The Destruction of the Arab World’s Jewry
By Adi Schwartz
A vast diaspora was utterly annihilated, but Israelis rarely talk about it.
The pages are yellowing, nearly disintegrated. For decades they have lain forgotten, stuffed into crates piled high in the archives of Israel’s Ministry of Justice. No one reads them; no one even shows interest. Even now, nearly sixty years after the painful experiences of loss and flight they recount, they still wait for their stories to be told.
In one, a Jewish woman from Alexandria describes her youth in Egypt:
After the  war broke out, my mother was arrested in her ninth month of pregnancy, and they wanted to slaughter her; they threatened her with bayonets and abused her…. One evening a mob came to kill our family with sticks and anything they could lay their hands on, because they heard we were Jews. The gatekeeper swore to them that we were Italian, and so they only cursed us, surrounding my parents, my brothers, and myself, only a small baby. The next day my parents ran away, leaving everything—pension, work, and home—behind.1
On another page, Mordechai Karo, also Egyptian-born, testifies about an explosive device planted in a Jewish neighborhood in Cairo in the summer of 1948: “The tremendous explosion killed and injured scores of Jews in the neighborhood. One of these casualties was my young daughter Aliza.”2
Thousands of pages of similar testimony have been collecting dust in various government offices since the 1950s. Under the bureaucratic heading “Registry of the Claims of Jews from Arab Lands,” they tell of lives cut short, of individuals and entire families who found themselves suddenly homeless, persecuted, humiliated. Together they relate a tragic chapter in the history of modern Jewry, a chain of traumatic events that signaled the end of a once-glorious diaspora.
Yet for all its historical import, this chapter has been largely repressed, scarcely leaving a mark on Israel’s collective memory. The media seldom mentioned it then, and rarely do so today.3 Schools do not devote comprehensive curricula to it, and academia pays it little attention. Indeed, in the past decade only one doctoral dissertation was written on the devastation of Jewish communities in Arab countries.4 Furthermore, of all the parties represented in Israel’s Knesset, not one has included in its platform an explicit demand for the restitution of these Jews’ property, or the recognition of their violated rights.5
This dismissive attitude toward one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the Jewish people should be cause for astonishment. After all, the heritage of Jews from Muslim lands is enjoying something of a renaissance today, both in academic circles and within the general public. Yet not even the outspoken proponents of this heritage are particularly eager to discuss the historical circumstances under which their deep roots in the Arab world were severed.6 This prolonged silence becomes even more incomprehensible when we take into account the centrality of the refugee problem to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Palestinians and their advocates repeatedly emphasize the need to correct the historic injustice done to the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who left or were expelled from their lands and dispossessed of their properties in the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”), Israel’s international representatives and spokespeople have refrained from highlighting the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fell victim to systematic persecution and attacks throughout the Middle East and Maghreb at the same time.
How to explain this omission? The answer, as we will see, is neither simple nor easy to digest. It involves a number of motives, some of them pragmatic and some ideological, all of which deserve close scrutiny. Our investigation will raise difficult questions, concerning not only various Israeli governments’ policies in both the past and the present, but also the conceptual foundations of the Jewish state itself. And yet, before we can address these sensitive topics, we must recall certain facts that have been buried for too long in dusty ministerial archives.