Skip to main content

Jews in the Middle East


History of Jewish presence in the area from 2000 b.c.e.

The origins of the Jewish people are in the Middle East. Earliest Jewish history dates from the second millennium b.c.e.and its echoes appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible also recounts the vicissitudes of national life in ancient Israel and the evolution of Judaism. By the time of the Romans' expansion and their destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 70 c.e., Jews were living in much of the Middle East and some had moved into the western Roman EmpireEurope. The foundations of postSecond Temple Judaism were then laid by rabbis in Roman Palestine and in Parthian and Sassanian Babylonia. They canonized the Scripture, redacted the liturgy, and created the Talmud and Midrash.

Beginnings of Muslim Rule

With the conquests of Islam from the seventh century on, the majority of world Jewry came under Muslim rule. The demographic centers of world Jewry were located in the Middle East and the Maghrib, which included North Africa and Muslim regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Jewish merchants kept records in Arabic rendered in Hebrew script, and major rabbinic works in Judeo-Arabic were written by luminaries such as Saʿadyah Gaon in Iraq or Maimonides in Egypt. Jews in Persia also developed a Judeo-Persian literature.

In the later Middle Ages, the quality of Jewish life in the Middle East declined following transformed economic, social, and intellectual climates in the region. Native Christianity disappeared from the Maghrib and general attitudes toward non-Muslims hardened both there and further east. The laws of differentiation (in Arabic, ghiyar ) were enforced with greater vigor and consistency than in earlier periods. Over time, Jews were increasingly confined by law or custom to restricted quarters, called mellah in Morocco, qa ʿat al-Yahud in Yemen, mahallat in Iran, and harat al-Yahud elsewhere.

The arrival, beginning in the fifteenth century, of SephardimJewish refugees from Christian Spain, Portugal, and Sicilyand the Ottoman conquest of much of the region in the early sixteenth century
breathed new demographic, economic, and cultural life into Middle Eastern Jewry. Jews in many eastern Mediterranean cities continued to speak Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). Some wealthy Sephardic families were intermediaries linking European commerce with local economies, but in time this niche was lost to Armenians, Greeks, and Levantine Christians. Most Jews, artisans and petty merchants, were poor. Culturally, Sephardic rabbinic codification and mystical exploration continued to evolve.

In the nineteenth century expanding European economies in the area enabled Jewish and Christian merchants to link up with European consular interests or seek foreign protection that became available under the Capitulations (in Turkish, imtiyazat ). At the same time, many came to enjoy improved civil status in the Ottoman Empire under the Tanzimat reforms. They also availed themselves of Western education provided by foreign cultural and religious missionaries. From 1862 on, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) was the main propagator of the French language and European-style education among Jews from Morocco to Iran. By 1900 more than 100,000 students had studied
in AIU schools. The AIU stressed Enlightenment values, created new expectations, and aroused feelings of international Jewish solidarity. It produced cadres of Westernized Jews with a social advantage over Muslims who lacked such education, as the Middle East was drawn into world capitalism. Educational mobility led to geographical mobility as Jews in the region moved from areas of lesser economic opportunity such as Morocco, Syria, and the Turkish Aegean isles to areas of European economic concentration such as Algeria and Egypt. Others emigrated to Europe and South America. Jews from Iraq settled in ports in India, Burma, Malaysia, and China.

Against the backdrop of these trends, Jews were incorporated into different political frameworks during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Algeria they were French citizens from 1870; in Tunisia, after the French Protectorate in 1883, some could apply for citizenship, and eventually about one-third of them did so; Syrian Jews lived under a French mandate after World War I; in Iraq, they were citizens of an independent Arab state from 1932; and in Yemen, Jews retained the status of dhimmi in a Muslim polity until they began to migrate to Israel after 1948. Within these diverse conditions Jews exhibited a range of cultural and political responses.

AIU education partially separated Jews from local Muslims and heightened their receptivity to French colonialism in the Maghrib, Syria, and Lebanon. With some exceptions, such as Yaʿqub Sanu, the father of modern Arab theater and political journalism in Egypt, and Albert Carasso, active in the Young Turk movement, Jews were not prominent in the intellectual and political currents developing in the Islamic world. In Iraq, only a handful of Jewish writers wrote in literary Arabic.

Rise of Zionism

A small number of Jews were touched by the Haskala, the Hebrew-language Enlightenment of mid- to late-nineteenth-century Europe. Books and newspapers in Hebrew circulated throughout Middle Eastern communities. A Judeo-Arabic press was active in some countries, notably Tunisia. Newspapers made Jews of the region aware of currents sweeping others parts of the Jewish world, including migration, religious reform, and Zionism.

From its very earliest days, Zionism made modest inroads into major urban centers in the Middle East. Sympathy for the movement was often philanthropic rather than political. Zionism did arouse popular enthusiasm in the wake of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the Allied victory in World War I, and the San Remo Conference in 1920. In 1917 thousands of Jews gathered in Cairo and Alexandria in support of the Balfour Declaration, and similar scenes greeted Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist Commission for Palestine when they passed through Egypt the following year. Several hundred Jewish families emigrated from Morocco to mandatory Palestine between 1919 and 1923, to the chagrin of French colonial authorities. About 1,000 Jews from Iraq and smaller numbers from Syria settled in Palestine at this time.Others arrived from Libya in the 1930s as part of sports events, and stayed in the country. There had been a stream of Jews from Yemen to Palestine, totaling several thousand from 1880 to 1929, when the imam of Yemen ordered an end to the emigration.

The initial enthusiasm for Zionism subsided due to opposition from colonial authorities, members of the Jewish upper classes, and, most importantly, growing Arab and pan-Islamic nationalist movements. With rare exceptions, such as Sasson Heskayl, who served as Iraq's first finance minister; Joseph Aslan Cattaoui, who was Egypt's minister of finance in 1923 and minister of communications in 1925; or Léon Castro, editor of the Egyptian Wafd Party's French-language daily La Liberté, Jews in the Muslim world were studiously apolitical, especially in Arab countries. From the time of the Western Wall riots in Jerusalem in 1929, Arab nationalism became increasingly anti-Zionist, and, despite frequent disclaimers, both nationalist leaders and followers often merged anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

In the 1930s and 1940s the growing admiration among Arabs for German national socialism and Italian fascism, which stood in opposition to the colonial powers of Great Britain and France, discouraged Jews from finding a place in the societies that Arab nationalists wanted to create. In Turkey, too, some Jews were affected by the Axis sympathies of the government that at times was paralleled by discrimination against nonethnic Turks.

World War II affected Jews in the Muslim world in various ways. In June 1941, at the end of the short-lived pro-Axis regime of Rashid Ali a-Kaylani, Iraqi Jewry suffered a pogrom called the Farhud; Jews in Libya became subject to racial laws enacted in Italy; and Vichy, France, rescinded the citizenship of Jews in Algeria. Jews in Egypt and Mandatory Palestine felt deeply threatened by the German Afrika Korps advancing into western Egypt. Throughout the Middle East, Jews had heard the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, broadcast in Arabic from Berlin, calling upon listeners to "kill the Jews wherever you find them, for the love of God, history, and religion." Many Jews began to ponder their future in the region both in relation to European colonial powers and to the local Muslim societies.

PostWorld War II

The postwar years witnessed a renewal of pan-Islam and pan-Arabism on the one hand and Jewish nationalism on the other. A rapid chain of events undermined the weakened underpinnings of Jewish life in the Arab countries. Anti-Jewish riots occurred in Egypt and Libya in November 1945. In December 1947, following the United Nations partition vote on Palestine, riots rocked Jewish communities in Aden, Bahrain, and Aleppo. With the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, restrictive administrative measures were imposed on Jews in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, both during and after the ArabIsrael War of 1948. From May 1948 through 1951 more than 650,000 Jews migrated to Israel, half of them from the Middle East. Major migrations from Morocco and Tunisia arrived in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. By 1967 the majority of the 800,000 Jews in Arab countries at mid-twentieth century had left. During this period, half of Turkey's 80,000 Jews and about one third of Iran's 100,000 Jews departed for Israel, but others, including nearly half of Maghribi Jewry, went to France and elsewhere.

By the 1980s Jews of Middle Eastern originadot ha-mizrah comprised well over half of Israel's Jewish population. Migration to Israel by Jews from the former Soviet Union made the percentages of Middle Eastern and European origin groups equal in the 1990s. By 2000 the Jewish community in Turkey stood at about 20,000. Iranian Jewry functioned actively until the revolution of 1979 that established the Islamic republic. Jews then immigrated to Israel, Europe, and the United States, and in 1989 about 22,000 remained in Iran. Very few Jews now reside in the Arab world; the largest groupabout 3,500lives in Morocco. Since the 1980s Morocco has encouraged Jewish tourists from Israel and elsewhere, and Tunisia has done the same since the 1990s.

see also adot ha-mizrah; alliance israÉlite universelle (aiu); antisemitism; arabisrael war (1948); balfour declaration (1917); capitulations; dhimma; farhud; haskalah; heskayl, sasson; judaism; ladino; mizrahi movement; san remo conference (1920); sanu, yaʿqub; talmud; united nations and the middle east; weizmann, chaim; zionism; zionist commission for palestine.


Goldberg, Harvey E., ed. Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries: History and Culture in the Modern Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Simon, Reeva S.; Laskier, Michael M.; and Reguer, Sara, eds. The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Stillman, Norman. "Fading Shadows of the Past: Jews in the Islamic World." In Survey of Jewish Affairs 1989, edited by William Frankel. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1979.

Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991.

norman stillman
updated by harvey e. goldberg

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Jews in the Middle East." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 21 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Jews in the Middle East." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (February 21, 2019).

"Jews in the Middle East." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved February 21, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.