Jews of the Middle East and North Africa

(excluding Israel and Turkey)

Alternative names: Hebrews, Musawi, Dhimmi
Location: various countries
Population: Middle East 20,000-25,000, North Africa about 20,000
% of population: very small in every country
Religion: Judaism
Language: Hebrew, Arabic

The Jews are a Semitic people originating perhaps in Mesopotamia whence they migrated to Egypt and then in about the mid-thirteenth century BC, to Canaan, believed by them to be the land promised them by God. Their monotheistic beliefs formed the foundations upon which Christianity and Islam were built. By 321 AD, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, anti-semitism was already well established and Jews were legislated against; Christians viewed Jews as being collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 over one million Jews were living in the Muslim countries of the Near and Middle East and North Africa, but today only about 5% of this population remain in their traditional homelands.

The Middle East

Jews migrated in large numbers to Europe and throughout the Middle East and Asia. Usury or money-lending, which was an unacceptable livelihood for Muslims and Christians, became a Jewish preserve, and whilst providing an important service it heightened popular resentment against the Jews. The Jews were an unpopular minority but were treated under Islamic law as Dhimmi, subjects of the Islamic head of state and protected, as were Christians, as “People of the Book”. Dhimmis were expected to pay poll tax as non-Muslims and to respect the laws and spirit of Islam, in return for which they and their property were protected and they were exempt from military service.


Some 5,600 Jews remain in Syria today of the 30,000 who were settled there before the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. 4,500 are in Damascus, which has had a large Jewish population since Old Testament times, 1,000 live in Aleppo and about 100 live in the town of Qamishli on the Turkish border. Those who remain are not permitted to leave the country. A few do manage to leave on family visits but are obliged to leave close family and large deposits as guarantees of their return. Several dozen people a year are believed to cross the border illegally, mostly into Turkey. Jews are distinguished from Arabs by stamps on official documents. Ninety-five per cent are employed as tradesmen and artisans, and university entrance is severely restricted. Jews frequently suffer beatings and extortion but despite the hostile treatment they are subjected to, many Jews hope that President Assad will remain in power, fearful of a fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Syria which might have even worse consequences for the Jewish community.


Jews have lived in Iran for 2,500 years where they have been traditionally employed as gold and silver-smiths, weavers, dyers, wine-makers and spice dealers. From the tenth century they also earned their living as moneylenders. Persecution of the Jewish community reached a height during the sixteenth century after the establishment of Shi’ism as the state religion. In 1948 28,000 Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel leaving between 70,000 and 80,000, despite the fact that conditions had been improving under the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979).

With the victory of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution Jews were reassured of their safety as “Dhimmi”; however certain Jewish leaders were executed and thousands planned their escape to Israel, although Zionism was considered a crime punishable by death. In 1982 350 Jews were believed to be in prison for “economic crimes”, and many lost their jobs and property. The teaching of Hebrew was banned and Jewish schools were taken over, but the daily practice of the Jewish religion was hardly affected at all. Although very few Jews were officially permitted to leave, by 1987 between 50,000 and 55,000 had fled Iran along with hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Reports of secret airlifts to Israel and other Israeli involvement have been vigorously denied by Israel which continues to supply Iran with arms. In the second half of 1980 800 Jewish refugees arrived in Israel and 70-80 were reported to be arriving weekly at refugee centres in Vienna. How Jews will be affected by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 is as yet unclear.


Almost the entire Jewish community has left Iraq for Israel. Anti-Jewish outrages during the 1940s and ’50s when over 600 were killed in Baghdad provoked an exodus in 1951. 120,000 left at that time and in 1972-73 most of the remaining Jews followed them, leaving only 200-300, most of whom live in Baghdad with some in Basra. The Iraq-Iran war removed much of the pressure from the Iraqi Jews and they are not believed to have been maltreated; the end of the war in 1989 leaves their future in question, however.

The Yemens

The Jewish population of both Yemen states has dropped from 16,000 to possibly several thousand, the majority of whom are believed to be living in North Yemen. They retain their Dhimmi status and are readily distinguished from the Muslims by their special dress. There have been unconfirmed reports that some Jews have been forced to convert to Islam, and contact between local Jews and Jewish communities elsewhere has been actively discouraged.

North Africa

Large-scale Jewish migration to North Africa took place after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 71 AD, and again in the late fifteenth century. Jews settled in the cities, where many prospered as traders and moneylenders. In the twentieth century the French conferred many privileges on the Jews of North Africa, many of whom were granted French citizenship, and they attained high levels of education compared with the Arab population.


By 1948 there were some 270,000 Jews in Morocco but thereafter the population decreased rapidly and today about 17,000-18,000 remain, the majority in Casablanca with others in Marrakesh, Meknes, Fez and Tangier. The declaration of the independence of the State of Israel and the large-scale migration of Jews provoked numerous attacks upon Jewish premises and individuals, with a number being murdered. After Moroccan independence in 1956 the situation improved. Jews were granted full suffrage and complete freedom of movement, and some became government employees, a few in positions of considerable authority. Jewish emigration was made illegal, however, although thousands did leave illegally. Morocco is at present the only Arab country in which Jews enjoy equal rights and privileges with the rest of the community, but the future of these Jews depends on events elsewhere in the Middle East.


Jews in Algeria suffered persecution during the nineteenth century and under the Vichy regime in the 1940s. In the early 1950s the Jewish community reached a peak of 140,000 but in the 1960s Jews found themselves caught up in the War of Independence and, by 1962, 75,000 had left, most of them going to France. After 1965 with the rise of Boumedienne, Jews suffered further discrimination. Jewish property was destroyed and synagogues converted to mosques. The 1967 war increased anti-Jewish activity causing almost all remaining Jews to leave the country. Today there are thought to be about 400 left, most of whom are elderly.


Tunisia’s Jews are thought to have arrived after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC. As in the other French colonies the Jews fared well under colonial rule but during the brief German occupation of Tunisia in World War II forced labour camps were set up to house thousands of Jews. Since independence in 1956 Tunisia has pursued a moderate course regarding Israel although a small Tunisian contingent was sent to support the Arab cause in the Yom Kippur war. Despite the government’s liberal policies Tunisia’s Jewish population has dwindled from 105,000 in 1948 to 12,000 after the 1967 war and there are now thought to be about 3,000 Jews in the country. There have been cases of attacks on Jews and Jewish property in the 1980s but the government has made efforts to allay the fears of the Jewish community and have stated that the attacks have been isolated incidents rather than part of a new anti-Jewish campaign. Jews were afraid of future developments after President Bourguiba left office in November 1987, since he had always been regarded as their protector; however the new government has supported increased human rights protection, which hopefully will ensure the continued existence of the Jewish community in Tunisia.


Jews migrated to Egypt from Palestine in large numbers during the sixth and third centuries BC, and in 115 AD their revolt was suppressed and the Jewish community in Egypt was destroyed. By the twelfth century Jews began to re-establish themselves in the country. They experienced repression sporadically and under Ottoman rule (1517-1918) they became an oppressed minority.

In 1948 there were 65,000-70,000 Jews in Egypt, all living in the major cities. Many of these were affluent. During the 1948 war hundreds of Jews were arrested and property and businesses were confiscated; there were also bomb attacks on Jewish areas which left hundreds killed or injured. 25,000 Jews left Egypt between 1948 and 1950. Many more left after the imprisonment of thousands after the 1956 war, and again after 1967. There are now about 250 Jews, mostly elderly, living in Egypt. Jews have not returned to Egypt since the normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel and it seems likely that the community will have completely disappeared within a few years.