When the Arab Jews Fled
Fortunée Abadie is still haunted by the day in 1947 when mobs stormed the Jewish Quarter of the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, shortly after the United Nations vote that laid the groundwork for the creation of Israel.
Aleppo, a city where Jews and Muslims had lived together for centuries, exploded with anti-Jewish violence. Mrs. Abadie, now 88, remembers watching attackers burn prayer books, prayer shawls and other holy objects from the synagogue across the street. She heard the screams of neighbors as their homes were invaded. “We thought we were going to be killed,” she says. The family fled to nearby Lebanon. Mrs. Abadie left behind all she had: clothes, furniture, photographs and even a small bottle of French perfume that she still misses, Soir de Paris—Evening in Paris.
The Abadie family’s story is moving from the recesses of history to a newly prominent place in the debate over the future of the Middle East. Arab leaders have insisted for decades that Palestinian refugees who fled their homes following Israel’s creation should be allowed to return to their former homes.
Now Israeli officials are turning the tables, saying the hardships faced by several hundred thousand exiled Arab Jews, many forced from their homes, deserve as much attention as the plight of displaced Palestinians. “We are 64 years late,” says Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister. “The refugee problem does not lie only on one side.” Mr. Ayalon, whose father is an Algerian Jew, led a U.N. conference last month sponsored by Israel and dubbed “Justice for Jews From Arab Countries.”
Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, an estimated 850,000 Jews lived in the Arab world. In countries across the Middle East, there were flourishing Jewish communities with their own synagogues, schools and communal institutions.
Life changed dramatically by 1948 as Arab governments declared war on the newly created Jewish state—and on the Jews within their own borders. At the U.N., an Egyptian delegate warned that the plan to partition Palestine into two states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, “might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries.”