Arab and Jewish refugees: the contrast ,a 72-page report by Eli E. Hertz (2007), is as comprehensive a summary as you will ever find of the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s two refugee populations, examined from every conceivable angle. I am only reproducing the sections relating to the Jewish refugees, but you are urged to read the whole thing. (Via Jerusalem Posts)
For a host of reasons – practical to parochial – Israel has failed to raise the issue of the mammoth injustice done to almost a million Jews from Arab countries. The scale and the premeditated state-sponsored nature of persecution that prompted the 1948 flight of nearly 1,000,000 Jews from their homes has only recently begun to emerge.
Arab publicists have sought to detach entirely the flight of Jews from Arab lands from the Arab-Israeli conflict, claiming they are two separate phenomena, and that Israelis should take up the issue with each respective Arab state that was involved, not with the Palestinians.
For decades, American presidents seeking to act as facilitators in settling the Arab-Israeli conflict have been aware that there was a flip side to the Palestinian refugee question: that is, that the rights of former Jewish refugees are no less legitimate than those of Palestinian refugees. Thus, the 1977 Camp David Accords, which established a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, provided that “the parties agree to establish a Claims Committee for the mutual settlement of all final claims.” In a press conference on October 27, 1977, at the time of the signing of the Accords, President Jimmy Carter held that “Palestinians have rights … obviously there are Jewish refugees … they have the same rights as others do.” The rights of Jews displaced from Arab lands was again raised at Camp David II in July 2000, when President Bill Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Barak and PA Chairman Arafat to hammer out a final status agreement. In the aftermath, President Clinton spoke of “… Jewish people, who lived predominantly in Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.”
Because scholars have largely ignored the subject and because most details have been based on anecdotal material, understanding of the phenomenon has been limited. Some believed persecution was sporadic, and uprooting was equally the result of “pull” as well as “push” factors. Previous works such as George Gruen’s article “The Other Refugees: Jews of the Arab World,” and Norman Stillman’s book, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, tend to assign equal weight to more benign ‘push’ factors such as disequilibrium and tensions from colonialism and modernization sparked by the withdrawal of colonial masters (as in Algeria) or from Jewish involvement in dissident groups such as the Communists (as in Iraq) and the ‘pull’ of the attraction of Zionism. The authors were unaware of the systematic quality of push factors, consciously orchestrated moves for the wholesale expulsion of Jews. Thus, the genuine scope and nature of how the Jewish refugee problem came about remained elusive until only recently.
Jewish refugees, both from Arab countries and Europe, were resettled because they and their brethren wanted to get on with their lives.
For more than 50 years the phenomena of Jewish refugees from Arab countries went underreported – what some label “the forgotten exodus.” Moreover, Israeli representatives rarely raised the Jewish refugee issue during peace talks, assuming that it was water under the bridge and that Palestinian demands for fulfillment of the Right of Return was mere rhetoric.
Ironically, one of the first persons to note the parallel and its relevance and logic was Sabri Jiryis, director of the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut, who wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar in 1975:
“Clearly Israel will raise the question [of the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries] in all serious negotiations … over the rights of the Palestinians…. Israel’s arguments will take approximately the following form…. What happened, therefore, is merely a kind of ‘population and property transfer’ the consequences of which both sides have to bear. Thus Israel gathers Jews from Arab countries and the Arab countries are obligated in turn to settle the Palestinians within their own borders and work towards a solution of the problem.”
Recent interest in the flight of Jewish refugees has been generated by a host of trends. Since September 2000, the Arab refugee question and the Right of Return have been thrust into the forefront in the peace process, presented as a stand-alone phenomenon – a gross distortion of the Middle East narrative. But other cultural and judicial factors also help to explain the new interest in Jewish refugee history. They include the revolution in human rights and humanitarian law worldwide and the growth of multiculturalism which has paved the way for a new receptiveness to acknowledging and validating the experiences and traumas of the Other – be it immigrant populations in general or non-Ashkenazi Jews in particular.
A June 2003 study of Jewish refugees, the first of its kind, casts their flight from Arab lands in a new light. The study, “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress,” compiled by a team of scholars and other professionals, sheds new light on the nature of the pressures that forced 97 percent of all the Jews in Arab countries to flee ancient well-integrated Jewish communities, some of which had existed for more than 2,500 years.
The scope of the mass exodus is hard to grasp. Less than 8,000 Jews remain in Arab countries today, compared to an estimated 850,000 who lived in North Africa and the Middle East in 1947. Nearly all who remain reside in two countries – 5,700 in Morocco and 1,500 in Tunisia. The other Middle Eastern countries have only a handful of Jews. In the course of a few short years, the Middle East rid itself of more than half its Jews, and by 1976, that number reached 97 percent. That phenomenon of 1948 was dwarfed and swept to the sidelines in comparison to the enormity of the Holocaust. But now, in retrospect, its genuine scale and methodology is coming to light.
The abovementioned study of Jewish refugees, a ten-month collaborative research project, arrived at a number of new germane insights that must be addressed in any dialogue about injustice. The study found new documents that indicate that Arab states consciously and methodically orchestrated state-sponsored persecution designed to bring about the expulsion of entire Jewish communities.
Not only did the Arab campaign against Jews include incitement and sporadic attacks described in much of the literature, writes Canadian law professor and Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, it was also far more systematic and accompanied by what Cotler brands “mass human rights violations … including Nuremberg-type laws against their Jewish citizens” – acts that Cotler, a longtime human right activist, brands evidence of “criminal intention if not criminal conspiracy.”
“If we look at the concerted pattern of state sanctioning of repression, and of systematic legislation which criminalized and disenfranchised Jews and sequestered their property, then what happened belongs in the annuls of ethnic cleansing.”
The study was initiated by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), established to rectify the fact that “the Jewish refugee narrative has been expunged from the Middle East narrative.” If Palestinians insist on focusing on justice as the core of the conflict, Jews’ rights also need to be redressed.
Speaking at a June 30, 2003 press conference marking the release of the study, Cotler said:
“The pursuit of truth, the right to justice and redress are prerequisites for reconciliation…. The integrity of the peace process requires the acknowledgment of the truth and the justice that underpin the conflict…. The time has come to restore the plight, the truth and the justice of Jewish refugees from Arab lands to the Middle East narrative from which they have been expunged. Any narrative of the Middle East … that does not include justice for Jewish refugees from Arab lands is … an assault on truth, and memory and justice. It has to be part of any peace process if that peace process is to have integrity.”(..)
Arab rulers’ collective hatred and cruelty toward their Jewish citizenry:
During the years 1948 to 1956, nearly 850,000 innocent, peaceful Jews, who were non-combatants, fled or were expelled from Arab countries by Arab leaders in reprisal for the establishment of the State of Israel. Most came to Israel. In short, there was a transfer of populations that caused suffering and left hundreds of thousands of penniless refugees on both sides.
Arab refugees were not the only victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In essence, the years 1947-1956 witnessed a transfer of populations similar to the transfer of populations in 1947-48 between Pakistan and India, but the other victims – almost 850,000 Jewish refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods in Arab countries during the first two decades after Jewish statehood – have been forgotten. As Daniel Pipes noted:
“The Muslim Middle East … lost its Jewish population about as thoroughly as Central and Eastern Europe had a few years earlier [in the Holocaust].”
In fact, an estimated 85 percent of the Jewish refugees, including the poorest and most destitute members of Jewish communities in Arab countries, arrived on Israel’s doorstep – 330,000 between 1948-1951 alone. Yet those facts are ignored in most Middle East narratives.
Since the Babylonian exile of Jews from the Land of Israel in 587 BCE, Jews have resided in Arab lands. The 1,400-year history of the Jews under Arab and Muslim rule was marked by times of prosperity and times of oppression. In some times and places, individual Jews served as advisors to the ruling class and played key roles in advancing medicine, business, and culture. At the same time, Jews (and Christians) as a whole were considered dhimmi, a “protected” group of second-class citizens – subjected to punishing taxes, forced to live in cramped ghetto-like quarters, relegated to the lower levels of the economic and social strata, and the object of periodic pogroms.
During the 1930s, anti-Zionist sentiment in Arab lands was matched by pro-Nazi sentiment; in fact, the leader of Palestinian society and the head of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) – the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini – spent the war years in Berlin, selling Hitler on the merits of a Final Solution among Jews in the Middle East as well.
Indeed, first steps in that direction were taken in North Africa by the pro-Nazi Vichy French, who enacted anti-Jewish regulations. In Tunisia, some Jews were rounded up and sent to forced labor camps, and a small number were even deported to European death camps. In Iraq in 1941, mobs killed 180 Baghdad Jews, and injured many others in a major pogrom that caused extensive damage to private and community property. Similar attacks took place elsewhere in other Arab countries, and November 2, 1947, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, became the occasion for widespread rioting, murder, and destruction of synagogues and Jewish property in Aleppo, Syria, Cairo, Egypt, and Tripoli, Libya.
Anti-Jewish hostility rose significantly in the last years of the Mandate. But with the establishment of the State of Israel and the subsequent 1948 war, the nature of the attacks changed dramatically. Persecution of Jews in Arab nations became systematic and planned, with state-sponsored repression designed to oust the Jews. On May 16, 1948, two days after Israel’s declaration of independence, the headline of the New York Times reported the dire circumstances of Jews in Arab lands: “Jews in Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands.” The Times article reported on the:
“… text of a law drafted by the Political Committee of the Arab League which was intended to govern the legal status of Jewish residents of Arab League countries. It provides that beginning on an unspecified date all Jews except citizens of non-Arab states, would be considered ‘members of the Jewish minority state of Palestine.’ Their bank accounts would be frozen and used to finance resistance to ‘Zionist ambitions in Palestine.’ Jews believed to be active Zionists would be interned and their assets confiscated.”
While the newspaper noted that “conditions vary in the Moslem countries,” it warned of the potential scale of violence:
“It is feared, however that if a full-scale war breaks out, the repercussions will be grave for Jews all the way from Casablanca to Karachi.”
Far from scare headlines, Arab governments imposed harsh measures against local Jews, stripping them of their civil rights and abridging their human rights, expropriating their property, and banishing them from civil service and other forms of employment.
Those moves were coupled by physical attacks, including bombings, pogroms, arrests, and executions. The scope and similarity of the attacks were indicative of an organized coordinated program by member governments of the Arab League to expel Jews from their countries.
Yet even prior to such formal attacks, as realization of a Jewish state began to take practical form, many Arab leaders viewed their Jewish citizens as hostages of a sort. Two weeks prior to the United Nations vote on the petition plan, Heykal Pasha, the Egyptian delegate to the UN, told the assembly:
“The proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries. Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more difficult to root out than that of Nazism. If the UN decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for the massacre of a large number of Jews.”
In March 1949, after the State of Israel was declared and the Arab offensive blocked, the Syrian newspaper Al-Kifah warned of a new role for Jews as hostages, declaring:
“If Israel should oppose the return of the Arab refugees to their homes, the Arab governments will expel the Jews living in their countries.”
Iraq, which had one of the oldest, most prosperous, and well-integrated Jewish communities in the Arab world, launched some of the most draconian measures against its Jews. Zionism was made a capital crime. The August 1948 arrest and execution of a wealthy member of Iraq’s Jewish community was accompanied by a series of other anti-Jewish measures that set the stage for a mass exodus, including the expulsion of Jews from civil service jobs. When in 1950, the authorities announced that Jews could leave the country within a year, provided they forfeited their citizenship, 95 percent of Iraq’s 2,700-year-old community left.
By 1951, a community of 150,000 had dwindled to only 6,000. Soon after their departure, the community’s substantial assets, public and private, were frozen, leaving members of the Iraqi Jewish community both stateless and penniless. On July 27, 2003, six elderly Jews from Iraq were flown into Israel on a secret flight, leaving only 29 Jews who chose to stay in Iraq.
By 1958, only a decade after Israel declared statehood, more than half of the 850,000 Jews in Arab countries had fled, including, in essence, the entire Jewish communities of Iraq, Algeria, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Although their plight has never received the attention of Arab refugees from Israel, second-generation children of the exodus from Arab lands have begun to speak of their parents’ suffering, particularly those transformed from well-off middle-class families into penniless refugees. Two such offspring, among the generation now in their late 50s and 60s, broke the silence surrounding their parents’ lives in the Jerusalem Post much the way children of Holocaust survivors who never spoke of their experiences came forward decades later and even formed support groups to share their experiences. In the August 2003 article, Victoria described how her family was airlifted out of Iraq in 1951:
“In Israel they took us to a maabara [transit camp]. In Baghdad we were rich. We had a big house. I had my own room. We had servants. In the transit camp, we lived in a tent, and everything was wet and muddy. My mother cried all the time…. We never talked about what happened. Even in the transit camp. … I think they were too traumatized.”
Meir from Tunis recalled:
“My father had been a jeweler. He had two stores and we lived well…. My parents hadn’t wanted to leave Tunis. They had no choice. They were afraid, like all the Jews were…. We went from wealth to nothing. … After a few years [in France] we came to Israel.”
Today people like Victoria speak of a sense of secondary victimization – victimized not only by the Iraqis who expelled them, but also by the absorbing society, Israeli veterans who “put immigrants in camps and didn’t want to hear our stories” and the world that “only cared about the Palestinian refugees and swept our misery under the rug.”
Today they want recognition of their suffering. Meir underscored:
“[My parents] never talked about their fears, and they never talked about how bitter and sad their lives were. But as a child, I could tell. We were refugees … and when we came to Israel, we tried to hide how poor we were. But now I understand, and even though my parents wouldn’t talk about it, I want our story told.” The UN and its agencies – The worst offenders
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Jews lost their homes and their livelihoods. Yet the Jewish side of the Middle East refugee story has been purged from the narrative, and one of the worst offenders is the UN.
The UN was already aware in 1950 that the war had created two refugee problems, but it was not asked to take responsibility. In an October 1950 interim report82 to the UN, the director of UNRWA made a passing reference to the Jewish refugee problem, saying Israel spurned the very idea of Jewish refugees – even for 17,000 Israelis who had been uprooted in the course of the fighting in western Palestine. Israel rejected the notion that they or any other Jewish refugee become wards of the international community, and the UNRWA director offhandedly noted, “the Israel Government indicates that the idea of relief distribution is repugnant to it.”
Except for those two sentences relating solely to displaced Israelis within western Palestine, the UN chose to ignore the fact that in 1950, at the time the UNRWA director was writing his report, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands had flooded Israel and were living under deplorable conditions, many in tents and wooden, tin, and fabric huts.
Since then, the UN’s Middle East narrative has been distorted by its failure to even mention the existence of Jewish refugees in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of 687 resolutions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict that the UN General Assembly adopted since 1947, 101 have dealt with refugees. Yet all 101 are devoted solely to Arab refugees, with nary a mention of the more than three-quarters of a million Jewish refugees.
Indeed, the only UN agency that took action for the Jewish refugees was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which sought to expedite transfer of assets to Jews from Egypt who had already fled, and conducted quiet diplomacy to try to alleviate the plight of Jews held hostage in Arab lands, according to a report on the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries released by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) in June 2003. These steps by any measure were feeble compared to the UN’s massive support and concern for Palestinian refugees – both in terms of funding, creation of special UN frameworks for Palestinians only, and a steady stream of public resolutions that created inalienable rights for Palestinians, effectively rewriting history.
Adds Professor Irwin Cotler, an international human rights lawyer and currently serving as Canada’s minister of justice, and a key member of JJAC:
“It is inconceivable and unjust for any narrative of the Middle East – be it a narrative of the peace process, be it a narrative by the United Nations, be it any juridical or historical narrative – not to include as well the truth and justice of Jewish refugees from Arab lands and their right to redress.”
If world opinion, and particularly the European community, prefers to cling to its traditional view that Palestinians are solely innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control, then both Arab refugees from western Palestine and Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be viewed as joint victims of the Arab war against Israel in 1947-48, and both deserve redress.
Israel’s re-settlement of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, displaced persons from Europe and others was a Herculean endeavor, where latitude for personal choice of where to settle was limited.
The magnitude of Israel’s humanitarian endeavor between 1948 and 1954 is staggering. A nation of 650,000 absorbed a destitute population of 685,000 newcomers, all in the midst of and in the aftermath of a draining war. During the first four years of statehood, 51 percent of the Jewish refugees were from African and Asian countries. By 1959, more than half of North African and Middle Eastern Jews had fled – most to Israel, the rest to other non-Arab countries. The influx of immigrants from Arab lands and post-Holocaust Europe doubled the population of Israel in three and a half years, and tripled it by the early 1960s.
Jewish refugees from Arab countries were not the only refugees flooding into Israel and pressuring the social services of the fledgling state. Between the fall of 1948 and the summer of 1949, 100,000 refugees from Europe – displaced persons (DPs) as they were called at the time – arrived in Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, most of them destitute. In large measure, because of Israel’s acceptance of those refugees, combined with the efforts of Jewish communities elsewhere around the world, 52 refugee camps or DP centers in Europe were closed within a year’s time.
Yet resettlement of Jewish refugees was no picnic. Conditions were stark. Severe rationing of everything from food to detergent to clothing was imposed for three years, and rationing of many basic commodities continued for a full decade, from April 1949 to February 1959. Health services were severely overtaxed as a result of crowding, poor sanitation, and the prevalence of TB, trachoma, and other contagious diseases. Jewish refugees were housed in every possible shelter. That included 110,000 who moved into homes abandoned by Arabs in mixed cities and in deserted Arab villages.88 The majority – men, women, children, the young, and the elderly – lived in tent cities and makeshift shanties (or immigrant encampments) under deplorable conditions, until they moved into wooden huts and tiny two-room cinderblock dwellings.
An overview of the absorption process in the 1950s described conditions in the immigrant encampments:
“The structure of the camps was essentially similar: families lived in small shacks of cloth, tin, or wood, no larger than 10 to 15 square meters each. Other shacks housed the basic services: kindergarten, school, infirmary, small grocery store, employment office, synagogue, etc. The living quarters were not connected to either water or electric systems. Running water was available from central faucets, but it had to be boiled before drinking. The public showers and lavatories were generally inadequate and often in disrepair. A paucity of teachers and educational resources severely hindered the attempts to provide the camp children with suitable education. Work, even relief work, was not always available.”
The last vestiges of these transit camps (maabarot in Hebrew) – 113 in all, housing a quarter of a million inhabitants in 1951 – were not dismantled until the 1960s.
Palestinians believe they have an inalienable right to decide where they are to be resettled. This has not been the case of other refugees, be they Jewish ones or others.
When people are abruptly uprooted, for the overwhelming majority, external realities (who will let them in, prospects of a job) and the ‘powers-that-be’ dictate where they begin to put their lives back together. Jews fleeing the Nazis, lucky enough to find a haven, ended up in unfamiliar, far-flung places including Shanghai and Cuba. Eight hundred Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States in 1973, for instance, settled in the vicinity of St. Cloud (pop. 8,000) in the windswept plains of rural Minnesota.
The Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from Arab countries or survived the Holocaust and came to Israel were hardly coddled either. It is instructive to note how they were resettled, and the price some have paid in the short- and the long-term. Thousands of Jewish families – from educated urbanites from Central Europe to cave dwellers from the Atlas Mountains, were literally dumped in isolated spots throughout the country ‘right off the boat,’ where one-and-a-half-room ‘houses’ and an outhouse had been hastily erected and were told they were to become farmers. Most did. Three hundred new agricultural villages were established to resettle Jewish refugees in this manner within four years – equal to the number of settlements established during the previous 65 years (1882-1947) of Zionist endeavor. Others were resettled in what became known as ‘development towns’ in the boondocks, designed to ‘service’ clusters of rural settlements. Some to this day suffer from high unemployment, mediocre education, and other social ills.
Resettlement of such magnitude was a harsh enterprise that left little latitude for individual choice or adequate planning, and many refugees still bear the scars of those stark years. To this day, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Israelis live in what were once mass public housing complexes in cities and development towns erected in the 1950s and 1960s, substandard and poorly suited for large families. While many of these depressed neighborhoods have been rehabilitated, Israel still pays a heavy price in socioeconomic gaps, human tragedies, and ethnic tensions tied to the parent society’s inability to meet all the developmental needs of the refugees from Africa and Asia. Yet, all the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Arab countries that Israel absorbed in the first two decades of statehood have rebuilt their lives and become productive citizens, as have the 100,000 DPs who survived the Holocaust.
Since then, Israel has taken in other waves of ‘unwanted’ or persecuted Jews from across the globe, including one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and 70,000 Jews from Ethiopia in the 1990s. To appreciate the scope of such a mass influx, imagine that on per capita equivalent, the United States would absorb the entire population of France.
Unlike the Palestinian-Arab refugees, who are aided each year by millions of dollars from the UN, the Israeli government shouldered the absorption of Jewish refugees into the new state in its early years through absorption budgets and international loans, donations from world Jewry, and a small amount of American foreign aid. The Palestinian refugees by contrast have chosen to remain in refugee camps, their leader stubbornly demanding that they be returned to Israel. Neither their leaders nor the international community has put pressure on Palestinians or neighboring Arab countries to resettle Arab refugees, or at least force the 1.3 million UNRWA camp dwellers to bear responsibility for their own intransigence.
Palestinian refugees who since 1950 have been fed, dressed, and educated with other people’s money should be given the choice of modest assistance in resettling, or, after 55 years of refugee status, begin to bear responsibility for their decisions to remain refugees.
Some Jewish refugees who escaped from Arab nations fled to North America and Europe, where they were absorbed into Jewish communities. But the vast majority escaped to the newly established Jewish state. According to the JJAC report, Arab governments seized more than $1 billion in communal and private property (at 1947 values) belonging to those who left – an amount that in today’s dollars would exceed $100 billion. Israel spent astronomic sums – most donated by the Jewish people – to assist Jewish refugees from Arab countries in their flight and rehabilitation in Israel.