Now is the time to fight for Jewish refugees

Ma’abara housing Jewish refugees at Bet Lid, Israel, 1951

Even the Israeli government seems to agree that it’s time to fight for the rights of Jewish refugees. But a ‘right of return’ to Arab states is not one of them, writes Lyn Julius in the Jerusalem Post:

Some years ago, a daughter of the wealthy Jewish Castro family from Egypt heard Anwar Sadat’s widow Jehan deliver a talk in New York. Congratulating her afterwards, the Egyptian Jewess exchanged pleasantries with Mrs. Sadat. “But you must come back to visit [Egypt] and to show it to your children,” Mrs. Sadat said, adding the traditional Egyptian courtesy, beti betak – “my house is your house.”

Little did she appreciate the irony, but Jehan Sadat’s presidential villa had literally belonged to the Castro family, which was expelled by Nasser in 1956. Observers of the Middle East conflict frequently talk of trampled Palestinian rights, but suffer from a blind spot when it comes to the mass dispossession of a greater number of Jews across 10 Arab countries.

Few Jews lived as opulently as the Castros, but all over the Middle East and North Africa, Jewish homes, shops and businesses were seized or sold for well under market value as fearful Jews fled or were forced out. Communities predating the Islamic conquest by 1,000 years have been driven to extinction.

Economist Sidney Zabludoff estimates that there were 50 percent more Jewish refugees than Palestinian Arab refugees, and that they almost certainly lost 50% more in assets and property. While the world is fixated by Israeli building in a (Jewish-owned) Jerusalem suburb, nobody reproaches Arab states for seizing Jewish land and property in Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli and Damascus, estimated by the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries at five times the size of Israel itself.

Two years ago this month the Knesset quietly passed a bill stipulating that the Israeli government must include Jewish refugee rights, notably compensation, in all future peace talks.

MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) proposed the law, inspired by a 2008 US Congress resolution.

When the time comes to discuss “final status” issues, the Israeli government will be committed to upholding the rights of 850,000 Jews scapegoated as Zionists after 1948 and driven from their homes. In the meantime, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is spearheading a campaign to raise the public profile of Jewish refugees. His team is preparing a report on the issue. And on the second anniversary of the passing of the Knesset law on 21 February, we can expect to hear a lot more about Jewish refugees.

Before any talk of compensation, however, Arab League states must recognize their culpability for creating the Jewish refugee problem.

All too often, the issue is met with disbelief or denial. If it is acknowledged, wild counterclaims for compensation are made. Arabs blame the exodus on the Zionists, or rationalize it as a justifiable backlash to the creation of Israel. The myths are peddled that Jews and Muslims lived together harmoniously before Zionism, or that Jews were better treated in the Muslim world than in the Christian.

Arab propaganda and Israeli silence have conspired to make the world believe that the Palestinians are the victims of an Israeli injustice.

By restoring Jewish refugees to the picture – they and their descendants make up 52% of the Jewish population of Israel – it becomes clear that two sets of refugees, in roughly equal numbers, exchanged places in the Middle East.

Although no Jew would today consider himself a refugee, justice for the Jewish refugees, for which there is no statute of limitations, is a moral imperative. It is not simply a matter of compensation for stolen assets and property.

Jews hundreds of miles away from the battlefield suffered state-sanctioned discrimination, violence and abuse simply for being Jews.

Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, were caught up in a local war launched by their own leadership.

Jewish refugees could help achieve peace by acting as a counterweight to the Palestinian “right of return.” Even the “moderates” of the Fatah camp cling to their demand for the Arab refugees of 1948 (their numbers have ballooned to more than four million because, uniquely, refugee status is passed on to their descendants ) to return to what is now Israel.

The Palestinian “right of return” amounts to the destruction of Israel by demographic means and the de facto creation of two Palestinian states, one in the West Bank, and one in place of Israel.

In contrast, Jewish refugees were successfully resettled in Israel and the West. The Palestinian refugee problem, perpetuated by UNWRA, the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, could be resolved at a a stroke if the Jewish model of resettlement were followed. Palestinian non-absorption in Arab host countries is an abuse of human rights. It is not only counter-intuitive, it is inhumane.

Contrary to recent misleading press reports, no Jew seeks a “right of return” to Arab states.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman categorically denied that the Israeli government supported such a demand. Firstly, there is no precedent for a return. The seven million Hindus and Muslims who swapped places in the Indian- Pakistani war of 1947 constituted a permanent exchange. So did the Greeks expelled from Turkey and Turks driven from Greece after the end of the First World War.

Secondly, apart from the upheaval generated by a further mass migration, a Jewish “right of return” to countries poisoned by anti-Jewish hatred is unthinkable. Wild horses would not drag three generations of Jews, permanently integrated in Israel and the West, back to lands that are neither hospitable nor safe. The Arab Spring has only made anti-Semitism worse.

And if one set of refugees can’t return, neither should the other.

The Jewish refugees are the key to understanding the bigotry against non-Muslim minorities which drives the conflict with Israel as long as fascism holds sway over the Arab world, its grip strengthened by the Arab Spring.

As the plight of Copts and Assyrians shows, the native Jews would have been victimized even if Israel had not existed. They were the first to suffer ethnic cleansing, but they will not be the last.

Israel’s failure to fight for the rights of Jewish refugees has been a catastrophe of public diplomacy – one that the government is at last trying to remedy after 60 years of neglect. Danny Ayalon’s ministry is expected to make recommendations for recognition and redress for Jewish refugees. He is launching an official PR campaign and will be instructing Israeli embassies around the world to bring up the issue with their counterparts. Watch this space.

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  • anonymous: you are indeed very romantic.
    you may not have heard one of the Palestinian leaders say "nous comptons sur le ventre de nos femmes" we are counting on our womens' belly!
    They tell me that in the coming years Moslems will be more numerous that the majority of our populations.
    Of course you may secretely wish for the end of Israel!!!
    sultana latifa

  • bataween,
    I'm a romantic. I was considering the West Bank and Gaza one "palestinian" "state" and Jordan the other.

  • all we Jews from Arab lands can do is get excited and angry about this issue and BASTA!
    None of us would give up their present comfortable sitation and living conditions to go back …to what? A desert?
    not only that but the fear of madmen bursting in our homes and killing us or looting our homes?
    sultana latifa

    sultana latifa

  • As we discussed in other occasions, it is futile to ask the Israeli government to do anything.
    When it suited its political interests, they produced the story through the court historians of the "idyllic relationship".
    The real story of the fate of jews in Muslim lands is now beginning to get out DESPITE, and not because of any government actions.
    But now everytime the issue of the Palestinian right of return is on the table, our strings are being pulled.
    I don't think Ayalon would want to go back to Algeria – today perhaps the most hateful country in the Arab world.

    I think that article in Israel Hayom was an attention-getter. So let's make the best of it, independently of any government interference, through intelligent and concerted writings, perhaps an academic journal.

    Indeed, ther time is now. The generation of immigrants, those who still know who they are will not be here for ever. We already see the aberrant and deluded output of the second and third generation, who spend their time arguing as to whether they are "Arab Jews" instead of cutting through the important issues.

    At the moment the voice of the majority is silenced and the narrative being spread is the one peddled by the radical fringe. It is great time for the mainstream emigration from Arabo-Muslim countries to be heard, who they are, their history and how thery think.

  • Levana,
    I believe (correct me if I am wrong) that Israel rejection of the Clinton proposal was NOT based solely on the compensation issue. It was rather on the still thorny and naïve issue of the “right of return” of these so called Arab refugees for whom the land of Israel is not their birth place. For a lasting peace, Israel even agreed to help financially these refugees to integrate in their countries that had them. To this idea of “right of return” the PLO deceptively playing the peace maker did not want to forgo. It is the right of return that forestall the peace deal and not the compensation.

    The PLO knew very well that the Jewish refugees from Arab land will never opt to return, even if these countries changed their mind and allow them to return. Return to what? Seized broken down homes, dilapidated businesses, once beautiful synagogues turned into animal sheds and “ecuries”. The same applies to Arabs, where are they going to go, their pitiful douar dwellings are now part of express highways, beautiful houses, schools, gardens and shopping malls. Israel could not accept the “right of return”, and with it the compensation issue was dead.

    I believe if the PLO accepted to forgo this idea of return, the compensation issue would have been settled by all parties.

  • what I am going to say may shock a lot of people but…
    I do not believe that anyone either in Israel or in Europe gives a hoot for us Jewish refugees from Egypt!

    Nothing could be worse than the Spanish Inquisition for us Jews, it happened a long time ago but it's true that we faired better in Moslem countries than in Christian lands.

    Jenane Sadat is a good person, but I don't think she would give up her comfortable life or former Castro villa to do anything for us Egyptian Jews!
    We are alone!!!

    I'd like to thank Levana for her devotion to us Jews from Egypt
    suzy vidal

  • Chapeau to Lyn Julius for this article and chapeau to the Jerusalem Post for publishing it too.
    If the Foreign Ministry is denying having declared the Right of Return for Jewish Refugees as a solution, so why Israel-Hayom which published the Foreign Ministry declaration in big title, on February 2nd, is categorically refusing to publish the denial ?
    Could anyone think that Jews from Egypt could go back to Cairo or Alexandria, when Egypt is burning its Copts churches and homes ? Is this a new tactic to get rid of some hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews living today in Israel, or what ?
    Isn't it enough that for sixty years now, Israel refuses to demand compensations for the Jews from Egypt, for the huge possessions they left behind, when expelled or compelled to leave. After the Suez war in 1956, Jews from Egypt who opted not to make Aliyah, but preferred to resettle in France or England, did receive their compensations from Egypt, through the British and French Governments who asked for it. Why Israel never did the same after the Israel-Egypt Peace agreement? Why Israel did not grasp the occasion, after Sadam Hossein fall, to ask for the Jews from Irak compensations when the American Authorities in Irak were ready for this ?
    Could you imagine how the Mizrahi in Israel would flourish, if they would get back even half of their possessions left behind ?
    Not Iraq and not Egypt would have to pay, but the International Foundation – as proposed by Clinton on July 2000, at Camp David 2 – which started with more than 20 milliard dollars from Europe, Japan, the USA etc, would have compensate both, the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish Refugees. So why Israel stopped this genial Clinton proposal to settle the Palestinian Refugees problem ? Why stopping this genius tool for peace ?
    It is not too late yet for that. If only asked by our Israeli leaders, or by our dear and former Egyptian Jew Haim Sabban, Clinton would be glad to chair and to revive this International Foundation, for the sake of the Palestinian Refugees, for the sake of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, and for the sake of Peace.
    Levana Zamir, World President of the JEWS FROM EGYPT ASSOCIATION IN ISRAEL.

  • "The Palestinian “right of return” amounts to the destruction of Israel by demographic means and the de facto creation of two Palestinian states, one in the West Bank, and one in place of Israel."

    I think she meant 3 'Palestinian' state…


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