Why Jewish refugees are key to Israel’s legitimacy

Israel’s 60th anniversary has been the occasion for special media attention but also, regrettably, the dissemination of distortions and libels. The press is guilty by omission of suppressing and inverting the truth: rather than Israel ‘ethnically cleansing’ the Palestinians, it is Arab states which have ‘ethnically cleansed’ the indigenous Jews of the Middle East.

The forgotten Jewish refugees are key to dispelling several widespread myths. These are eloquently tackled in recent articles by Barry Rubin, Maurice Harris and Ami Isseroff.

Myth: The flip-side of the creation of Israel is the dispossession of the Palestinians.

Professor Barry Rubin writes in Global Politician about an AP report by Karin Laub: “This is the modern equivalent of the blood libel, which held that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for the Passover matzoh. But if that myth is too exotic for people remember that its “secular” equivalent was responsible for even more anti-Semitic persecution. That was the idea that any Jewish prosperity was based on the blood-sucking of Christian peasants or of society at large.

In this case, Israel is said to have murdered, ethnically cleansed and otherwise persecuted the Palestinians. Therefore, nothing it does can be good, no achievement of itself counts, and it has no right to self-defense. Obviously, such claims are often greatly diluted but nonetheless rest on this basis.

“The Laub article is a systematic restatement of this thesis. To begin with, it is extraordinarily long for an AP article, 1,724 words. If this isn’t a record for an AP dispatch, it must be up near the top. Obviously, this is a message that the AP editors are especially eager to convey: that everything Israel has is at Palestinian expense.

“That this is a lie can be explained on many levels but at least two must be presented here. First, why is this measure applied only to Israel , and certainly only to Israel on an existential basis? It is well-known, certainly, that Germany has taken responsibility for Nazi crimes, and also there are applications for reimbursement of Jewish property seized in eastern Europe during the Nazi period.

“Yet most countries are founded on expropriation, often of Jewish property. For example, Oxford University , where recently debates were conducted calling for Israel’s destruction, was started on property stolen from Jews expelled in 1290. Far more recently, many Arab states received a huge infusion of capital from the expropriation of Jewish property after Israel ’s creation. Does France ’s or Britain ’s or Belgium ’s independence day require discussion of colonial depredations? We don’t read articles that Japan ’s independence day is blighted by Chinese or Korean suffering, though the Japanese did engage in mass murder of those people. What about the fact that every country in the Western Hemisphere is based on the suffering of the indigenous natives? Or even in the case of Russia, given Czarist and Soviet behavior? In no case, however, is far worse behavior said to have poisoned any other country’s very existence.”

Myth: The only fair solution is one secular, democratic state.

Rabbi Maurice Harris, a Jew of Moroccan origin and a ‘progressive’, writes in Register- Guard (A place to call Home):

“In recent years, however, the progressive rallying cry has shifted from “End the occupation” to “Dismantle Israel,” and that’s disturbing. Often I encounter people who argue that the best solution to the conflict is for Israel to cease to exist as a Jewish homeland, and for it to be replaced by a single, secular democratic state in all of Palestine. Why would anyone be opposed to a multi-ethnic democracy, after all?

“This solution is unjust because it upholds only one set of human rights — the rights of the individual — but it denies the right of small and vulnerable peoples to safety and self-determination.

“Ask the Kosovars if they’d like to reunite with Serbia, or the Pakistanis if they’d like to return to the status of being a religious minority in a greater India. Justice for human beings involves two sets of rights: the right of the individual to be accorded full citizenship within his or her country under the rule of law, and the right of peoples — especially small and vulnerable peoples — to self-determination through collective autonomy.

“The “one-state solution” would turn the clock back to before World War II, when Jews were condemned to always be a minority group wherever they lived, and when democratic states failed to save them from mass murder.

“It’s also worth noting that the kind of multireligious secular democracy that these advocates want to see replace Israel is a type of state that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Middle East. Their solution would create a secular democracy in the one part of the Middle East where there is a concentration of Jews, thus disempowering Jews as a group, while leaving more than 20 other states throughout the region that officially enfranchise Islam or Arab national identity as part of their constitutions.”

I should add that the fall of the Ottoman empire empowered largely Sunni Muslim Arab elites, while the political rights of non-Arab Kurds, Assyrians and Berbers were ignored.

Myth: Israel is a European colonial settler state which deprives the indigenous people of their political rights.

Maurice Harris continues: “This argument ignores the fact that a large percentage of the world’s Jews are not European at all. Mizrahi, or “Eastern” Jews, have lived in large numbers as minority members of Middle Eastern countries for centuries, and until recently, Mizrahi Jews made up the majority of Israel’s Jewish population. Many progressives I’ve spoken with were totally unaware that Mizrahi Jews even existed, or that most Mizrahi Jews are people of color.

“I sometimes hear the comment made that Mizrahi Jews were doing just fine under Islamic rule and had no need of a state of their own. The truth is that while Jews fared better overall historically under Islamic rule than Christian rule, they still faced periodic pogroms, expulsions, special taxes, and other forms of religious humiliation and persecution under Islam.

“And like their European brethren, Mizrahi Jews also faced potential annihilation during World War II. For example, when the Nazis conquered Morocco, they deported several thousand Jews to rural concentration camps. Had the Allied invasion of Morocco taken place later than it did, Moroccan Jews may not have survived. And in 1941, the Mufti of Jerusalem, a key Palestinian leader, signed an agreement with Mussolini planning for the extermination of the Jews living in Palestine should the Axis forces defeat the British there.

“In fairness, there were also heroic Muslims who took great risks to protect Jews from the Nazis. But the overall condition of Mizrahi Jews was precarious and disempowered. As in Christian Europe, Jewish safety and survival under Muslim rule ultimately depended on the good will of the leaders of the moment. After 1948, Islamic governments began persecuting Mizrahi Jews sharply, and most of them fled. More than 800,000 Jews, including my grandparents and mother, became refugees, most resettling in Israel. These refugees are rarely mentioned in the Israeli-Palestinian debate.”

So Jews deserve a homeland. Why does it have to be in Palestine?

“Jews are not a foreign infection in the Middle East,” writes Maurice Harris. ” Jews are an unusual people in that we’ve been spread out thinly in many parts of the world, where we’ve lived continuously for centuries. The Mizrahi part of our population is indigenous to the Middle East, and the rest of our people have deep roots there. Except for deserted places, every place in the world is somebody’s home, so sending Jews to have a homeland outside of Palestine would still have created issues of conflict and compromise with some native population. Palestine was the only part of the world where Jews had an historical connection.

Myth: The Palestinian refugee problem can only be solved when the Arab-Israeli conflict is solved.Ami Isseroffof the Zionation blog sets the Palestinian refugees issue in context: “Along with about 700,000 Arab Palestinian refugees, the war instigated by the Arab states in 1948 eventually created about a million Jewish refugees. A few were Palestinian refugees thrown out of Jerusalem and Hebron and Kfar Etzion. The others were Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. Yet there is no Jewish refugee problem, because all those refugees were absorbed into Israel or the United States or other countries. They did not wait for a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the coming of the Messiah, the perfection of the unified field theory, the demonstration of the Higgs boson or any other such wished-for but unlikely event.

“Likewise, there is no problem of Indian or Pakistani refugees any more, though the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 generated millions of refugees. In fact, there is no conflict that has generated permanent refugees. The reluctance of the Arab states to seek a humanitarian solution for the Palestinian Arab refugee problem is understandable. They want to use the problem, and the misery of the refugees, as a weapon in the war against Israel. That does not explain the silence of everyone else, from Israeli government spokespersons, to those with genuine humanitarian concerns for the refugees, to peace groups like the J Street lobby, to US presidential hopefuls. All of the economic aid that the quartet is showering on the Palestinian Authority will avail nothing, as long as the horrendous pockets of misery in the camps are sustained.”


  • Shalom,

    This is Rabbi Maurice Harris. I wrote the piece, “A Place to Call Home,” that you excerpted. Because my article expressed a nuanced and complex point of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would like to provide an easier link so that readers interested in what I had to say can see for themselves.


    Many thanks,
    Maurice Harris


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