Know this Heritage - World Jewish Congress

Know this Heritage

The legacy of Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa

Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa have long been underrepresented in wider conversations about the rich cultural heritage of this complex region. As we have seen the warming of relations between the State of Israel and the Arab world, we have also witnessed a renewed interest – both locally and internationally – in the unique history of these now small communities that were once a significant cultural forces.

Formerly prominent components of civil society in nearly every country across the MENA region, today, Jewish communities remain in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. These now small and historic communities are the torchbearers of this millennia long heritage. Additionally, there are now growing communities forming in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Jewish history and heritage across the Middle East and North Africa stretches back thousands of years.

Jews have lived in parts of the Middle East and North Africa continuously for over 2,800 years. In the twenty years that followed the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, more than 850,000 Jews left their homes in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, and several other Arab countries. Another major migration took place from Iran in 1979–80, following the Iranian Revolution.

Although the causes of these expulsions varied, restrictive governmental measures and an outburst of antisemitic feeling during and after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 were major factors. Citizens were forced to leave behind property of great financial and ancestral value-property that was sometimes seized by the governments of the countries they fled.

Jews of MENA contributed greatly to the countries and societies in which they lived.

We must continue to work for recognition of the history, heritage and legacy of Jews from the MENA region. They contributed greatly to their home country’s economy, culture and intelligentsia.

Jewish legacy across the Arab world

The Story of Leila Murad

Over the course of her career, Leila Murad reached nearly unparalleled fame, leaving her mark on Arabic music and cinema.  Leila appeared in several best-selling musicals throughout her, becoming Egypt's top actress in the early 1940s. In 1953, she was even selected as the official singer of the Egyptian revolution. Public outrage after false reports surfaced that she had visited Israel and donated money to the IDF took a toll on her health and reputation. She surprised her fans by retiring in 1956, at age 38, and completely removed herself from public life. Despite her early retirement, her contribution to Arab music and cinema is undeniable with 27 films and nearly 1200 songs.

The Impact of Togo Mizrahi

When people think of Jewish directors and actors they often look towards Hollywood. But Jewish artists were also central to the development of the Arab film industry. One of the leading producers was Togo Mizrahi, an Egyptian Jew. During the 1940’s, he was one of the most prolific filmmakers in the country. This is his story.

The Resilience of Esther Azhari Moyal

Born in Beirut in 1873, Esther Azhari Moyal was considered a key intellectual in the 20th-century Nahḍa, or Arab Renaissance. In the 1890s, she began to write, mostly on women’s issues, for several Arab journals. Moving to Cairo in 1899, she launched a trail-blazing journal called al-ʿĀʾila (The Family) and began translating novels from European languages into Arabic. She finally settled in Israel where she continued her critical work. This is her story.

The Music of the al-Kuwaiti Brothers

Brothers Daud and Ṣalāḥ al-Kuwaiti Brothers were born in the early 1900s in the Jewish quarter of Kuwait City. In the early 1930s, the brothers moved to Iraq, where their talent for music flourished in the thriving cultural environment of Baghdad. Their careers placed them in front of Arab royalty, and their music flooded the airwaves. Sadly, their story has been all but lost – until now. This is their story.

The Legacy of Albert Samama Chikly

Jewish presence in North Africa dates back thousands of years. In Tunisia, one Jew was instrumental in bringing his country into the 20th century. Albert Samama Chikly introduced the bicycle, X-Ray, and radio to North Africa. But he is often overlooked for the impact he had on Arab cinema. This is his story.

The Humanity of Shalom Darwish

Born in Amarra, Iraq in 1913, Shalom Darwīsh is considered one of the pioneers of modern Iraqi literature. His stories exhibit innovation in language, style, and content, as well as deep humanity. Darwīsh was elected to parliament as a member of the National Democratic Party but resigned in protest of electoral corruption. Labeled a Zionist, he fled Iraq, eventually settling in Israel. This is his story.

Jews were forced out of many of their countries because they were Jewish

The Jews of MENA have consistently been loyal subjects and citizens in their respective lands. However, many who were alive during the establishment of the State of Israel were expelled from their countries and accused of being Zionists – when many were neither public about their affiliations nor did anything that would prove so.

From Our Voice

My Father Survived a Pogrom in Baghdad. I Still Hope for Jewish-Arab Engagement in Iraq.

"As he was only six years old, my father’s memory of the pogrom-like event is a bit murky. But he remembers my grandfather taking the children and his mother onto the roof of the house – and jumping from roof to roof until they reached a Muslim friend’s home, where they hid until the violence subsided. My father remembers the sounds of screaming from the attacks below," writes WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps Liran Yechiel.

Remembering the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa

“As Western countries and institutions celebrated the fall of fascism and the end of its evils, and sought to repair the traumatic ravages of World War II, a new dark chapter of exodus was being written for the Jews of the Middle East. With the rise of Arab nationalism in the 20th century, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa became a highly discriminated and vulnerable minority,” writes WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps member Sara Galico.

Jews from Middle East and North Africa: A neglected narrative

“The lack of international recognition of the plight of these Jewish refugees is shocking. It is crucial for us as Jews, and as humanitarians, to raise awareness of this seminal moment in Jewish history. The Jews who once lived in the MENA region – and their descendants – deserve recognition of their history, origin, and heritage,” writes WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps member Aaron Serota.

Expelled: The untold story of a Middle Eastern and North African experience

“They did not ask to be dispossessed. Their plight, a result of political dynamics abroad, external to their lives: the forces fighting the Arab Israeli War of Independence in Palestine. The fighting there would change their lives forever,” writes WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps member Zach Silverberg.

The Expulsion of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran – An Untold History

"My parents and grandparents were forced to flee Egypt in 1957, leaving everything they possessed behind, to start a new life in a country they didn’t know – Brazil – with a language they didn’t speak - Portuguese. All of their assets were plundered and as of today, nothing that remained of their lives in Cairo has ever been recovered. Still, from this expulsion emerged a new generation of Brazilian Jewish families that were raised in São Paulo and are very grateful to have been adopted by this diverse and welcoming country." writes WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps member Andrea Mifano.

We should honor this rich history

The date of 30th November every year has been designated by the Israeli government as the Memorial Day to mark the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. This date was symbolically chosen as it follows the 29th of November, the date that the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was adopted, and many Jewish communities in Arab countries and Iran felt pressure and faced hostility and were forced to leave their countries as a result.

Stories from our Jewish Diplomatic Corps Members

WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps Member Déborah Lichentin (France)

"This is my grandmother Daisy Seror Chelly, born in 1933, posing in a traditional Tunisian costume. Her grandfather was the President of the Jewish community of Gabès in the South of Tunisia. A mother of 4, she was a nurse and the Director of the Jewish day school in Gabès.

On 20 May 1941, the Arabs of Gabès, fired up by the propaganda of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and the defeat of France by the Nazis, murdered seven Jews on the Place de La Synagogue in what became known as the Gabès pogrom."

WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps Member Adela Smeke Mizrahi (Mexico)

My Grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Mizrahi, was born in Lebanon and served as a Rabbi in Beirut's Jewish community.

He left Lebanon to serve as the chief rabbi of the Mount Sinaí Jewish community in Mexico and continue the traditions of his ancestors in the Middle East. My family and I are deeply integrated with our Arabic heritage as we maintain our Arabic language and our Lebanese foods. As a Mexican Jew of Lebanese origin, I feel very close to Mexico's Lebanese Christian community because we share the same culture.