By Lauren Banko

A central and enduring consequence of the Nakba has been the near-total ban on the entry to Israel of Palestinian Arab refugees who lost their homes in 1948. The exclusion of non-Jewish immigration from neighboring Arab countries is also taken for granted as an enabling condition of Zionism. The systematic exclusion of Arab migration from Israel/Palestine, however, did not begin in 1948. Instead, it is rooted in specific understandings of race and nationality enshrined in the international legal agreements that laid the framework for the colonial state of the British Mandate of Palestine, the state inherited by the Zionist movement.

An ideal of racially homogenous populations in nation-states guided the processes of structuring and administering the Arab Middle East after World War I. This policy can be seen in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (ToL), which ended the state of war between Turkey and the Allies. Its implications for Palestine are hugely significant. Article 32 of the ToL entitled adults permanently resident in territories detached from the Ottoman Empire who were members of racial minorities to opt for the nationality of another former Ottoman territory where they would be part of the racial majority. The article obliged any persons exercising this right to do so within two years of the ToL’s entry into force and to transfer their place of residency to the new state where they would assimilate into the same majority racial group. The logic of the provision was to encourage the alignment of race and nationality within nation-states.

Under the logic of Article 32, Arabs of Syria or Iraq could not opt for Palestinian nationality since they belonged to the racial majority in their own country. This policy signaled a dramatic break with long-standing histories of relatively unrestricted mobility between Palestine and neighboring Arab countries. Suppressing the migration of Arab Muslims and Christians to Palestine was broadly consistent with Britain’s commitment as the mandatory to support the emergence of a Jewish national home there. But Britain excluded Arabic-speaking Jews as well, opining that these Jews in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon belonged to the majority ethnic and linguistic populations of their homelands, that is, Arab.[1]

The European colonial understanding of race envisioned Ashkenazi or religiously-observant and Orthodox Jews to be alike enough to compose their own Jewish race. This imagining did not encompass the Arabic-speaking Jews who lived in the Middle East. Thus, three years before the Lausanne Treaty, the Palestine Office distribution of immigration certificates did not go to Arabic-speaking Jews and Jews who resided historically in Arab regions, as discussed by Walter Zenner, Aviva Halamish, and in the somewhat more-dated work of Fred Gottheil. Yemen was the exception to this rule, although very few Yemeni Jews received immigration certificates. The ToL did not cover Yemen, and the British and the Zionist Organization (today, the World Zionist Organization) did not see Yemeni Jews as exclusively Arab. Rather, as discussed by Aviva Halamish, they thought of Yemenis as a potential labor force in Palestine whose cultural attributes were similar enough to the Palestinian Arabs to be able to replace them in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.

The Ashkenazi Zionist leadership in Palestine largely shared Britain’s inclination to treat non-European Jews as racially separate. Just as the British interpretation of the ToL did not treat Ladino- and Arabic-speaking former Ottoman Jews as a separate race from that of the Arab Muslims and Christians, these Jews were further ostracized as not racially Jewish since they did not come under the patronage of the Zionist Organization. The organization had little incentive to invite them to Palestine to populate the Jewish homeland. The ideas of race standardized in Article 32 and Zionist thought in relation to Palestine meant that well-known Jewish families of Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo were not considered racially Jewish for the purpose of migration to Palestine. This excluded them from the right to easily migrate to Palestine as part of the Jewish “race.”

The historical narrative of Jews in the pre-1948 Arab world shows that most Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Egyptian, and Lebanese Jews had little desire to immigrate to the Ashkenazi-dominant Jewish national home in Palestine in any event. Yet in a small number of cases, Jews felt themselves to be a minority in these Arab territories, or they desired economic opportunities in Palestine. Only in the 1930s did Iraqi and Iranian Jews receive a limited number of immigration certificates, eroding the ToL’s vision of racially homogenous post-war states.

The inscription of race in law changed in the years before and after the Nakba and those changes significantly affected Jews resident in majority-Arab countries. After the expulsion of non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs in 1948 (and again in 1967), Israel stripped them of their citizenship in the new Israeli Citizenship Law, which cancelled the Mandate’s citizenship law. The understanding that they were racially Arab allowed for the discourse by Israel and the United Nations that Palestinian refugees could integrate into Arab-majority neighboring countries. Here, the British approach to race remained key to Israel’s argument that refugees could settle anywhere in the Arab world other than Palestine and simply assimilate.

By the early 1950s, Israel did not share the same approach to race in relation to Jews resident in Arab countries. While the need for cheap labor under the Mandate led to an “exception” for Arabic-speaking Jews from Yemen, the imperatives of settling the territory seized in the 1948 war crystallized a wholesale racial reclassification of Jews from throughout the Middle East. Jews from Arab lands were encouraged (or in some cases forced) to go to Israel and populate the new state, as massive numbers of the long-preferred potential-Ashkenazi inhabitants had been killed in the Holocaust. But both the British and the Zionist movement shared the belief during the Mandate, for different reasons, that Jews from Arab countries — who today might be called Mizrahim — were not desirable members of the Jewish national home. Only with the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs during 1948 and in the aftermath of the War did Israeli place Jews from Arab countries into the ‘Jewish’ category of the racial divide.


[1] Memo, Herbert Samuel to Colonial Office, July 1921, Middle East Centre Archives, Oxford.