As an Egyptian Jewish refugee, I celebrate Passover with special meaning. Passover is a time to commemorate the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt in 1,300 B.C. and return to freedom in Israel. At my family seders in Cairo in the 1940s, we felt as if we represented the enduring memory of that exodus. Little did we know that we would soon experience our own exodus from Egypt as a result of racism and oppression.
On Passover it is a Jewish tradition that, in retelling the exodus story, we should feel as if we ourselves experienced persecution and exodus from Egypt. I hope that this year we also remember the modern exodus of Middle Eastern Jews, one million of whom fled their homes in Arab countries between 1940 and 1980.
Jews are the oldest-existing indigenous group in the Middle East. While our communities long predate the Arab conquest of the region in the 7th century, our contributions to modern Arab states are immense. Sasson Heskel, a Baghdadi Jew, was Iraq’s finance minister in the 1930s. My relative Mourad Bey helped draft the Egyptian constitution in the 1930s. (Not many Egyptians know that a Jew helped draft their constitution.) And Layla Murad, the great diva of Arabic music and film, was also an Egyptian Jew — our own Barbara Streisand.
But even as child, I understood that Jews were second-class citizens. Signs in the street read: El yahud kalb el arab, “The Jews are the dogs of the Arabs.” At school, my best friend Menyawi turned to me and said with a half-smile, “One day, all the Jews will have their throats slit.” An older Muslim man advised that if I was threatened in the streets, I should say: Ana Muslum, M’wahed billah, “I am a Muslim and believe in one God.”
Despite the hatred in the air, my family was successful. In 1950, as a teenager, I attended a British prep school in Cairo that boasted prominent alumni such as King Hussein of Jordan and Columbia professor Edward Said (who never writes about how his Jewish classmates were expelled from Egypt). But I never got the chance to graduate.
In 1952, Egypt’s new nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, began arresting Jews on trumped-up charges and confiscating their property. My uncle and cousin were arrested and a warrant was issued for my father. My family happened to be traveling in Europe, and my father said: “We’ll never return.” My uncle chose to remain, and, following the 1967 war with Israel, was thrown in an Egyptian concentration camp for three years, along with hundreds of other Egyptian Jews.
In 1943, 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt. In 2003, fewer than 50 remain. In 1300 B.C., the Israelites were forced to flee Egypt so fast that their bread didn’t have time to rise. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jews were forced to flee Egypt so fast they didn’t have time to pack their bags.
This pattern of intimidation and expulsion has been repeated in countries throughout the Middle East: in Morocco, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Iraq. Arab governments have forced hundreds of thousands of Jews from their lands through laws and waves of pogroms. The American Sephardi Federation estimates that Arab governments confiscated tens of billions of dollars in property and assets from fleeing Jews.
Some fled to Europe and America — like Vidal Sassoon, from Iraq, or Jerry Seinfeld’s mother, from Syria. But the majority returned to Israel, where today more than half of the population is Mizrahi — the descendants of Jews who fled the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century.
But Arab governments today do not retell the story of Jewish flight from Egypt. I recently checked in to a hotel and struck up a conversation in Arabic with the Egyptian woman working behind the counter. Astonished to learn I fled Cairo as a teenager, she said: “I didn’t know there were Jews in Egypt.”
Today, hatred of Jews is stronger than ever. I see it in the Arab media, school curricula, and of course the mosques. Just a few months ago, Egyptian television ran a 41-part series based on the anti-Semitic myth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The same hatred that drove us from our homes now fuels suicide bombings and lynchings, and the challenge before us is to stop this racism once and for all.
As we recall the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, we should not forget the modern exodus of Jews in the Middle East. This Passover is a time to commemorate these lost Jewish communities and seek justice for the victims of the Forgotten Exodus. When Arab governments recognize their role in turning nearly a million Jews into refugees, peace will at last be possible.
— Joseph Abdel-Wahed is the former chief economist of Wells Fargo Bank and cofounder of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.