There has been an uninterrupted presence of large Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa from time immemorial. In the eighth and sixth centuries BCE* Assyria and Babylon respectively conquered the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judea. This marks the beginnings of the ancient Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, some 1,000 years before the Arab Muslim conquests of the these regions — including the Land of Israel — and about 2,500 years before the birth of the modern Arab states.
Despite the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, the Land of Israel under various Jewish governments remained the central locale of most of ancient Jewry. Nonetheless, strong and vibrant Jewish communities remained in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa and (pre-Muslim) Arabia.
In the 7th century CE, Arab armies under the banner of the new religion of Islam conquered the vast regions of the Middle East and North Africa, encountering indigenous peoples living in their own lands. Over the centuries, through a process of Arabization and Islamicization, these regions are now known as the “Arab world.” Yet, non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities, the original indigenous inhabitants, remained as minorities in their own lands.
The 1,400 year history of the Jews under Arab and Muslim rule is a long and varied one. Jews (and Christians) were considered dhimmi, a “protected” group of second-class citizens. The Jews’ sojourn in Muslim lands was marked by some golden periods of prosperity, when Jews served as advisors to the ruling class; these periods were often marked by Jewish advances in medicine, business and culture. Jewish philosophy and religious study also flourished. Often, however, the Jews were subjected to punishing taxes, forced to live in cramped ghetto-like quarters and relegated to the lower-levels of the economic and social strata.
In 1948, two refugee populations emerged as a result of the Arab states’ war against the newly established State of Israel: the Palestinian Arabs and the indigenous Jewish populations who were expelled from Arab states. While Jewish refugees were absorbed into Israel and granted citizenship, Palestinian refugees were rarely, with the exception of Jordan, absorbed into their host Arab society.