Photo of synagogue in Fez courtesy Inter-American Institute.
B’nai B’rith’s History in Arab Lands: 1940s to 1970s
By Dara Kahn
The mid-20th century was a tumultuous time for Jews in North Africa and the Middle East. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and ongoing wars of independence from British and French colonial rule, the situation in the area was quickly changing, mostly to Jews’ detriment. Many left for Israel, Western Europe or the United States.
Extracted from B’nai B’rith’s archives, the following are but brief highlights of the organization’s extensive role in helping Jews in three of these countries.
AlgeriaFor nearly 2,000 years, a sizable Jewish community lived peacefully in the North African country—until the brutal uprising against French rule, stretching from 1954 to 1962.
In 1961, the B’nai B’rith International Council prepared a background study on the Algerian Jewish community, at the time 130,000 strong. The council asserted: “To Algerian Jewry, guarantees of minority rights for Europeans is a crucial matter. Equally so, at the moment, a definition of their own status: Is the Algerian Jew European or Algerian?”
Though both French and Algerian leaders assured Jews that their rights would be protected, Arab nationalism and hostility often turned to violence, leaving the longevity and safety of the Jewish community in question.
On May 9, 1962, French Ambassador to the United States Herve Alphand addressed the B’nai B’rith International Council at a diplomatic dinner at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., reaffirming that “all through the negotiations in Evian with [Algeria’s National Liberation Front], it was the French government’s concern to protect the fate of the Jewish population of Algeria,” according to the Washington Evening Star. He also noted that since the French issued a decree in 1870 granting French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria, they would also have automatic immigration rights to France.
But as Algerian independence loomed and Jews’ rights slowly disintegrated, they began to leave by the thousands, most immigrating to France, others to Israel and North America. Today, fewer than 100 Jews remain.
EgyptBy the early 1900s, B’nai B’rith had established two lodges in Egypt—District Grand Lodge Egypt and Lodge Port Said—as part of District No. 16. By 1948, about 100,000 Jews, mostly stateless residents, lived in Egypt.
In 1956, after Israel, France and the United Kingdom invaded Egypt over ownership of the Suez Canal, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser authorized the confiscation of Jewish property and the incarceration of innocent Jews. Egypt also deported nearly 25,000 Jews with little notice, breaking apart families and allowing them to bring only one suitcase and $56.
In response, B’nai B’rith participated in an emergency conference of major Jewish groups in New York, where they asked President Eisenhower to express shock to the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt to express the United States’ shock at these atrocities. Simultaneously, B’nai B’rith urged its lodges to join with other groups in local protest meetings.
IraqPrior to Iraq’s independence from Great Britain in 1932, the country’s Jewish population was prosperous. Though Iraq’s declaration of independence pledged full equality and cultural autonomy to all citizens and minority groups, the promise was short-lived.
A “Memorandum on the Situation of the Jews in Iraq,” signed and presented to the U.S. State Department on Nov. 3, 1949 by B’nai B’rith and six other major American Jewish organizations, stated: “From the day of its independence, Iraq has followed a militant anti-Jewish policy. Under a swift succession of Iraqi governments, anti-Jewish discrimination spread to government service, education, and economic fields. Anti-Jewish propaganda was indulged in by the Government.” Jews were arrested and killed, their businesses were looted, hundreds of Jewish homes were destroyed and other properties were confiscated. Their emigration rights were also severely restricted.
Evoking anti-Semitic stereotyping similar to what Jews in many countries face today, the memorandum asserted that, “All Jews of Iraq, of whatever political creed, fall under the shadow; a so-called ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign is used as camouflage for the persecution of an entire ethnic and religious minority in violation of the United Nations Charter and common human rights.”
Two decades later, in January 1969, B’nai B’rith President Dr. William A. Wexler wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations urging “consideration and action” to look into “the condition of Jews in Iraq,” following the execution of 14 Iraqis, nine of whom were Jewish, on charges of espionage. B’nai B’rith held a memorial service for those Jews in Washington, D.C., and sent letters to the Pope, U.S. President, Secretary of State, congressmen and others thanking them for condemning the hangings.
As of 2008, fewer than 10 Iraqi Jews remained in the country.
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