Out of exile: Giving props to Jewish refugees from Arab lands

Daniel Khazzoom remembers long-ago family gatherings around the sopa (kerosene space heater), roasting chestnuts and enjoying chilly winter nights in Baghdad.

Those are the only happy memories he has of the land of his birth. In the span of a few years, through a steady campaign of violence and expulsion, Iraq rid itself of a Jewish community that had thrived for two millennia.

Khazzoom fled as a teen in 1951, vowing never to return to the country that perpetrated unrelenting oppression against his family and his fellow Jews.

Now a retired economics professor living in Sacra-mento, Khazzoom, 82, once served on the board of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), a San Francisco–based organization that advocates for Mizrachi Jews and helps preserve their history.

Khazzoom is one of the 850,000 Mizrachi Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were forced out of their homelands after World War II and the establishment of Israel, and for whom justice has been denied. By and large they built new lives in Israel, the United States and elsewhere, choosing not to dwell on their misfortune.

But because the world ignored them, and because their countries of origin refused to consider any compensation, organizations such as JIMENA came into being.

Like other Jews from Arab lands, Khazzoom noted recent recognitions by Israel’s Knesset, which in June passed a law mandating that Israeli schools teach Mizrachi history, and which designated Nov. 30 as the country’s first Day of Com-memoration.

And JIMENA has named November as International Mizrachi Remembrance Month, with events taking place in Chicago, Portland, New York and Ottawa, as well as the Bay Area.

A group of Jewish tailors from Algeria, 1901 photo/courtesy jimena

For Khazzoom, the new law and the celebrations may constitute a dose of too little, too late.

“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “In general we should not dwell on the misery. There are too many miseries in Jewish history.”

Nevertheless, JIMENA has helped organize several Bay Area commemorations on behalf of the Jewish refugees displaced from Muslim countries in the 20th century, among them Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Turkey.

One event, held Oct. 30 at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, featured speeches from Iraqi-born JIMENA co-founder Semha Alwaya and Israeli Consul General Andy David, as well as a performance of Sephardic songs by Israeli musician Yair Harel.

David praised the Knesset for passing the new education law.

Daniel Khazzoom

“Now it’s part of the curriculum,” he told J. “In a year or two [Israeli] students will have to be tested on [Mizrachi history]. It will be on a higher level of the agenda. It was the Israeli leadership that advocated for it and wanted to pass it, not just Mizrachi Jews.”

Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, called passage of the law “fantastic.”

“Everyone is so proud of the Knesset for passing this bill,” she said. “Ideally it will have an impact on Jewish education curricula in the United States.”

Corrine Levy, who came as a child to the United States from her native Morocco, rejoiced at the passage of the law and spate of commemorations. For her, it’s personal.

“I’m glad to see awareness is being raised,” said Levy, who serves as director of women’s philanthropy at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “We all know so much about Jews in the Holocaust. There were very different circumstances Jews endured in the Arab world.”

For her family, it meant leaving their Casablanca home in the early 1960s, joining an exodus that shrank the Moroccan Jewish community from more than 250,000 to around 3,500 today. Still, for Jews, Morocco was perhaps the least intolerant Arab country.

Levy remembers playing on the roof of her grandmother’s home in Casablanca.

Daniel Khazzoom (left) with family members in Baghdad photo/courtesy jimena

“The Jews lived a very rich life in Morocco,” she said. “Even after [the establishment of] Israel it was OK for them. They felt the monarchy was favorable to the Jews. Many in business did commerce with the king. However, when France ended its protectorate in 1958 and Morocco gained independence, Jews felt they would lose everything. Many left for Israel, some to France, Spain and Montreal.”

Unlike so many other Mizrachi Jews forced to leave everything behind when they fled, Morocco’s Jews were treated more leniently. The Levys were allowed to take their assets with them.

They settled in Los Angeles near a small but thriving Moroccan Jewish community. Levy’s father co-founded Em Habanim, a Sephardic synagogue in the San Fernando Valley. Levy grew up speaking French and Arabic, and her family associated primarily with other Moroccan Jews. To this day she has a strong affinity for the culture she left behind (though she remembers being mortified as a child when her family parties included a belly dancer).

“Culturally we were different because we had the French background,” Levy said. “We were not religious, but we always had Shabbat. Moroccan Jews treat religion differently. They don’t have Reform or Conservative. They [practice] in an Orthodox way in the synagogue.”

Levy went on to become a development director for a string of nonprofits, including the Israel Philharmonic. She moved to the Bay Area two years ago to work for the San Francisco federation.

This past summer, Levy taught a cooking class at the Moishe House in San Francisco. “Everything I cooked were things I learned from my mother and grandmother,” she said. “Couscous with vegetables, Moroccan lemon chicken with green olives, eggplant and beet salad, and kofta [kebabs].”

Psalm 137 famously recalls the Jews in exile: “By the rivers of Babylon … and there we wept.” For Khazzoom, this was a daily reality growing up in Iraq. His synagogue stood along the banks of the Tigris.

Moroccan Jews living in Southern California, including members of Corrine Levy’s family, gather with a visiting Moroccan dignitary in Los Angeles in the late 1960s.­­ photo/courtesy corrine levy

The Iraqi Jewish community dates back to the fifth century BCE. When Khazzoom was born in 1932, it numbered around 100,000. In those waning days of colonialism, Jews enjoyed a measure of security and prosperity. Khazzoom’s father was a prominent Baghdad lawyer.

Despite the apparent calm, a vicious strain of anti-Semitism simmered under the surface.

“[Jews] built hospitals,” he said. “We did everything we could to be decent members of society. With the rise of Arab nationalism, the everyday hatred directed toward Iraq’s Jews by our Muslim neighbors snowballed into fearsome terror.”

The Khazzoom family survived the Farhud, the infamous massacre of Baghdad Jews in June 1941. Nearly 200 died, 1,000 suffered injuries, and Jewish property was looted with impunity.

“Saddam Hussein was not an aberration,” Khazzoom wrote in his memoirs. “He was a product of that culture of violence. I witnessed this inherent violence of Iraqi society over and over as a child. However, much as I tried to erase it from memory, terror of the mob is imprinted on my soul. What remains — what I have been unable to shed — is a harrowing instinct to be prepared to flee at any moment.”

At age 18, Khazzoom did flee for Israel, and for seven years he had no contact with his family. To do so would have put their lives at risk. Eventually his parents and siblings followed him to Israel.

Unfortunately, he found life in Israel only marginally better than life in Iraq. “We encountered discrimination,” he said. “They sprayed us with DDT as if we were bugs. They did not think much of us or that we had anything to offer. We were called ‘Arabs’ and derided for our language and customs as primitive.”

Still, he tried to integrate into Israeli life. Khazzoom joined the air force.

Corrine Levy

“I was really angry at what the Arabs had done to us,” he remembered. “I wanted to be a pilot because I didn’t want the Arabs to take my family home. I wanted to bomb it before the Arabs could take it.”

Khazzoom did not become a fighter pilot, and continued to struggle in Israel. In 1958, he left for the United States, where he earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, started a family and built a career as an economist, specializing in energy issues. He has taught at universities across the country, including Stanford, U.C. Berkeley and New York University.

Khazzoom said his grown daughters have embraced their heritage. One earned a Ph.D. at Cal with a dissertation on Jewish immigration to Israel from Arab countries. The other, a sociology professor, has taught at UCLA and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Though Khazzoom gladly left Iraq behind, something of the culture of his youth remained. He sang Iraqi Jewish holiday songs and lullabies to his children when they were young.

Consul General David considers the mission of JIMENA essential, especially in light of the conventional wisdom that Palestinians are the only refugees from the Middle East. So, too, were hundreds of thousands of Jews.

“That story needs to be told,” he said. “It’s an important part of history. Those refugees tried not to cry over spilled milk, but build a future. I think it’s time that the Palestinian [refugees’] claim for rights and justice does not come at the expense of Jewish rights and justice. The Palestinians use the refugee card, and many on the anti-Israel side hold this card while totally ignoring the Jewish refugees.”

With International Mizrachi Remembrance Day and mandatory teaching of Mizrachi history in Israeli schools, justice may have moved a bit closer. “There is a feeling of validation and that finally our history is being recognized,” said JIMENA’s Levin.

But for some, the pain of losing everything has not fully dissipated. A deeply imbedded fear, cultivated long ago in Iraq, has never fully left Khazzoom. Until only recently, he kept cash stashed under the mattress just in case he had to make another quick get-away.

“I knew in my head that no one would pursue me here,” he noted, “but it warps your mind.”

For information on events for International Mizrachi Remembrance Month, visit


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Photo from 1880 of Hakim Nur Mahmud, court physician in Tehran, Iran, with family and servants

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.