some were frightened by the growth of anti-Semitism fueled by partition and the treatment of Palestinians by Israel.  Most were actively encouraged and/or assisted by Zionist representatives in their countries, often through duplicitous means.

How Were Arab/Jewish Immigrants Treated?

 As noted above, the new immigrants were placed in camps in rural areas, often housed in tents. For many, this was a tremendous decrease in their standard of living. Moreover, no matter what their previous social status, they were denigrated as dirty and posing a threat of disease. Middle class Iraqis recall Israelis boarding their plane upon arrival and spraying all the passengers with DDT. The quality and amount of food in the camps was insufficient, leading to strikes among the immigrants.5 Today, many Mizrahi still live in these so-called “development towns” that are the impoverished and neglected areas where the camps once stood.

The most notorious example of mistreatment didn’t even begin to be exposed until the late 1960’s, but remains mostly hidden even today. Just as happened in the US, Canada and elsewhere, the babies of Mizrahi families were stolen by the state. Thousands of infants and toddlers were taken from mothers in camps to nurseries or hospitals for supposed better care. A few days later, the mothers were told their children had died. About two thirds had come from Yemeni families and most of the rest from Tunis, Morocco, Libya and Iraq. Even today the fate of most of them, be it death or adoption, is unknown as records were not kept.15

Two generations after their arrival, Mizrahi Jews are about three times less likely to hold university degrees as Ashkenazi and comprise 60% of low income families.11 The problem of assimilating many new immigrants who spoke the language of the Arab enemy and shared many of his customs has still largely not been overcome. As in the U.S., discrimination against those of darker skin has served to preserve and justify lower wages, education, and services. “In Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, Jews became members of legislatures, of municipal councils, of the judiciary, and even occupied high economic positions. (The finance minister of Iraq in the ’40s was Ishak Sasson, and in Egypt, Jamas Sanua–higher positions, ironically, than those our community had generally achieved within the Jewish state until the 1990s!)” 12

What Do We Conclude

What we find in Israel today is a country that claims to be a democracy, but has created a legalized second-class citizenship for the 20% of its population that is Palestinian. It has now declared itself officially to be a Jewish State, thus losing any pretense of providing equal rights to all its citizens. There is also much evidence of discrimination in economic, political and social realms against Jews of non-European origin. But most glaring of all, of course, is the 76-year-old illegal apartheid regime which Israel has imposed on the expelled Palestinians, enforced with a brutal military occupation and periodic massacres and that has now escalated to overt genocide.

One pathetic maneuver to whitewash this unfortunate history is to try and build a myth of Israel as the rescuer of more expelled Arab Jews than the Palestinians it has persecuted.  Many of those Jews came to Israel to escape new anti-Semitism in their native lands, which was a response to the Jewish persecution of the Palestinians, and many came with the active intervention of the Zionist enterprise hungry for more Jews and cheap labor, but few were expelled. As anti-racists we demand equal rights for all those who reside in Israel/Palestine, be they Arab or Jew of whatever origin. As the racist slaughter in Gaza escalates, accompanied by increased attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and as the US finances the slaughter and the rest of the world governments do nothing, we must join the world-wide anti-genocide uprisings. Ultimately we must enlist ourselves and all workers, including those of Palestine and Israel, in an anti-racist movement that calls for the end of capitalism, a system which requires racism to survive.

Ellen Isaacs is a physician, an anti-racist and anti-capitalist activist, and co-editor of She can be reached at [email protected].


2.     Righteous Victims, B. Morris, 2001, Vintage Books, New York, NY

3.     A History of Modern Palestine, I. Pappe, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, p 55

4.     Ibid, pp 175-9

5.     Forget Baghdad, Samir Naqqash, Tag Traum Cologne, 2002


7.     Ethnic Integration in Israel, M. Inbar and C. Adddler, 1977, Transaction Inc, New Brunswick NJ, p. 22


9.     Jewish Moroccan Immigrants Struggle to Move to Israel,

10.  The Jews of Libya, M. Roumani, Sussex Academic Press, Eastbourne, England 2008

11. We Look Like the Enemy, R. Shabi,2008, Walker Publishing Company, Inc, New York, NY, pp 18-19

12. Reflections by an Arab Jew, Ella Shohat




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