1938-2018

The Man Who Fought for the Memory of Jews Persecuted in the Arab World

Former head of the Center for Jews from Arab and Islamic Countries Meir Kahlon, who survived the so-called Holocaust of Libyan Jews, never accepted how Israel shunted aside the history of Jews from Arab countries

FILE Photo: Holocaust survivors from Libya return from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
Yad Vashem

Meir Kahlon, the former head of the Center for Jews from Arab and Islamic Countries who died last week, made history four years ago, winning Israel’s formal recognition of the suffering endured by his and hundreds of thousands of other Jewish families. They either fled for their lives or were expelled from Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Egypt, on the eve of Israel’s founding and afterwards.

“Until today they’ve only talked about Arab refugees, not Jewish refugees. Today we marked a memorial day for the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries,” Kahlon said at Bar-Ilan University’s Dahan Center during the first such annual remembrance.

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The date on which the memorial is held is November 30th, one day after the day the United Nations voted for partition and the establishment of a Jewish state. “Arab nations didn’t accept the UN’s partition plan, and launched riots against the Jews. Today we want to remember this as a Jewish nakba day in Arab countries,” Kahlon told Haaretz at the time, employing the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that Palestinians use for their mass exile and loss of their homeland in the 1948 war.

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“It wasn’t only the Palestinians who had a nakba, it was also our nakba, the Jews of Arab lands who were expelled and massacred,” he said.

Former head of the Center for Jews from Arab and Islamic Countries Meir Kahlon passed away last week
Dudu Bachar

His uncle, Bachar Kahlon, was born in 1938 in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, where the Jewish community numbered 40,000. His father, Shalom Kahlon, had arrived there from El-Khoms in northern Libya and married Margalit Gita of the Fadlun clan. An uncle on his father’s side had been head of the Jewish community in Zuwarah on the Tunisian border. One of his ancestors had been Rabbi Hacham Binyamin Kahlon.

“We studied Hebrew. Zionism was in our blood, in a community of 2,500 years,” he said. When he was eight, his big sister taught him the words to a children’s song called “A dunam here and a dunam there.”

Kahlon’s mother was killed in the Holocaust of Libyan Jews in 1942.

“They came and took my father to a labor camp. My mother didn’t want to open the door. The Germans and Italian Fascists gave the door a bang, my mother fell down and a day later she died,” he said.

The family later fled Tripoli by paying bribes, and found shelter in Zuwarah.

“The Jews didn’t feel safe anymore in Libya, but continued living and building,” he said.

In 1945, 133 Jews were killed in Tripoli’s riots, in which a synagogue and hundreds of Jewish businesses were torched.

In 1949, when he was 11, he immigrated to Israel with his father and younger brother on a boat called Komemiyut. They arrived at Aliyah Gate and from there moved to a tent encampment in Pardes Hannah, then to Moshav Alma, then Moshav Shuba, until they settled in Moshav Ahisamech, founded by Jews of Libyan origin.

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He saw how Israel had shunted aside the history of his and many other families from Arab countries. “We were always second in importance. The education system never asked me to tell the story of my mother and father. They didn’t concern themselves with my learning about it. It hurt me. I was angry at how they only spoke about the riots, suffering and Holocaust of European Jews, and not about our holocaust,” he told Haaretz.

“True the numbers of Jews killed among us was smaller than in Poland – but it isn’t right that we learned about the Kishinev riots for our matriculation exams while the pogroms against Arab Jews weren’t mentioned. In Libya people were also put in camps. Libyan Jews also hid and suffered.”

Kahlon went to school in the Ben Shemen Youth Village. After his military service he went into teaching and counseling youths. Later he got involved in public and economic work in the moshavim and the Histadrut. Alongside this he dealt with memorializing Libyan Jewry, was among the founders of the Libyan Jewish Museum in Or Yehuda, and helped Libyan Jews persecuted during the Holocaust.

Kahlon is survived by his wife, Malcha, five children, 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.