A tragedy shrouded in silence: a must-read

The way we were: Iraqi Jews sightseeing at Babylon, early 1950s (Photo: Eli Saleh)

Why has it taken so long for Israel to raise the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries? There are pragmatic as well as ideological reasons, but looking back, Israel’s failure appears a monumental error of judgement. In an important new article for Azure magazine, Adi Schwartz has lifted the veil shrouding the tragedy of silence surrounding Jews from the Arab world and charted the twists and turns in Israel’s policy on the refugee issue. Read the whole thing!

The pages are yellowing, nearly disintegrated. For decades they have lain forgotten, stuffed into crates piled high in the archives of Israel’s Ministry of Justice. No one reads them; no one even shows interest. Even now, nearly sixty years after the painful experiences of loss and flight they recount, they still wait for their stories to be told.

In one, a Jewish woman from Alexandria describes her youth in Egypt:

After the [1948] war broke out, my mother was arrested in her ninth month of pregnancy, and they wanted to slaughter her; they threatened her with bayonets and abused her…. One evening a mob came to kill our family with sticks and anything they could lay their hands on, because they heard we were Jews. The gatekeeper swore to them that we were Italian, and so they only cursed us, surrounding my parents, my brothers, and myself, only a small baby. The next day my parents ran away, leaving everything—pension, work, and home—behind.

On another page, Mordechai Karo, also Egyptian-born, testifies about an explosive device planted in a Jewish neighborhood in Cairo in the summer of 1948: “The tremendous explosion killed and injured scores of Jews in the neighborhood. One of these casualties was my young daughter Aliza.

”Thousands of pages of similar testimony have been collecting dust in various government offices since the 1950s. Under the bureaucratic heading “Registry of the Claims of Jews from Arab Lands,” they tell of lives cut short, of individuals and entire families who found themselves suddenly homeless, persecuted, humiliated. Together they relate a tragic chapter in the history of modern Jewry, a chain of traumatic events that signaled the end of a once-glorious diaspora.

Yet for all its historical import, this chapter has been largely repressed, scarcely leaving a mark on Israel’s collective memory. The media seldom mentioned it then, and rarely do so today.

Schools do not devote comprehensive curricula to it, and academia pays it little attention. Indeed, in the past decade only one doctoral dissertation was written on the devastation of Jewish communities in Arab countries. Furthermore, of all the parties represented in Israel’s Knesset, not one has included in its platform an explicit demand for the restitution of these Jews’ property, or the recognition of their violated rights. This dismissive attitude toward one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the Jewish people should be cause for astonishment. After all, the heritage of Jews from Muslim lands is enjoying something of a renaissance today, both in academic circles and within the general public. Yet not even the outspoken proponents of this heritage are particularly eager to discuss the historical circumstances under which their deep roots in the Arab world were severed.

This prolonged silence becomes even more incomprehensible when we take into account the centrality of the refugee problem to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Palestinians and their advocates repeatedly emphasize the need to correct the historic injustice done to the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who left or were expelled from their lands and dispossessed of their properties in the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”), Israel’s international representatives and spokespeople have refrained from highlighting the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fell victim to systematic persecution and attacks throughout the Middle East and Maghreb at the same time.

How to explain this omission? The answer, as we will see, is neither simple nor easy to digest. It involves a number of motives, some of them pragmatic and some ideological, all of which deserve close scrutiny. Our investigation will raise difficult questions, concerning not only various Israeli governments’ policies in both the past and the present, but also the conceptual foundations of the Jewish state itself. And yet, before we can address these sensitive topics, we must recall certain facts that have been buried for too long in dusty ministerial archives. (..)

The catastrophic fate that befell the Jewish communities in Arab lands not only wrought havoc on countless individuals and families. It also magnified the tragic aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over the years, various elements in the international community have raised the idea of reparations for Jewish refugees from Arab countries within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement. And yet it was Israel, where most of the exiled and dispossessed Jews found their home, which consistently shied away from any active role in promoting such an arrangement.

Already at an early stage, the plight of the Jews in Arab lands was tied to the fate of the Palestinian refugees. In July 1949, for instance, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said suggested a “voluntary exchange” between the two populations. Two years later, in 1951, Israel requested that the U.S. government exert its influence to prevent the appropriation of Jewish property in Iraq. In response, American ambassador Monnett Bain Davis drew a parallel between that property and the assets left behind by the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948, emphasizing that “an effective act by the Israeli government… to hasten the transfer of frozen assets of Arab residents… will make it possible to consider appealing to the Iraqi government in the matter of a parallel settlement for the assets of Jews there.”

The American ambassador’s proposal did not fall on deaf ears. The idea of settling both the Palestinian refugees’ predicament and the problem of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands through an exchange of population, assets, and land was discussed in Israel a number of times and in various governmental fora, but never came to anything. In the end, after the attempts to salvage the property of the Jewish community in Iraq failed, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett announced in the Knesset on March 19, 1951: By freezing the property of tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants to Israel… the government of Iraq invited a reckoning between itself and the State of Israel. An account already existed between us and the Arabs regarding compensation due to Arabs who left the territory of Israel…. The act now perpetuated by Iraq with regard to the property of Jews… compelled us to link the two accounts. The Israeli government therefore has decided to inform the appropriate United Nations institutions—and I hereby make this public—that the value of Jewish property frozen in Iraq will be taken into account with regard to the compensation we may have undertaken to pay Arabs who abandoned property in Israel.

At that time, Israel began registering Jewish property left behind in Arab lands, particularly in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Yet this painstaking archival work never evolved into an overt political or legal initiative. Indeed, Israeli representatives even stressed, on numerous occasions, that there was no basis for comparison between the Jews of Arab lands, especially those from Iraq, and the Palestinian refugees. In a letter sent to the UN’s Reconciliation Commission in 1951, Foreign Ministry Director General Walter Eytan stated that “the Palestinian Arabs who left the country and abandoned their property in 1948 joined hands with the neighboring Arab countries in attacking the Jewish state, with the declared objective of destroying the Jewish community and preventing the establishment of the state. The case of Iraqi Jews is entirely different: They were not involved in any act of aggression against the government or the Iraqi people.The international community, for its part, repeatedly expressed its willingness to grant the Jews expelled from Arab lands official refugee status and treat them accordingly. In 1957, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, August Lindt, declared that the Jews of Egypt who are “unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of the government of their nationality” fall, in his opinion, under the mandate of his office.

A decade later, the commission’s senior legal counsel wrote to the Joint Distribution Committee that the Jews who had fled Arab countries due to persecution engendered by the Six Day War were considered, ostensibly, refugees. Resolution 242, adopted by the UN Security Council in November 1967, stated that a comprehensive agreement would be necessary for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem. Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time and one of the drafters of the resolution, later wrote that “this language presumably refers both to Arab and Jewish refugees, for about an equal number of each abandoned their homes as a result of the several wars.” Shortly before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, American president Jimmy Carter also expressed his position on the subject for the first time: On October 27, 1977, Carter stated that the Jewish refugees “have the same rights as others do.” And on June 3, 2005, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin declared that “a refugee is a refugee and that the situation of Jewish refugees from Arab lands must be recognized.”

Some of the voices that called for recognition of the injustice came from within the Arab world itself. In an article published in the An-Nahar newspaper in May 1975, leading PLO official Sabri Jiryis pointedly criticized the Arab states for expelling the Jews “in a most ugly fashion, and after confiscating their possessions or taking control thereof at the lowest price.” He added that “clearly, Israel will raise the question in all serious negotiations that may in time be conducted over the rights of the Palestinians.” In a similar tone, Egyptian journalist Nabil Sharaf Eldin wrote in a column published in 2008 in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that “we owe our Egyptian Jewish brothers a historic apology for the injustice we caused them, for causing a community, whose roots in the land of Egypt go back to the prophet Musa (Moses)… to disappear.”

The question of the status of Jewish refugees from Arab lands arose once again in the summer of 2000, during the Camp David summit attended by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The summit’s host, U.S. President Bill Clinton, was asked by an Israeli interviewer about the matter of Jewish refugees. “If there is an agreement… there will have to be some sort of international fund set up for the refugees,” he told the interviewers, and added, “There is, I think, some interest, interestingly enough, on both sides, in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.

Clinton’s was a show of goodwill; it was the Israeli diplomats who, paradoxically, were more reserved. Their draft for the permanent settlement declared that “The Parties agree that a just settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict should settle the claims by Jewish individuals and committees that left Arab countries or parts of Mandatory Palestine due to the 1948 War and its aftermath.

The cautious formulation effectively unhinged the issue of the Jews from Arab lands from the refugee problem, linking it instead to the future resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But this position, too, was quickly abandoned by the Jewish state with the renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at the Taba summit in January 2001. In response to a Palestinian document on the question of the refugees, Israel announced that “Although the issue of compensation to former Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not part of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement, in recognition of their suffering and losses, the Parties pledge to cooperate in pursuing an equitable and just resolution to the issue.

In direct contrast to this statement, however, Israel went on to agree that the Arab countries ought to be compensated for the many years in which they had “hosted” the Palestinian refugees. Thus, in an astonishing ploy of self-defeat, Israel severed the claims of Jews from Arab lands from any future settlement with the Palestinians—but allowed the interests of the Arab side to stand. As has happened more than once, the American House of Representatives assumed a more hawkish position on this topic than did Israel itself. Resolution 185, which it adopted on April 1, 2008, noted that “the Palestinian refugee issue has received considerable attention from countries of the world, while the issue of Jewish refugees from the Arab and Muslim worlds has received very little attention.” The House urged the U.S. president to instruct American officials to use their power and influence to ensure that any decision about the future of the Palestinian refugees “include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees.

Two years later, Israel’s Knesset followed suit. On February 22, 2010, it passed a law to safeguard “the rights to compensation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.” The law determined that “as part of the negotiations to achieve peace in the Middle East, the government shall raise the issue of compensation to Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran for the loss of property, specifically the assets owned by the Jewish community in these countries.

Indeed, something has changed in Israel’s attitude. Previously, its policy had been based on the assumption that, within a comprehensive peace agreement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, both sides would present their financial claims regarding property loss, such that each would offset the other. From interviews with public figures and senior officials, however, it would seem that this approach has lately been abandoned in favor of a demand for actual compensation: “Our position at present is that the Jews from Arab lands must receive money at the end of the process,” says Aharon Mor, senior director for restitution of rights and Jewish property in the Ministry for Senior Citizens. And according to former MK Rafi Eitan, who chairs the National Council for Jewish Restitution, “If tomorrow morning it would be announced that X billions are handed over to the Palestinian refugees, the same amount must also be given to the Jewish refugees.

The solution is to establish one joint fund, and each side will distribute the money.”

Time will tell whether this new approach will have an actual effect on official policy. One thing is certain, however: The problem will not simply go away. Sooner or later, the government of Israel will need to decide how to handle the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands (and their descendants). And yet, a change of policy, essential as it may be, won’t answer one niggling question: Why did it take so long?

Here is no one explanation as to why the state authorities in particular and the Israeli public in general have been inclined to turn a blind eye to one of the most painful chapters in modern Jewish history. Indeed, from interviews with key officials in both past and present Israeli governments, as well as a review of numerous primary and secondary sources, it becomes clear that there are in fact a number of reasons for this infuriating indifference. Some are understandable, while others are far more difficult to swallow.

The first and perhaps most exculpatory point to be made concerns the technical problem of obtaining the relevant information. Many countries, including Israel, grant researchers access to archives and records, even if they were formerly classified. Not so the Arab world: Important documents and primary sources concerning decisions of the Arab League and the activities of Arab states in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the precise registration of personal and communal property, are extremely difficult to come by—if not completely inaccessible.

But there were also other, more principled motives for Israel’s policy on the subject. First, in contrast to the situation that still prevails on the Palestinian side, there is currently no “problem” of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Although these Jews were initially considered refugees in the wake of their hasty departure from their countries of origin, the State of Israel made every effort to ease their burden, from the granting of immediate citizenship upon arrival to wide-ranging support services, such as assistance in housing and employment. True, this aid did not always bear the desired fruit; frequently clumsy and at times humiliating, the state’s efforts were met with accusations of discrimination that are still heard today from both the immigrants and their children. Yet unlike the Arab regimes and the Palestinian national movement, the Jewish state had no interest in perpetuating the refugee situation.

Consequently, while in the early 1950s Israel established transit camps to house new immigrants temporarily, there is today no Jewish parallel to the Palestinian refugee camps. Second, the Jewish immigrants themselves did their utmost to rebuild their lives in their new country, even though many arrived in Israel in a state of economic and emotional devastation. They had no reason to believe they would receive any kind of compensation. As Israel lacked diplomatic relations with the countries from which these Jews had fled, there was no addressee for their claims. (Even Egypt, in this case, was no exception. Though the Israel-Egypt peace agreement stated that a “claims commission for the mutual settlement of all financial claims” would be established, no such body was ever created.

Yet another motive for keeping quiet on the subject was the legitimate concern for the well-being of those Jews who remained in Arab countries. True, the plight of these Jews was raised from time to time as a humanitarian issue, primarily as a result of the virulent antisemitism that spread throughout the Arab world in the wake of the Six Day War. Even then, however, Israeli officials were worried that discussing the problem in public would merely exacerbate it.

The precautionary stance taken by the Ministry of Finance only complicated matters. For years officials charged with addressing the problem assumed it would eventually be resolved by a future settlement that would “balance out” the financial claims of both Jewish and Palestinian refugees. At the same time, Finance Ministry executives feared that the Palestinian property in question would turn out to be of greater value than Jewish assets; no less worrisome was the possibility that the refusal of the Arab governments to recognize their former citizens’ claims would prompt the Jewish refugees to turn to the Israeli government for compensation.

The Foreign Ministry had reservations of its own. The common perception in diplomatic corridors was that, in any dialogue with an Arab counterpart, Israel must focus first and foremost on the question of security; everything else was secondary. Moreover, official Israeli representatives preferred not to raise the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands for fear this might trigger a discussion of the “right of return.” Let sleeping dogs lie, they seemed to think, hoping that if Israel refrained from mentioning refugees, the Palestinians would do the same.

And indeed, with the signing of the Oslo accords, Israeli negotiators labored under the impression that the Palestinians’ central demand was the establishment of a sovereign state within the 1967 borders, and that the return of refugees to their pre-1948 estates was less critical. It is hardly surprising, then, that Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin decided, in the year 2000, to fire Ya’akov Meron, who since 1969 had headed the department tasked with registering these Jews’ claims.

Israeli expectations, however, proved unfounded. The Palestinians brought up the refugee question repeatedly, in each round of negotiations. The issue was also mentioned in the 2002 Saudi initiative, which is considered at present to be the official Arab position.

And just last year, dispelling any hope some Israelis may still harbor, Saeb Erekat, one of the senior Palestinian negotiators, clarified that “no leader will agree to surrender the right of return and obliterate the Palestinian narrative.

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