Month: June 2008

CiF: “Let’s not remember Jewish refugees after all”

It was too good to last: having allowed the case for Jewish refugees to be put, the Comment is Free website has lapsed back into its default position of denial. The blog Judeopundit has an excellent ‘fisking’ of Rachel Shabi’s piece arguing that Mizrahi Jews left out of Zionism:

No Pro-Israel opinion must ever go unanswered at The Guardian. The inevitable reply to Lyn Julius’ argument that Mizrachi Jews who fled Arab countries deserve some recognition too comes from one Rachel Shabi, who was “born in Israel to Iraqi parents.”

[…] It’s a neat argument: Jews were forced to abandon material assets and leave Arab countries; Palestinians similarly fled or were expelled from their homes. Ergo, the region witnessed an exchange of populations and if Palestinian refugees are to be compensated by Israel, so too must the Jewish “refugees” from the Middle East, by the Arab nations that expelled them.

Nice try, but there are many reasons why this formula is all wrong. First off (as David Cesarani points out), it’s tasteless. There is no need for the fate of these two peoples, Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, to be so fused materialistically. Middle Eastern Jews may indeed have a claim to lost assets, but those genuinely seeking peace between Israel and its neighbours should know that this is not the way to pursue it . . .

Was there an argument in there somewhere? Being “tasteless” and “materialistic” is no way to pursue peace! Her next argument is that some Mizrachi Jews wanted to leave, leading to the following:

Broadly, you could say that any Middle Eastern Jew (“Oriental” or “Mizrahi” Jew) who defines their migration to Israel as “Zionist” cannot also be a refugee: the former label has agency and involves a desire to live in the Jewish state; the second suggests passivity and a lack of choice . . .

Let’s determine the aptness of the term “refugee” by examining the connotations of the words “Zionist.” What about someone who would have liked to emigrate in an orderly way, but who fled leaving his property behind? Too bad, the word Zionist “has agency”? It doesn’t get better:

But let’s get to the heart of the matter. What JJAC seems keen to establish is that Arab countries treated Jewish citizens with contempt and cruelty, fuelled by antisemitism. This formulation perpetuates the myth of Arabs and Jews as polar opposites, destined to be eternal enemies. It shirks the plain fact that Jews lived in Arab countries for over two millennia, for the most part productively and in peace . . .

Let’s see, the assertion that Jews were persecuted in Arab countries in the 1940’s “perpetuates the myth of Arabs and Jews as polar opposites.” If they were persecuted, shouldn’t it be admitted, and if they weren’t, isn’t this an odd objection? And that “plain fact” about the “productive” life Jews led in earlier centuries is neither “plain” nor relevant. Here is her conclusion:

Of course, we could only focus on the bad and write what the Jewish historian Salo Baron called a “lachrymose” version of events. But what’s the point? The Middle Eastern Jewry comprises many threads and, compared with European Jewry, has a distinct history, heritage and culture. This legacy, in all its dimensions, should not be hijacked to fuel further rage and acrimony in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nice of her to be against “rage and acrimony.” I don’t see why the broader perspective that comes from considering the fate of the Mizrachi Jews along with that of the Palestinians shouldn’t lead to a calmer and more balanced view of the Middle East conflict. After the hysterical screaming that accompanies the bursting of the Palestinian bubble dies down anyway.

‘The JJAC campaign has exposed hypocrisy’

Writing on her blog Warped Mirror Petra Marquardt-Bigman exposes the double standards delegitimising the Jews from Arab countries as bona fide refugees, excusing their treatment as a ‘backlash’, or claiming that they are not entitled to be treated equally with Palestinian refugees:

…”While there seems to be some willingness to acknowledge that Jewish refugees from Arab countries should have the right to demand compensation for their material losses, there is apparently very little willingness to reconsider what Prof. Cotler rightly calls the “revisionist narrative”. In a commentary entitled “Another side to the Jewish story” Rachel Shabi asserted that many Jews left their ancient communities in Arab countries voluntarily; in her view, one could also argue “that Zionism both caused Palestinians to leave their homes and brought Middle Eastern Jews to Israel”. Israel should therefore share responsibility for the “backlash” that led to the expulsion and dispossession of Jews from Arab countries:

“Jewish Agency officials knew that their activities in Palestine could imperil Jews in the Middle East . . . They chose to carry on with those actions and committed to ‘rescuing’ those Jews if things did take a turn for the worse. If Zionist officials themselves worried about a backlash in the Arab world, how can Israel then be absolved of responsibility for the Jewish exodus from those countries?”

Obviously, this is again an example of blatant double standards: since this argument justifies holding members of one group of people responsible for the actions of other members of this group elsewhere in the world, the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor would have been perfectly acceptable; and when it comes to our own times, Ms. Shabi’s reasoning could serve to justify “a backlash” against Muslim minorities in the West.

Another rather peculiar argument was advanced by David Cesarani who argued that the “Jews from Arab lands who settled in Israel deserved compensation, from Israel. And, to a large extent, they got it. The Mizrachim are now a well-integrated and affluent pillar of Israeli society.” He also concluded that “although there is an overwhelming case for examining the dispossession and displacement of Jews from parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and indeed a case for restitution and reparation for a proportion of them, it is not appropriate to place this quandary in the context of solving the Middle East conflict.”

Cesarani did not really explain why the two groups of refugees who were displaced and dispossessed within the context of the same conflict should be treated so very differently – one group as the focus of attention, the other group ignored as presenting too much of a “quandary”. It is of course true that the Jews who were expelled from their ancient communities in the Arab world found refuge in the still fledgling Jewish state, and that they contributed to, and eventually shared in its prospering. But the hardships they had to endure at the time they were made refugees were no less of a traumatic experience for them than the similar trauma experienced by the Palestinian refugees. The fact that the Palestinians were condemned to remain in the charge of UNRWA for six decades was undeniably the choice of the Arab states that had started the war that produced these refugees, and while the international community did nothing to alleviate the plight of the Jewish refugees, it devoted considerable means to take care of the Palestinian refugees.

Whatever the JJAC campaign will ultimately achieve, it already has achieved something by exposing the utter hypocrisy of those who doubt Israel’s legitimacy and, at the same time, excuse the persecution of Jews in Arab countries as a “backlash” and insist that it is Israel which should be held responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees who fled a war started by Arab states bent on crushing the just established Jewish state.

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Cotler sets out nine-point plan for refugee rights

Louise Ellman MP (in red) listens to testimony at the JJAC House of Lords briefing. Speakers included Professor Irwin Cotler, Ass. Professor Carole Basri and two witnesses from Egypt and Iraq. (Photo: JJAC)

(LONDON) June 25, 2008 – In his appearance before an overflow gathering at the House of Lords, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler declared that “Had the UN Partition Resolution been accepted sixty years ago, there would have been no Arab-Israeli war – no refugees, Jewish or Arab. – and none of the pain and suffering of these last sixty years. Indeed, we would have been celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine.”

Cotler continued: “Yet the pain and plight of 850,000 Jews uprooted and displaced from Arab countries – not only a forgotten, but a forced exodus – has been expunged and eclipsed from both the Middle East peace and justice narratives these past sixty years”.

The meeting was organized by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), an international coalition of 77 major Jewish communal organizations whose mandate is to ensure that justice for Jews from Arab countries assumes its rightful place on the international political agenda.

Cotler submitted evidence from a report entitled “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights And Redress,” which documented for the first time a pattern of state-sanctioned
repression and persecution in Arab countries – including Nuremberg-like laws – that targeted its Jewish populations, resulting in denationalization, forced expulsions, illegal sequestration of property, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and murder.

He concluded this part of his testimony that “This is a story that has not been heard. It is a story that has not yet even been told. It is a truth that must now be acknowledged.”

Professor Cotler then set forth a nine-point action plan for human rights and refugee rights – and a just and lasting peace in the middle-East – which included:

The appreciation that while justice has long been delayed, it must no longer be denied. Thetime has come to rectify this historical injustice,

Remedies for victim refugee groups – including rights of remembrance, truth, justice andredress – as mandated under human rights and humanitarian law – must now be invokedfor Jews displaced from Arab countries;

• In the manner of duties and responsibilities, each of the Arab countries – and the Leagueof Arab States – must acknowledge their role and responsibility in their double aggressionof launching an aggressive war against Israel and the perpetration of human rightsviolations against their respective Jewish nationals.

• The Arab League Peace Plan of 2002 should incorporate the question of Jewish refugeesfrom Arab countries as part of its narrative for an Israeli-Arab peace, just as the Israelinarrative now incorporates the issue of Palestinian refugees in its vision of an Israeli-Arab peace;

• On the international level, the U.N. General Assembly – in the interests of justice andequity – should include reference to Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in itsannual resolutions; and

• Any bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – which one hopes will presage a just andlasting peace – should include Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in aninclusive joiner of discussion.

Cotler called on the UK Government to use its voice, vote, and participation in matters relating
to issues of mid-East refugees to ensure that any reference to Palestinian refugees is accompanied by a similarly explicit reference to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

“Simply put,” Cotler concluded, “the exclusion and denial of rights and redress to Jewish refugees from Arab and countries will prejudice authentic negotiations between the parties and undermine the justice and legitimacy of any agreement. Let there be no mistake about it. Where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace –which we all seek.

Visit JJAC site for Professor Cotler’s ful testimony and photos.

Media coveragegenerated by the JJAC congress.

Canadian Jewish News

Jewish News (UK)

Time for Arabs to recognise the Jewish ‘nakba’

In this Jewish Chronicle comment piece timed to coincide with this week’s Justice for Jews from Arab Countries founding congress in London, Lyn Julius puts the case for recognising the Jewish refugees:

This week, delegates from 10 countries convened in London for the first-ever Justice for Jews from Arab Countries Congress. The delegates, from Brazil and Belgium, Italy and Israel, Australia and America and elsewhere, represent the last generation of Jews uprooted from Arab countries. Their purpose was to spotlight the neglected rights of 850,000 Middle Eastern Jewish refugees.

Sixty years ago, as five Arab armies invaded the fledgling state of Israel, Arab states unleashed a terrible assault on their Jewish communities. Rampaging mobs screaming Ytbah al-Yahud (“Slaughter the Jews”) murdered more than 150. By 1958, following anti-Jewish decrees, bans, extortion, arrests, intimidation, internment and hangings, more than half the Jews had fled or been expelled. Today, 99.5 percent — all but 4,500 — have been driven out. Not even the Jews of 1939 Nazi Germany had been so thoroughly “ethnically cleansed”.

The uprooting of Jews in Arab countries was not just revenge for the creation of Israel and its humiliating victory over the Arabs. Even before the 1948 war, Arab states colluded to persecute their Jews. Nazi-inspired Arab nationalism and Islamism were already victimising minorities, historically despised as inferior dhimmis with few rights. These forces ignited the conflict with Zionism, and drive it to this day.

The Jewish nakba* — Arabic for “catastrophe” — was more than dispossession and expulsion. It tore a gaping hole in the Arab cultural, social and economic fabric. Cities such as Baghdad — one-third Jewish — were emptied overnight. Jews not only lost homes, shops, schools, shrines, hospitals, synagogues and deeded private land five times the size of Israel, but a 2,500 year-old heritage predating Islam by a millennium.

Most Jewish refugees fled to Israel, where half the Jewish population hails from Arab and Muslim lands. This makes Israel both a necessary haven from Arab antisemitism, and the legitimate political expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people.

Arab regimes have never acknowledged that a mass violation of Jewish rights took place, much less admitted guilt or offered compensation. Over 100 UN resolutions relate to Palestinian refugees; not one to the more numerous Jewish refugees. Israel has been reluctant to politicise the issue, having successfully absorbed Jewish refugees as full and productive citizens. Thus, Arab denial has conspired with Israeli silence to expunge Jewish refugees from the record, distorting and decontextualising it.

Thanks to groups such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, however, awareness of the “Jewish nakba” has grown. In April, JJAC scored its first significant success. The US House of Representatives adopted its first resolution on Jewish refugees: future resolutions mentioning Palestinian refugees must refer explicitly to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Although Jewish financial losses have been put at twice the Palestinian ones, the resolution is about recognition, not restitution. Such measures could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by leading to mutual recognition of the plight of both sides. Thus, justice for Jews is not just a moral imperative, but the key to reconciliation.

Moreover, if abandoning the Palestinian “right of return” were balanced by the Jewish right not to return to the Arab tyrannies which threw them out — acknowledging a de facto population exchange — a major stumbling block to peace could disappear.

The Jewish refugees are also an object lesson in how Palestinian refugees festering in camps as propaganda pawns could be resettled in host Arab countries or a Palestinian state.

The campaign for Jewish refugees is picking up. In March, the UN Human Rights Council was addressed for the first time by a Libyan Jew who fled in 1967 in fear of her life. A US Senate resolution is in the pipeline, there is activity at the Canadian Parliament and a hearing scheduled at the European Parliament on 2 July. In Britain, aside from a mention at a parliamentary debate, little to date: perhaps this week’s Congress will show us the way.

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* As Arabs often refer to the creation of Israel as their ‘nakba’ some have expressed disquiet that the author of this article has used the Arabic word to describe the catastrophic ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Arab lands. Strictly speaking, the word ‘nakba’ has nothing to do with Israel. In fact it was first used by the historian George Antonius in 1920 for the forced separation of Arabs from North and South Syria.

Think of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands

Simon Rocker of The Jewish Chronicle writes about the JJAC founding congress held in London earlier this week:

A campaign was launched in London this week to publicise the flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

More than 40 delegates from Israel, Europe, North and South America attended the three-day formal founding congress of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC).

Its goal is to ensure that equal recognition is given internationally to the exodus of Jews from Arab lands as to the plight of the Palestinian refugees resulting from Israel’s establishment 60 years ago.

According to JJAC, although 726,000 Palestinians lost their homes, according to official United Nations figures, 856,000 Jews have been displaced from 10 Arab countries since 1948, with barely 5,000 left by 2005.

“For decades this subject never had the prominence it deserved,” said Edwin Shuker, an Iraqi-born Londoner who is co-chair of JJAC with Serge Cattan from Brussels.

Based in New York, JJAC has operated for several years as a loose coalition of organisations from 20 countries. This week’s conference, which included a briefing at the House of Lords, has established it more formally as a lobby group backed by, among others, the Board of Deputies.

“We want to bring the achievements that have been realised in the US, to Europe and give the campaign equal weight and kudos,” said Mr Shuker, who will address a meeting at the European Parliament on the issue later in the year.

In April, the US Congress passed a resolution declaring that a just Middle East peace could not be achieved “without addressing the uprooting of centuries-old Jewish communities in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf”.

It noted that “whereas the Palestinian refugee issue has received considerable attention from countries of the world, the issue of Jewish refugees from the Arab and Muslim worlds has received very little attention”.

Stanley Urman, executive director of JJAC, recalled the impact on Arab-Israeli wars on the Jews of Arab lands. They had been victims of discriminatory legislation, losing their citizenship, their jobs and suffering restrictions on religion and freedom of movement.

Two refugee populations had emerged from the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said. Both suffered, both were victims and justice required “equal consideration and redress”.

Among those present were Maurice Maleh of the Association of Jews from Egypt UK. He was seven when his father Jacques, the JC’s Cairo correspondent, was expelled from Egypt in May 1953.

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Jews in Iran have it bad, but Baha’is have it worse

If Jews in Iran have it bad, Baha’is have it worse. At least Islam considers Jews a protected minority, while Baha’is are simply heretics. Roya Hakakian writes in The Forward: (With thanks Esra’a)

If one must master the knowledge that even bigotry is relative and comes in gradations, then I was a premature pupil. I learned this lesson when I was only 10.

In 1977, in an eclectic neighborhood in Tehran, my Jewish family lived on a narrow, wooded alley in what was then an upscale area, alongside two other Jewish families and many more Muslims. There was also a Bahai family, the Alavis, next door.

By then, I had already intuited that my relatives, in the presence of Muslim friends and neighbors, were somehow less flamboyant creatures, quieter and more measured. But the Alavis, debonair and highly educated, were mere ghosts.

Theirs was a corner house on the alley, one of the most beautiful in the neighborhood, and the first to be sold within days in 1979, after the return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. In a neighborhood so closely-knit that even the mailman dispensed pearls of pedagogical wisdom to our parents, the Alavis simply vanished one day.

No chance for tears, or promises to keep in touch. Not even a forwarding address. My mother insists they said goodbye to her, but my mother considers inventing happy endings a maternal virtue.

American audiences, their eyes brimming with anxiety, often ask me about the condition of Jews living in Iran today. But the hardships they assume to be the burden of the Iranian Jews is really the daily experience of the Bahais.

In a 1979 meeting with five of the Iranian Jewish community leaders, Khomeini summarized his position on the local Jews in one of his quintessentially coarse one-liners: “We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists.” The line has served as the regime’s position on the Jewish minority ever since. So important were these words that they were painted on the walls of nearly every synagogue and Jewish establishment the day after the ayatollah spoke them.

It did not prevent Jews from being relegated to second-class citizenry, nor did it enable them to thrive in post-revolutionary Iran. But it recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish existence in Iran and allowed the community to live on, albeit extremely restrictedly.

But it is the Bahai community that has been suffering the bleak fate assumed to be that of the Jews. It is the Bahais who are not recognized by the Iranian constitution. Decades ago, Khomeini branded them, among other unsavory terms, a political sect and not a religion, circuitously defining them as plotters against the regime. Iranian Bahais have been accused of espionage for every major power save the Chinese, and simultaneously so. They are not allowed to worship. Their properties are vandalized. Even their dead know no peace, as their cemeteries are systematically destroyed.

Their children cannot attend schools, nor can Bahai academics teach. That is why in 1987, unemployed professors, in an act reminiscent of the Middle Ages, established underground universities to educate the Bahai youth.

Last month, six Bahai leaders were arrested. They had already been accustomed to routine weekly harassments and interrogations, which is why some of their wives have taken up sewing blindfolds to keep the guards from forcing dirty ones onto their husbands’ eyes. What is most alarming about this particular arrest is that they have not returned home and are being kept incommunicado.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.