Advertisement Close

Seeking Refuge: Jewish People Taken in by Arab People

posted on: Feb 18, 2021

By: Emily Devereaux/Arab America Contributing Writer

There is a tumultuous history between Jewish people and Arab people. Conflicts trace back to biblical dates. Today, there is a confusing stigma about relations between Jewish people and Arab people. However, certain time periods saw Jewish people seeking refuge among Arab people.

1492: Discovery of the New World

Per the Alhambra decree, Jewish people were expelled from Spain, Sicily, Portugal and eventually Calabria, Italy. The primary motivation behind this expulsion was to limit the influence that Jewish people had over the people who converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Ferdinand II and Isabella I, the Catholic monarchs that ordered this decree, wanted to keep their Catholic majority. Prior to expulsion, the Jewish people in this region faced severe religious persecution, which was the primary motivation for more than half of the Jewish people in Spain to convert to Catholicism. Any religion that was not Catholicism was not accepted in Spain well.

Following their expulsion, many Jewish people fled to North Africa, specifically to Tunisia, for refuge. Here, their skills and commercial connections were utilized. The Spanish Jews that successfully immigrated to Turkey, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere were known as Sephardic Jews. Sefarad is the Hebrew term for Spain, and therefore Sephardim informally banned Jewish people from living in Spain again, as this decree was a terrible betrayal to the Jewish people that were happy with their lives in Spain.

The 1930s: The Beginning of the Holocaust 

Prior to the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, Nazi Germany began to exhibit blatant aggression toward neighboring countries and people within its borders that triggered a refugee crisis. Concurrently, legislation and laws were being passed that would essentially remove Jewish people from German public life. These infringements also denied rights, employment, and education to Jewish people. These aggressive steps and blatant Anti-Semitism drove a humanitarian refugee crisis as thousands of vulnerable people scrambled to find refuge and remain safe from the grip of the Third Reich.

At this time, there were rising tensions and conflicts between the Arab people in Palestine and Jewish settlers. Therefore, the British mandate decided to implement a limitation of the amount of Jewish people entering the country. This was implemented in 1939 after Palestine received a high influx of Jewish people seeking refuge. Jewish immigration peaked in 1935 and represented 30% of the Palestinian population by 1936. In tandem with Jewish immigrants, Palestine saw economic vigor, while many countries in Europe saw stagnation in their economies.

Unfortunately, relations between Palestinian people and Jewish people turned sour. By 1936, many Palestinian people demanded to end all Jewish immigration. Eventually, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers played a part in orchestrating the great Palestinian revolt of 1936, in which Jewish homes were set afire and local shops were looted and orchards were vandalized.

Jewish People in Arab Countries: Then and Now


In 1944, Syria was independent of France. This new government prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricted the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools. Tensions continued to rise, but especially spiked when the partition of Israel was declared in 1947. This resulted in attacks, vandalism, and the fleeing of the Jewish people in Syria. Additionally, the Syrian government took to intensifying measures against Jewish people, which included restricting their job fields, closing schools, and barring them from buying property.

For years, there was a feeling of fear among Jewish people in Syria. However, the United States began to pressure President Hafez Assad to lift the restrictions on Jewish people in the 1990s. Since then, the government has taken proactive measures ensuring the safety of the small Jewish population in Syria. Assailants face arrest and remaining synagogues are guarded. The Jewish population has separate primary schools for religious instruction, and Hebrew is taught in some schools.


Dating back to 722 B.C., northern tribes of Israel were defeated by Assyria, and some Jewish people were taken to modern-day Iraq. This signifies one of the longest surviving Jewish communities that still live in Iraq today. This community quickly grew and began to identify as Babylonians. Eventually, when Iraq gained its independence in 1932, many well-educated Jewish people helped, using outside ties and foreign language proficiency. Yehezkel Sasson, Iraq’s first Minister of Finance, was Jewish. Jewish communities also helped play a role in the development of judicial and postal systems.

However, as Zionist movements intensified, the Iraqi-Jewish population suffered devastating persecution. These attacks would not stop, especially during partitioning. Upon the establishment of Israel, Zionism became a capital crime in Iraq. In 1950, Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave the country within a year, on the condition they had to forfeit their Iraqi citizenship. Today, there is only one functioning synagogue in Iraq and the Jewish population has decreased to below ten. Many traces of Jewish heritage in this country are gone but, little by little, documents are sent to the U.S. National Archives. This is to be restored and preserve the history of the longest surviving Jewish population.


Similar to the reactions within many Arab countries, there was a great outcry and protest from the Arab people upon the partitioning of Palestine to make room for Israel, which resulted in violent protests and death. Following these reactions, the Yemeni-Jewish population of almost fifty-thousand people emigrated from Yemen. Many believed the Yemeni-Jewish population was extinct. However, an American diplomat stumbled upon a small Jewish community in a remote region. This small community in the north is tolerated. However, Jewish people are still treated as second class citizens and cannot serve in the army, nor be elected into politics.

Following mass exodus in the 1940s, the Jewish populations of Yemen scattered. Therefore, communal structures no longer exist. As the numbers continue dwindling, Judaism is still an indigenous religion to the Yemeni area.


Morocco is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Arab world, with 2,200 Jewish people in 2018. Prior to the Second World War, Morocco’s King Mohammed V met to discuss the status of Jewish citizens in Morocco with Germans. Famously, King Mohammed V said, “there are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslim citizens, they are all Moroccans”.  While Moroccan Jewish people never experienced the full brunt of the Holocaust the same way European Jewish people did, they still faced humiliation, Anti-Semitism, and violence.

Every year on special dates, many Moroccan Jewish people from around the world come and visit one of Morocco’s thirteen famous sites that are centuries old and well-kept by their Muslim neighbors. This is one example of how the Moroccan Jewish community created its own unique Moroccan-Jewish traditions.

Check out our blog!