‘In Ishmael’s House’ used to rebutt ‘right of return’

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Shaath is the latest to reject Israeli prime minister Benjamin Nethanyahu’s demand for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Shaath fears for the rights of Muslims and Christians in Israel. Besides – and here we come to the kernel of the problem – such recognition would compromise the Palestinian ‘right of return’ to their original homes. Richard Z. Chesnoff’s article in the Huffington Post (a pro-Palestinian leftwing blog), drawing material from Martin Gilbert ‘s new book In Ishmael’s House, shows how the story of Jews forced out of Arab lands can be used to construct a powerful rebuttal to Shaath’s arguments.

The Palestinian exodus during the Arab war on nascent Israel is part of history.. Most fled out of fear of war, others because they were urged to make way for “victorious” Arab armies, and some – but certainly not most – because Israeli troops drove them out in the heat of battle.

Other mid-20th century refugee problems were all quickly settled (the millions who simultaneously fled Pakistan and India, for example). But the Arab refugee problem was made to fester with the compliance of the Palestinian leadership. Israel, with millions of Jewish refugees at its gates, understandably refused to allow a hostile Arab refugee mass back onto Israel’s sliver of land.

The Muslim world turned its back on its brethren. With the exception of Jordan, no Arab state has ever granted Palestinian refugees citizenship let alone a permanent home on any of its millions of open acres . Instead Palestinian Arab refugees were kept penned up in overcrowded refugee camps – tent cities that have become squalid towns. They still live off massive international welfare doles, are used as political pawns by corrupt officials, and sit waiting for Israel to be destroyed so they can invoke a “Right of Return”.

Compare that to the other, lesser know Mideast refugee crisis that coincided with Israel’s birth – the forced exodus of almost 900,000 Jews from their centuries old homes in the Arab world; from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Aden, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia , Algeria and Morocco.
These Jewish communities, some of which had existed 1000 years before Islam, were rich in culture, with their own Judeo dialects and traditions, their own scholars and religious literature. The true story of this other Mideast refugee saga, is now told in a powerful new book by prize-winning British historian, Sir Martin Gilbert called “In Ishmael’s House; A History of Jews in Muslim Lands” (Yale University Press).

To be sure, says Gilbert, Jews in the Arab world were subject over the centuries to occasional violence and forced conversion. Nor were they ever accepted as anything but Dhimmi – “protected” but always second class citizens.

Still, by 1947, close to a million Jews lived in the Arab world. Many played primary roles in local economies, global trade, and medicine. Some became senior advisors to kings and presidents and helped enrich the cities of the Arab world ((EG Baghdad’s pre 1948 Chamber of Commerce was 50% Jewish).

The historic decision to establish the State of Israel changed all that. Outraged by the idea of even a tiny Jewish state in their midst (and with an avaricious eye on their Jewish citizens’ belongings), the Arab world turned on its Jews, targeting them with legislated discrimination, government sponsored anti-Semitic riots and murderous pogroms. Faced with growing threats, outright violence (some were hung for public amusement) and moves to completely disenfranchise them, close to 900,000 Jews were forced to abandon their ancient homes between 1948 and 1967 . In Cairo, the former home of Egypt’s wealthiest Jew became the residence of the Egyptian president.

Right:Egyptian Jews being deported

Almost all were eventually “allowed” to leave their native lands on condition they signed agreements never to return and – most important – to leave their property and belongings behind. Recently uncovered documents indicate that much of this massive theft was a coordinated scheme by several Arab governments to grab Jewish property worth as much as $100 billion today.

left: 1951, Baghdad Jews line up outside a synagogue to forfeit property to the Iraqi government and register for emigration permits.

Today, with the exception of small communal pockets in Morocco, the Arab world is effectively Judenrein. Egypt which once had 180,000 Jews now literally has a handful of mostly aged Jews living in Cairo and Alexandria; Iraq which had 160,000 Jews now has 10, Libya and most other Arab states have none.

But here comes the difference between the fates of Arab and Jewish refugees. While the corrupt Arab world condemned Palestinian Arabs to statelessness, squandered opportunities to make peace with Israel and stole mega-millions in welfare funds, the Jewish state and the world Jewish community worked tirelessly to resettle its fellow Jews from Arab lands. More than half a million have settled in Israel where, after early years of economic and sometimes social hardship, they and their descendants have been successfully integrated and now form more than 50% of the Jewish population. Others found new homes in South America, Western Europe, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada – rebuilding lives while trying to retain their own unique cultural ties and communal institutions.

On wings of eagles; Yemenite Jews Are Flown to Israel


Most important, not a single Jew from the Arab world remains a “refugee”, not one lives in a squalid camp or demands UN funding or a “Right of Return” to the Arab world. Above all, not one angry Arab born Jew has ever strapped a terrorist suicide bomb to his or her waist and climbed aboard a bus to murder dozens of innocents.

There are reports Shaath is fighting to win the primary seat on the Palestinian negotiating team. The buzzing swarm of apologists for the Palestinians will argue that Nabil Shaath’s statement was strictly for “Arab street consumption”. Therein lies the problem. It’s time for the Palestinian leadership to tell their people that the only hope for peace is a two state solution – to recognize Israel as the Jewish one, to build permanent homes for Arab refugees in the Palestinian Arab one and to seek resettlement for those who can’t fit on it in other Arab lands.

Won’t somebody please send Mr. Shaath a copy of Sir Martin’s new book?

Read article in full

More reviews of Sir Martin Gilbert’s book In Ishmael’s House

The Times reviews In Ishmael’s House


  • Sylvia, if it's any consolation for you, education is lousy in Jerusalem too. Indeed, education is one of the country's big problems. But the politicians over the decades have done nothing serious to improve education here. They were too busy making "peace."

    A lot has to be changed in education and it's not all a matter of how much money is spent.

  • I quite agree with you Sylvia that 'successful integration' is relative: many Jews never recovered from their uprooting and find themsleves on the margins of Israeli society. But at least they are not subject to the systemic and institutionalised discrimination they suffered in Arab countries and that dreadful gnawing sense of insecurity.
    You are right too to draw a distinction between those Arab governments who practised state-sanctioned theft of Jewish property (- Syria, Iraq, Egypt) and countries like Morocco and Lebanon where there was no such policy. However the net result has been the same, with the government sequestering abandoned Jewish property without paying any compensation to the previous Jewish owners. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think offers of compensation have been few and far between.

  • Some Arab governments made those equivalences long before the Israelis and even applied them. Syria, for example, confiscated Jewish property under an Emergency Act and settled Palestinians refugees in the Jewish quarters and Jewish homes in Damascus. In fact, the children of Palestinians there went to school in the then brand new Alliance Israelite school – and they probably do to this day.

    While I agree with the thrust of Richard Chesnoff's article, I must say that I have a profound distaste for the "all-good-on-this-side of the Pyrenees all-bad on the other side or vice-versa" type argument, reminiscent of the pronoucements of the radical left propagandists found at Mondoweiss or Silverstein's. Frankly, what were those "ma'abarot" and border development towns if not refugee camps? True, there is a de jure equality of rights in Israel for Jews from Arab countries, there is citizenship and right to work, unlike Palestinians in Lebanon, but how can Chesnoff write with a straight face that Jews from Arab lands have "successfully integrated?" in Israel? I live in one of those development towns and I see every day the misery, the scarcity of jobs, the hopelessness. Every little extra for the youth and the children here is financed by Jews from America, France, England or Canada. Sure, some made fortunes in construction or the like. But the great majority is still stagnating and education has nothing to do with it. There are simply no opportunities for them. They are too far from the pie. Some sought to make it through politics. But look who's on Netanyahu's government. And please don't tell me Shas, Shas electorate is in the big cities.

    Another distinction that must absolutely be made is between those criminal Arab governments who have passed legislation to rob the Jews of their property and their nationality after unciting pogroms, such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, and those Arab countries where no such legislation was passed but the Jews fled after sustained attacks at the hands of Muslim mobs incited by greedy clerics and wannabe rulers, and where Jews could sue later to get their properties. To say "the Arab world" or "Arab governments" is to put all of them on equal footing, which is not useful. Some nuance please.


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