The Forgotten Exodus
Posted Tue, Mar 1, 2011

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Amadeus where the composer Salieri plays passages from his oeuvre on a piano to a student who stares blankly at every note. Salieri then plays the opening of his rival Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and the student’s face lights up in full recognition. “Of course,” Salieri wearily acknowledges.

I think of Salieri’s rueful exercise when I ponder the issue of Jewish exiles from Arab lands. Playing the part of Mozart are the Palestinians, with whose refugee claims most Canadians are likely familiar. In the role of Salieri are some 900,000 Jews who, unbeknownst to most Canadians, were stripped of their property and expelled or fled from countries throughout the Arab world in which they had lived for generations.

The Jews’ long sojourn in Muslim lands included periods of prosperity, marked by Jewish advances in medicine, business, culture, philosophy and religious study. Often, however, the Jews were subjected to punishing taxes, forced into ghetto-like quarters and relegated to the lower levels of socio-economic strata.

In the aftermath of Israel’s 1948 War for Independence, through the 1960s and beyond, hundreds of thousands of Jews were driven from their homes in these countries and all their property was appropriated. In 1945, there were approximately 900,000 Jews living in communities throughout the Arab world. Today, there are fewer than 8,000. Some Arab states, such as Libya, are completely judenrein; in others, there are only a few hundred elderly Jews left. During their concerted effort to force the Jews to flee, the Arab states uprooted and destroyed 2,000 years of Jewish life in the region.

In 1950, for example, the Iraqi government revoked the Jews’ citizenship and froze all Jewish assets. There were pogroms against the Jewish community of Iraq and public hangings of Jews. While Israel rescued most Iraqi Jews at this time, the remaining few thousand experienced economic deprivation, arrests, and harassment and many tried escaping in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, this ancient Jewish community, which in 1948 numbered 90,000, has only a very few, mostly elderly, Jews left.

In Egypt the message was just as clear: It would be better for Jews to abandon their property and to leave Egypt as soon as possible. Between November 1956 and June 1957, more than 22,200 Jews left Egypt, and more than 13,500 Egyptian Jews arrived in Israel by October 1957. Few Jews remain in Egypt today.

Similar scenarios played out in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and Syria where ransoms were often paid to secure releases. It is estimated that those who fled throughout the Arab world left behind property and assets worth up to $2.5 billion.

Although some of the Jewish refugees resettled in Canada, Australia, France, the United States and South America, the majority turned to Israel. Some literally fled on foot, while others were rescued by Israel in airlifts like “Operation Magic Carpet,” which brought 45,000 Yemeni Jews to Israel in 1949. Israel, a newborn state at the time, accepted these refugees and absorbed them into Israeli society.

Israel today seeks no “right of return” of the Jews to their erstwhile Arab homelands. Their plight must, however, become an important factor in refugee discussions around any Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

At a Montreal “Forgotten Exodus” conference in 2002, well-known human rights activist and Member of Parliament (later Minister of Justice) Irwin Cotler stated that, “We are speaking about returning the Jews to the narrative of Middle East history from which they have been expunged. The appreciation that there were Jewish refugees, as well as Arab refugees, and indeed that the Jewish refugees were a result of state-sanctioned discrimination against Jews in Arab lands is important … for justice and for peace and for reconciliation.”

Canadian Jewish Congress is a member of the international coalition called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries which is striving to achieve exactly what Mr. Cotler described. The exodus of Jews from Arabs countries must no longer be forgotten.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress (

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.