MESA Banner
Rethinking Jewish Migration to and from the Middle East and North Africa

Panel I-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Scholarship on Jewish migration in the Middle East and North Africa has often portrayed this migration as unidirectional, primarily focused on Israel, and framed it within the “lachrymose conception” of Jewish history that emphasizes antisemitism and Jewish suffering. Instead, this panel will offer a more complex portrayal of Jewish migration, one that considers multiple destinations, different time periods, and migration both away from, and toward, the region. In addition, it will pay particular attention to the diverse factors underpinning both Jewish migrants’ reasons for immigrating and where they chose to resettle, including economic opportunities, political commitments, and the efforts of international Jewish nongovernmental organizations. The five papers in this panel will draw on a wide variety of sources, including police records, diplomatic correspondence, memoirs, oral history interviews, and the collections of international Jewish organizations in order to consider migration from Egypt, Iraq, and Morocco to diverse settings such as Argentina, Brazil, England, France, and Israel/Palestine. The first paper will examine the life histories of three Iraqi Jewish women, focusing on their public and political activities in Iraq and their places of resettlement alike. The second paper will compare the experiences of Moroccan Jewish immigrants in Argentina and Israel, considering how differing state policies and distinct social and economic opportunities have shaped their narratives of migration. The third paper will explore the migration of Egyptian Jews to Brazil, analyzing how political diplomacy, international aid organizations, and the desires of Egyptian Jews themselves combined to make Brazil the most popular destination for Egyptian Jewish migrants after Israel. The fourth paper will assess the role of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in simultaneously mediating the migration of Moroccan Jews and negotiating their belonging in postcolonial Morocco. Finally, the fifth paper will investigate the migration of central and eastern European Jews to Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to demonstrate their integration into their Arabic-speaking environments. By examining Jewish migration both to and from the Middle East and North Africa from the early nineteenth century until the 1970s, to a wide variety of destinations in Europe and the Americas, and for a broad array of economic, political, and social motivations, this panel will contribute to the revision of polarized narratives of Jewish departure, and offer exciting new directions for the study of Jewish migration throughout this region.
  • Dr. Orit Bashkin -- Presenter
  • Dr. Shay Hazkani -- Discussant
  • Dr. Lior B. Sternfeld -- Chair
  • Dr. Yair Wallach -- Presenter
  • Dr. Michael Rom -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Roy Orel Shukrun -- Presenter
  • Dr. Orit Bashkin
    The migration Jews from Iraq to Israel, Europe and North America, is a complicated historical affair, whose racial, economic and social aspects have been studied at depth. This paper inquires the gendered perspectives of this migration. It suggests that the process of migration deeply shaped the experiences of Iraqi Jewish women in their families, as mothers, daughters, wives, and their employment, especially in gendered professions such as social workers and philanthropists. To do so, I follow the life narratives of three Iraqi Jewish women, and the transnational and local networks to whom they belonged and which they activated during their multiple migrations and immigrations. While these women share very little in common, key moments in global and Iraqi history influenced their lives as gendered migrants in similar ways. Renée Dangoor was born in Shanghai in 1925 to an affluent Baghdadi Jewish family, and moved back to Baghdad as a child. In 1947, she won the title of Miss Iraq, in a pageant held at the Iraqi Flying Club. With her husband, Naim Dangoor, she migrated from Iraq to England in 1959, where she engaged in public and philanthropic activities. Sa‘ida Mash‘al (b. 1929) was raised in ‘Amara and moved to Baghdad in 1941, where she eventually became an important activist in the illegal Iraqi Communist Party. Jailed in 1949, Sa‘ida emerged as a jail leader, teaching illiterate women how to read, and organizing strikes protesting the women’s jailing conditions. Sa‘ida was released in 1958 and completed her higher education, earning a Ph.D. She converted to Islam, adopting the name Su’ad, and married communist Zaki Khayri. Su‘ad moved to Moscow in 1963 and returned to Iraq only in 1967. In 1979, after being arrested and tortured, she left for Sweden, where she continued writing and publishing. Nuzhat Darwish Qassab was born in Baghdad in 1932. Her father died when she was ten months old and after the Farhud, the family moved to Basra. In 1951, the family immigrated to Israel. Nuzhat studied Political Science and Middle East Studies at Hebrew University, and worked in Israel's Arabic Radio Station, where she met her husband, Reuben Qassab, the station’s director. A longtime member of the Histadrut, she led groups of women in Palestinian villages and in transit camps and played a role in shaping Israel’s consumers rights. In 1974, she was elected to the Knesset.
  • Dr. Michael Rom
    Immediately following the 1956 Suez War between Egypt and Israel, the Egyptian government under Gamal Abdel Nasser embarked on a campaign of state persecution against the Egyptian Jewish community, which included mass arrests and internment, confiscations of businesses and property, loss of employment and citizenship, and outright expulsions. This campaign prompted the emigration of approximately thirty-six thousand Egyptian Jews during the next five years, making up roughly four-fifths of Egypt’s total Jewish population. Scholarship on this mass migration has mainly focused on Israel, where nearly half of these emigrants resettled, as well as France and the United States, which became home to smaller communities of Egyptian Jews. But it has largely overlooked Brazil, the main destination of Egyptian Jewish emigrants after Israel. This presentation will examine Egyptian Jewish emigration to Brazil from 1956 to 1961. Drawing on Brazilian diplomatic correspondence, the records of international aid organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and oral history interviews with Egyptian Jewish immigrants in Brazil, it will ask why Brazil became home to the second largest community of Egyptian Jews in the world. It will argue that the answer to this question lies in Brazil’s attempt to distance itself from its prior antisemitic immigration restrictions, the willingness of European nations such as France, Greece, and Italy to accept Egyptian Jewish refugees in transit provided that they ultimately resettled elsewhere, the efforts of international Jewish aid organizations to provide a lasting solution to the refugee problem, and the desires of Egyptian Jewish refugees to replicate the living standards that they had enjoyed in Egypt. Building on a growing body of research on Middle Eastern immigration to Latin America, and departing from prior scholarship on the exodus of Middle Eastern and North African Jews that has largely studied their emigration within Zionist analytical frameworks, this presentation will situate the immigration of Egyptian Jews to Brazil within the overlapping contexts of the Cold War, international diplomacy, and the increasing importance of nongovernmental organizations in managing mid-century migration. By moving away from overdetermined interpretive approaches toward one emphasizing multilateral actors with competing agendas, this presentation will offer a new model for the study of Middle Eastern Jewish emigration.
  • Roy Orel Shukrun
    Between 1862 and 1956, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) in Morocco transformed from a small Franco-Jewish educational institution staffed by foreign-born teachers into a large network of 83 schools and over 33,000 students, administrated mostly by local-born Moroccan Jews. If scholars have treated the AIU solely as an agent of westernization which detached Moroccan Jews from their country of birth, this paper explores how the AIU simultaneously mediated the migration of Moroccan Jews and negotiated their belonging in independent Morocco. Reframing pre-independence MENA-wide migration facilitated by the École Normale Israelite Orientale in Paris, migration surrounding Moroccan independence, and local union activity during waves of heavy departure post-independence, the Moroccan AIU is presented as a local institution serving local needs in a tumultuous period. Before Moroccan independence, the AIU hosted young Moroccan Jews at the École Normale Israelite Orientale in Paris and then facilitated these teachers’ career migrations from Essaouira to Teheran. For some Jews of Moroccan origin born abroad, particularly in Palestine, AIU networks enabled return migration to Morocco. At the same time, the Moroccan AIU’s teachers, unionized since 1943, utilized their employer’s relationship to the French government to extract better conditions at home. Following Morocco’s independence from France (and Spain) in 1956, the countries signed the 1957 “Convention Culturelle”, restructuring Morocco’s educational system. The Convention required teachers to “reintegrate,” meaning be attached to the Moroccan State, the French State, or the French Mission in Morocco. Throughout this period, local Moroccan Jews prompted the AIU to negotiate on behalf of its employees who wished to leave Morocco and “reintegrate” abroad. Others petitioned the AIU to negotiate with the Moroccan government to secure its personnel’s integration into the Moroccan civil service. As Moroccan Jews emigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, the Moroccan AIU facilitated such movement, while increasingly proving itself to be a local institution, utilized by its staff against both the Paris AIU, the French and the Moroccan governments to secure their futures at home. This paper stresses the narration of Moroccan Jewish life alongside emigration. By reframing AIU operations in Morocco, not as a satellite of the metropole, but as a local Moroccan institution, this perspective nuances polarized narratives of departure and the notion that the AIU detached Moroccan Jews from their country of birth. More broadly, this case offers an alternative to lachrymose and neo-lachrymose metanarratives of MENA Jewish departure which essentialize these migrations and suppress migrants’ agency.
  • Dr. Yair Wallach
    This paper seeks to re-examine and problematise the distinction between migrants and colonial settlers, by looking at Ashkenazi Jews in Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The study of Jewish Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) migration to the Levant focuses entirely on Palestine, and typically takes 1882 as a watershed that separates religiously motivated migration and Zionist, nationally motivated settler migration. This paper re-examines this conceptualisation by paying attention to Ashkenazi integration and acculturation in the Arab/Ottoman levant, and by expanding the geographical frame to look more broadly at the region including Egypt and Lebanon. Studying Ashkenazim in Beirut, Alexandria and Cairo inevitably leads us to question the temporal, racial and spatial terms through which this migration had been understood. I argue that while Jewish migration in the second half of the 19th century had national and settler-colonial dimensions, there is also compelling evidence for integration (in cultural, social, economic, and political terms), which suggests that most Ashkenazim sought ways to find their place within the existing political and social order, rather than try to replace and undo that order as part of colonial intervention. However, most Ashkenazi migrants also retained their European citizenships and enjoyed consular protection, which set them apart from the local population, and, towards the first world war, cast them in the role of potentially disloyal elements, and tools of European colonial intervention. Furthermore, from the 1860s, Ashkenazi Jews expressed interest in colonisation projects in Palestine (and, to a much lesser extent, in other parts of the region: Jewish colonies were established in Cyprus and Anatolia). From the 1880s onwards, colonisation in Palestine acquired a Jewish national dimension. My argument is that rather than a neat divide between migrants seeking integration, and colonisers who operated under the European imperial umbrella, there was a spectrum of positionalities, which shifted according to the economic and political context. Thus, an ardent Zionist who came to Palestine to be a colonist ended up as an owner of a guest house in Beirut (a migrant in functional terms); while some Orthodox Jews whose families immigrated to Palestine well before Zionism, and were semi-acculturated in the local Arab environment, became colonists and internalised a discourse and praxis of confrontation with the neighbouring Arab villagers.