Bill mandates discussion of Jewish refugees

Yemeni (Adeni?) Jews contemplate the damage following a riot.
The Forward’s Nathan Guttman produces the first piece of analysis since the Jewish refugees bill was ‘dropped’ at the US Congress – meaning that approval will now be sought to formally link discussion of Palestinian refugees with Jewish refugees. While the first part of the article is to be welcomed, the second is a lazy regurgitation of Lara Friedman‘s objections to this initiative, with, in pride of place, the unrepresentative musings of the post-Zionist professor Yehouda Shenhav. Shenhav claims that Israel blocked attempts of Jewish refugees to gain restitution for their property as fair exchange for Arab property without saying that no Arab state is actually prepared to give Jews compensation, let alone recognise they are refugees. Hussein Ibish’s argument that the integration of Jews from Arab countries into Israel is the fulfilment of their national project, while the Palestinian exodus represents the destruction of theirs, is a feeble and disingenuous excuse.

In a rare show of pre-election bipartisanship, lawmakers from both parties are sponsoring a bill that would link the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews from Arab countries.

The legislation would require the administration to include mention of the need to resolve the issue of Jews who were expelled from their homes in Arab countries in diplomatic discussions about Palestinian refugees. The bill specifically cites talks that take place within the framework of the so-called Middle East Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.

The bill marks the most far-reaching attempt to date to couple Jewish and Palestinian narratives of displacement, and as such it has earned varying responses.

Some advocates of Jews from Arab countries see tying together the two groups’ national histories as an important step toward recognizing the plight of Jews who long lived in the Middle East. The history of their expulsion and dispossession from Arab countries after the establishment of Israel in 1948 has often been overshadowed by the tragic record of Eastern European Jewry. Opponents, on the other hand, view the proposed legislation as no more than a cynical attempt to use the hardship suffered by these Jews, often referred to as Sephardim, as a counterweight to Palestinian claims raised at the negotiation table.

The legislation is co-sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans, including Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Other sponsors include Democrats Jerrold Nadler and Joseph Crowley from New York, and Republicans Ted Poe of Texas and Bob Turner of New York.

The proposed bill expands on a previous resolution passed in 2008 and includes, for the first time, practical measures. It requires the president to report to Congress within one year on actions he has taken “to use the voice, vote and influence of the United States to ensure” that any international discussion on Palestinian refugees “must also include a similar explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” The bill purposely does not specify what the preferred resolution for any of the refugee problems should be—a deliberate omission, according to a staffer for one of the members of Congress involved in the bill.

Given the upcoming elections, it is not likely that the proposed legislation will come to a vote before Congress adjourns. Its advocates nevertheless see the bill’s strong bipartisan sponsorship as an important advance. (…)

This flurry of activism has done little to resolve inherent conflicts raised by the calls for recognizing Jews from Arab countries as refugees. Two leading Sephardic lawmakers in Israel, former Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel and former Meretz MK Ran Cohen, both from Iraq, have spoken out in the past against such recognition. “I am not a refugee,” Cohen said. “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”

The other conflict raised by the issue is more practical — but no less fraught: Should Jewish refugees from Arab countries receive compensation for their hardship and lost property?

Even as Israel has demanded that Arab governments acknowledge wrongful treatment of their expelled Jewish populations, successive Israeli governments have discouraged Sephardim themselves from claiming compensation for their lost property.

The reason, said Yehouda Shenhav, a sociology and anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University, was Israel’s wish that this lost property be deemed fair exchange for the property lost by Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 war that accompanied the country’s founding. This narrative is part of a broader Israeli claim of “population exchange,” according to which a rougly equal number of Jewish and Palestinian refugees essentially exchanged places during the 1948 war and subsequent conflicts. In Israel’s view, both communities should be seen as resettled, thereby preempting the Palestinian refugees’ demand for a right to return to present-day Israel, or proposals from some in the international community that both sets of refugees receive compensation for their losses.

Palestinian leaders argue that the settlement of their refugee issues with Israel cannot be held hostage to the separate displacement of Jews, in which Palestinians played no role.

Efforts to obtain comment from the bill’s congressional sponsors on why their bill makes this link were unsuccessful.

Urman stressed that JJAC and other activists for the cause were not after material reparations. “Our issue is not about money,” he said. “We want recognition and justice.” He cited South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which identified the victims of the Apartheid era and set the historical narrative straight, as one possible path to justice for both sides at some point, “after resolution of many other urgent problems that need to be settled.”

Shenhav, author of the 2006 book “The Arab Jews” and a leading thinker of Israel’s left, saw attempts to equate Mizrahi Jews such as himself with Palestinian refugees as politically motivated efforts to circumvent dealing with the Palestinians’ claim. “There is no doubt that Sephardi Jews are hurting themselves with this,” he said.

The closest that Israelis and Palestinians ever got to discussing the two refugee communities was during the Camp David Summit of 2000. President Clinton then proposed setting up an international fund that would support all victims of the conflict, including Jews displaced from Arab countries.

Today, in the absence of any visible action on the peace process front, “There is an extreme asymmetry,” to any linkage between the mass population movements of the Palestinians and the Sephardic Jews, said Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. The arrival of Jews to Israel from Arab countries, even when forced, marked “the fulfillment of a national project,” he said, while the displacement of Palestinian Arabs marked “the destruction of a national project.”

Read article in full


  • It is telling that critics of this new bill have to rely on a 2003 article in Haaretz quoting Cohen and Hillel. As you say, Sylvia, one can be both a refugee and a Zionist. Nobody seems to have asked Cohen and Hillel since what they think of the new bill and other initiatives? I would be very surprised if they were against them.

  • This is what you get when you review "The Forward" all of the Israeli hatred and non of the Arabic of the Arab press.

  • Two leading Sephardic lawmakers in Israel, former Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel and former Meretz MK Ran Cohen, both from Iraq, have spoken out in the past against such recognition. “I am not a refugee,” Cohen said. “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”"

    Firstly, one doesn't negate the other: Zionism is part of Judaism and one can be both a refugee and a Zionist.

    Second, for Ran Cohen to state that he is not a refugee, when he and his family were rescued through Operation Ezra ve-Nehemiah in 1950-51 through Iran, is a bit rich.

    More stupefying though is Shlomo Hillel's level of denial. First, he came at age 11 in 1934 at the height of anti-Jewish legislation begun in 1933 and anti-Jewish riots that left hundred of Jews murdered and their possessions confiscated and then were forced to flee. Hillel's family was among them.

    What's more, he returned later to Iraq under an assumed name and passport to organize Operation Ezra ve-Nehemia that brought to Israel – among many others, Ran Cohen.

    This reminds me of what Sir Martin Gilbert wrote of Historian Avi Shlaim, who also left Bagdad in 1950 through Iran on the same rescue operation: "In his view, his family left Iraq because of 'hostility at a popular level to the new State of Israel' – not due to any official Iraqi discrimination or expulsion".


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