Sudan

Highest Jewish population: c.1,000 in 1950s


In 1820 Sudan was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. In 1881 the Islamist rebel leader Muhammad Ahmed, known as the Mahdi, swept through the country. In 1885 his forces famously defeated the British Governor-General Charles Gordon at Khartoum, thereby establishing an independent kingdom, the Mahdiyya. Under the Mahdiyya, stringent Islamic laws were introduced. All non-Muslims were forced to convert to Islam, amongst them at least 36 Jews. Thirteen years later, in 1898, British forces entered Sudan and the country became an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. The Mahdiyya’s Islamic laws were repealed and most, although not all, of the converts returned to their former faiths.


From 1900 Jews began arriving in Sudan and settled along the four Nile towns of Khartoum, Khartoum North, Omdurman, and Wad Medani. Predominantly economic migrants from Iraq, Egypt, and the Levant, they established themselves as merchants of textiles, silks and gum arabic. By 1926 a permanent synagogue had been built in Khartoum and the community had established itself financially. Despite this, the community never reached more than 1,000 people and remained under the auspices of the Egyptian Beth-Din (Jewish law courts).


Jews were allowed to live peacefully and suffered very little antisemitism in Sudan during this time. However, following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, antisemitic sentiments in Sudan began to grow and the media grew increasingly hostile. In 1956 Sudan gained independence, and as a result of the Suez Crisis later that year, support for pan-Arabism swelled. The use of Jewish symbols, for example the Magen David, was prohibited in all public settings, except on the synagogue frontage. Whilst some Jews chose to leave Sudan at this point, the community was slightly bolstered as Jews escaping hostilities in Egypt moved to Khartoum.


In 1958 a military coup led to a military government headed by General Abboud. Whilst the military government moved slightly away from pan-Arabism and no antisemitic laws were passed, antisemitic sentiments amongst the general public and in the media increased, meaning that Jews began steadily leaving the country. In 1964 a civilian government was re-instated. The new government aligned itself closely with Egypt and it became virtually impossible for Jews to obtain exit visas for periods longer than a few weeks. Despite this, members of the community continued to emigrate – often pretending to go on holiday and failing to return.


By 1967 when the Suez War broke out there were less than 50 Jews living in Sudan, the majority of whom lived outside the capital of Khartoum. All Jewish men without useful connections were arrested and the radio preached violence against the Jews of the country. After the war, the Arab League convened in Khartoum to declare its new resolution: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. The majority of Sudan’s Jews fled as refugees, leaving all their belongings and assets behind. In 1973 Palestinian activists captured and killed several foreign diplomats in Khartoum. This prompted the last Jews to leave Sudan, alongside members of other Sudanese immigrant communities.


Following the 2018-19 Sudanese Revolution the dictator Omar al-Bashir was removed from power and a new transitional government was instated. In 2019, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs released a statement stating that Sudan’s Jews are welcome to return.


 

Interviewees

SVUK is grateful for the support of The Exilarch's Foundation, The KC Shasha Charitable Foundation & The Shoresh Charitable Trust

 

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