The New York Times of 16 May 1948 contained details of an Arab plan based on Nuremberg laws to ‘ethnically cleanse’ their Jews
Time for Israel to counter-attack on the issue of Jewish refugees, argues Guy Bechor in a fascinating piece for the Hebrew medium G-planet. Here is a paraphrase. (With thanks: Janet, Michal)
For decades almost no-one referred to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Why? Arab regimes claimed these Jews left voluntarily for fear of a ‘spontaneous’ uprising by Arabs angry at the establishment of Israel. In the Oslo talks, the Israeli leadership conceded the lie that the only refugees worth bothering about were the Palestinians.
Alarmed at the surge of immigration of Jews from Europe and the imminent declaration of a Jewish state, Arab League states met in Syria in 1946 and Lebanon in 1947 under the guiding spirit of Iraqi PM Saleh Jaber. A Justice for Jews from Arab Countries report in 2008 found that the Arab states had agreed a draft plan to rob their Jews of their property, threaten them with imprisonment and expel the impoverished Jews, knowing Israel would have no choice but to absorb them.
A spy in the Egyptian delegation blew the whistle, but Israel was by then too preoccupied with the threat of war to be concerned at the ethnic cleansing of Jews. In January 1948 a worried World Jewish Congress brought a copy of the document to the Lebanese UN Economic and Social Committee chairman, Charles Malik. He refused to discuss it.
Years later, Guy Bechor met and challenged Malik over this antisemitic document. The Lebanese government had no choice – it had to toe the line, he said.
Despite anyefforts to suppress it, the ‘narrative’ of Jewish refugees from Arab countries seems have generated its own momentum. It is even seeping into the ‘conflict resolution’ industry in Israel. Says Martin Kramer:” I’ve known these people for 18 years as friends and colleagues, and until now, I have never heard these stories. Audio, 18 minutes, and very worthwhile.”
For the first time, Esther Webman (right) and Ofra Bengio (left), both researchers at the Moshe Dayan Peace Center, tell their personal stories on this Diwaniyya Podcast.
Esther Webman was born in Cairo of first-generation Egyptian Jews originally from Syria and Iraq. The family was stateless (this was the case for 40 per cent of Egyptian Jews). She remembers a Muslim standing by the door to protect the family from the 1948 riots. The trigger for the family’s departure was the 1952 Egyptian officers’ coup. Esther’s father, a Zionist, felt the ‘ground was already shaking’ under his feet, and decided to leave Egypt in 1954, two years before the peremptory Suez exodus of 25,000 Jews. Esther tells how she was shocked to leave everything behind, to move to a hut in the mud and with no electricity in Israel. Her father exchanged his suit for overalls.
Ofra Bengio’s family had been in Aleppo since time immemorial. Jewish women dressed as Arabs so as ‘not to be abused’. During the 1947 riots the family was protected by Muslims. She remembers that her school and the beautiful Great Synagogue were burned down, although the Aleppo Codex it housed was saved. The Jews were not allowed to leave and Ofra’s father, a schoolteacher, lost his job. The family were among very few Jews who left with a passport. In Israel they stayed in a transit camp (ma’abara) for a year. They had given up everything.
Samir Ben-Layashi, a (Muslim) Moroccan researcher now working at the Moshe Dayan Center, lived in the Jewish quarter of Meknes. His father had purchased a large seven-room house from the Amar family for $5,000 (presumably, a song). The Amars decided it was time to leave in 1968 after the Six-Day War and settled in Nahariya in Israel. Samir and his fellow Moroccans considered the Jews as different from themselves. They dressed like Frenchmen and spoke French rather than Arabic. Jews and Muslims were generally on good terms (although by then, the vast majority of Jews would have left Meknes).
Kamal Hachkar is an unusual man who set himself an unusual task.
A Muslim Berber, he was born in the town of Tinghir in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, although brought up in France. Judeo-Berber communities go back to ancient history, and pre-date the Arab invasion by centuries. Jews dominated commercial life in the town – all but three shops in the market were owned by Jews. All left in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Israel.
Hachkar decided to search out his family’s former Jewish neighbours and record his journey on film. The upshot was a French-language documentary shown at the New York Sephardic Film Festival, Les Echos des Mellah. Here is a 5-minute snippet with English subtitles. Hachkar wants to follow it up with another film, taking his family’s Jewish neighbours back to Tinghir.
The film has been hailed as an essay in Jewish-Muslim coexistence. It is a valiant attempt to educate Moroccan Muslims who didn’t know that Jews lived among them, let alone for milennia. Hachkar brings together Jews and Muslims who knew each other by name, who worked together, who cried when the time came to leave.
It is touching that Hachkar made the effort to learn Hebrew in order to greet Moroccan Jews in Israel like long-lost friends. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine seems like an abstraction, a product of the inexorable sweep of forces beyond their control. The conflict is independent of the affection and harmony reigning between fellow Chleurs (Berbers).
We are told that Berber Jews and Muslims supported each other against common enemies in Morocco. (No mention of the fact that Berber tribes also could, and did, attack and loot Jewish Mellahs). “There was no antisemitism”, says one Israeli Moroccan (no mention that the most fanatical Muslims of all were the Berber Almohades in the Middle Ages). An old Jewess could not stop repeating, as she kissed her fingers in Hachkar’s direction: “Muslims are good people!”
So if life was so harmonious – why did they leave? One woman admits that relationships changed with the neighbours after Israel won the 1948 war. “They didn’t say good morning to us any more,” she said. But such cracks as appeared in the good neighbourly relations are papered over by tearful encounters between Hachkar and nostalgic Tinghir Jews, whose rusty Berber tongue has by now became peppered with Hebrew words.
But there is more to this film than meets the eye. The credits reveal that the documentary was sponsored by the “Fondation Hassan II pour les Marocains residant a l’Etranger”. The message is that Jewish Berbers living in impersonal Israeli apartment blocks in Yavne are ‘in exile’ from their real homeland. Their place is really in Morocco.
Hachkar acknowledges that Judeo-Berber life is no more, “mais quand il y a un autre on peut savoir qui l’on est.” This is a re-statement of the Sartrian idea that Jewish existence is defined by the Other. Take away the Other, and Jewish identity collapses. The implication is that Jewish life in Israel is hollow, lonely and unfulfilling without the Muslim neighbour.
In the end, however, Hachkar is on a hiding to nothing, trapped in a timewarp of generational nostalgia. Only the elderly immigrants in Israel – those with least to offer and to gain from their new country – still feel attached to Tinghir. The hovels they lived in, the poverty and disease, are beyond romanticisation. The younger generation no longer speak Berber or remember the folk songs. Apart from anything else, young Israelis of Moroccan origin will not exchange their washing machines for a hard existence only a little less primitive than it was in their parents’ day.
Hachkar is a brave man to try and mend the deep and affectionate historic ties between Berber Jews and Muslims, but even he is becoming a victim of the inexorable sweep of historical forces outside his control. Already he is being accused of‘normalisation’ *with Israel. Coexistence is not a question of good interpersonal relationships, it is ultimately all about politics.
Profile of Meir Buzaglo, a brilliant Israeli academic born in Morocco and bred on different musical influences. “Music is the soul of peace and a messenger for change”, he tells Haaretz.
Meir Buzaglo, who was born in Morocco in 1959, grew up in a home suffused with music: piyyutim; hundreds of traditional Hebrew texts set to music by his father; a mixture of sacred and non-sacred music; a blend of Jewish, Muslim and Jewish-Muslim melodies.
“Father would take popular songs and ‘convert’ them to Judaism. Students would come to prepare for singing the songs of supplication in winter, and all self-respecting singers would come to sing and listen to the others sing.
“My brother Shalom, who was my mentor, made sure that I also heard rock ‘n roll, top-quality English rock, as well as the sound-tracks of Indian movies. Different types of music express different aspects of the soul. Whoever sings well is on top of the world. People like Aviv Geffen, Naomi Shemer, Kobi Peretz. Those who can sing well are in a special category. Plato says: ‘When modes of music change, the laws of the state always change with them.’ The reason is that music is the soul of a nation. Clothes and food might be the outward signs of a culture, but a nation’s soul is in its music.
“Profound change will never occur if music does not change. Look at the Zionist movement, for instance, which arose on the wave of a major musical phenomenon. The ethos changes when the music changes. Without jazz, Barack Obama would never have become president of the United States … Music is the soul of a place; it is both a messenger and an agent of change.”
Buzaglo is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew University’s philosophy department; he has degrees in mathematics, physics and the philosophy of science, and his doctoral thesis was on the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Salomon Maimon. Over the years, he has received among other things a Fulbright scholarship, a Hebrew University citation for excellence in teaching, and a three-year scholarship from the Israel Science Foundation.
The articles and books he has either written himself or edited deal with various aspects of philosophy, logic, the connection between language and mathematics, and medieval thought. The music he absorbed at home, and which has become an integral part of his life, has played an important role in his philosophical thought as well as his approach to sociopolitical issues.
“Conflict between parties can be along the lines of what was depicted in the movie ‘Avatar,’” says Buzaglo, “but it can also take place between parties that share a common essence, in which case there is the possibility of peaceful resolution. Music is one of the central components in the kind of Jewish-Arab friendship we would like to see. The prayer book of Moroccan Jews contains the phrase, ‘We begin when we hear the prayers in the mosque.’ This embodies the ability to see the ‘other.’ It boils down to being aware that the muezzin is calling his fellow Muslims to prayer services. This surpasses the idea of ‘building bridges’ or looking only at the economic dimension [of conflict]: It is the ability to open your eyes.
Jewish refugee rights are not a spanner in the works – they are an unresolved human rights issue, and the key to peace and reconciliation, Lyn Julius argues in Ha’aretz:
Refael Bigio remembers the moment in 1962 that the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized his family’s property. Police had cordoned off the Bigio bottling plant at 14 Aswan Street in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. A policeman barked at Bigio and his father: “Hand over the keys!”
The nightmare of dispossession that was destined to afflict some 870,000 Jews across the Arab world – forced out or expelled with just the shirts on their backs – had caught up with the Bigio family. Ever since, the Bigios have been engaged in a long-running battle for restitution. Believing they could not get justice in an Egyptian court, their fight has pitted them against the mighty Coca-Cola corporation in the U.S. courts. This week, the family is girding its loins for the next legal round.
Not only have few Jewish refugees ever received compensation, but their plight has never been internationally recognized. Yet, between 1948 and 1972, more Jews in the region became refugees than Palestinians (who numbered 711,000 ), and they lost some 50 percent more in assets, according to economist Sidney Zabludoff. Some 200,000 sought sanctuary in the West, but the majority found refuge in Israel.
The Bigios must have felt alone in a David-versus-Goliath fight for justice – until just before Passover. That’s when Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon announced a sea change in Israeli foreign policy. Henceforth, the Jewish refugee issue would be raised in every peace-based negotiation with Arab states and Palestinians. Israeli embassies will lobby parliaments to adopt resolutions recognizing the refugee status of Jews from Arab countries. Israel is proposing that both sets of refugees be compensated, based on the value of their assets at the time they became refugees, from an international fund.
Many will wonder – with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going nowhere fast – why throw another spanner in the works? When he was justice minister in 2000, Yossi Beilin of the Meretz party dismissed the subject of Jewish refugees as a distraction from the land-for-peace Oslo agenda, and closed down the unit that collected data on Jewish property in Arab countries. In any case, he reasoned, refugees were a final-status issue, to be resolved far into the future.
Why, after years of neglect, has Israel now decided to dust off the cobwebs?
No doubt successive governments saw Jews from the Muslim world as Zionist immigrants, not refugees. Singling out Jews from Arab countries would have obstructed their successful assimilation out of the transit camps into the great Israeli melting pot. A public fuss might also have impeded quiet efforts to get hostage remnants out of Arab countries (the rescue of Syrian Jews was still going on until the 1990s ).
The primary reason why the Foreign Ministry has balked at raising the topic of Jewish refugees, however, is that the government feared bringing the Palestinian refugee issue to the fore. But even as Israel has remained silent, the Arab side has never ceased raising the Palestinian refugee issue.
Some believe the Palestinians cannot be held responsible for what happened to the Jewish refugees. But Ayalon argues that the Arab League states, which instigated the 1948 war against Israel, were responsible for creating both sets of refugees.
But when all’s said and done, if Israel were to concede an independent Palestinian state, and if agreement were reached on borders, settlements and even Jerusalem, peace negotiations would still founder on the immovable rock of the Palestinian “right of return.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed the “right of return” in a Jordanian newspaper interview in September 2011. Even Fatah “moderates” will not give up their “right” to Arabize Israel by flooding it with the four million descendants of Palestinians, who, under the aegis of the UN Works and Relief Agency, are uniquely permitted to pass on their refugee status from generation to generation.
This is how Ayalon’s Jewish refugees initiative will promote peace – by making both sides recognize that a permanent exchange of roughly equal numbers of refugees took place.
One might argue that no linkage is possible – one refugee problem has been resolved, the other has not. But the non-resettlement of Palestinian refugees is an abuse of human rights. Palestinians need to follow the model of successful Jewish refugee resettlement by being allowed to acquire full citizenship in a Palestinian state or in their host Arab countries, instead of being fed the vain hope of a “right of return” to Israel, a country that most “refugees” have never seen. The international fund would also be used to finance the rehabilitation of refugees in host countries.
True, the situation is not symmetrical. Jewish refugees do not wish to return to a hostile and unsafe environment in Arab states. But alone of all refugees, Palestinians in the Arab world have been denied the humanitarian solution they deserve. Jordan has been turning away Palestinian refugees fleeing the current turmoil in Syria – in only the latest example of a cruel and cynical policy.
The issue of Jewish refugee rights is not a spanner in the works. It remains a key, unresolved human rights issue. Since February 2010, governments of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in any peace deal. The 52 percent of Israel’s Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution will not back a peace deal that ignores their painful history. And there’s another reason why Ayalon’s initiative is encouraging: An appreciation of Jewish suffering is demonstrably more, not less, likely to achieve reconciliation, when Palestinians realize they are not the only wronged party. Read article in full
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