BBC breaks 64 years’ silence on Jewish refugees

The BBC has broken its 64 years of virtual silence on the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, although, this being the BBC, it takes scrupulous care to give equal weight to the ‘plight’ of Palestinian refugees (who moved all of 19 miles from Ramle to Ramallah) and their claims. This must be hailed as a victory of sorts for Danny Ayalon’s campaign to push the issue of Jewish refugees on the international stage.

At the edge of Mahane
Yehuda market in Jerusalem, elderly men sit playing backgammon – or
shesh besh as it is known locally – wearing looks of intense

It is a scene which can be found in coffee shops across the
Middle East, such as in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. In fact many of
the men here are Jewish Israelis who originally came from those Arab

“We stayed in Baghdad until 1951, when we moved to Israel,”
Vardika Shabo says. “They hated the Jews in Iraq. They killed many of
us in 1948. They took our belongings and burned our houses.”

“We left with nothing except our suitcases. No money. We left the house, my parents’ shops. Everything that we had, we left.”

Another man, Baruch Cohen, left Qamishli in North-Eastern
Syria in 1963. He tells me he was 13 when his father led a group of 97
Jews out of the area. They left secretly to avoid unwanted attention
and were helped across the border into Turkey.

From there safe passage to his new home was arranged by the
Jewish Agency, a government body which brought Jews from the Diaspora to
live in Israel.

“We were persecuted. The regime was very cruel to the Syrian
Jews,” says Mr Cohen. “We escaped with just the clothes on our backs.
It was like the exodus from Egypt in the Bible. We lost our lands and
came here as refugees.”

Vardika Shabo and friends in Mahane Yehuda market 

Vardika Shabo came from Iraq over 60 years ago


According to Israeli government figures, 856,000 Jews fled Arab
countries in four years after the state was created in 1948. Officials
say they lost billions of dollars’ worth of property and assets.

A new government campaign aims to raise awareness of their
plight. More controversially it aims to equate it with that of the
hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in
Israel. It insists that both cases are part of the same core issue that
must be addressed by any future peace talks.

“The problem of refugees is probably the most thorny and
painful one. Everyone agrees without solving this we won’t be able to
achieve true peace nor normalisation in the Middle East,” says Deputy
Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

“We have to, ahead of time, understand that refugees are not
only on one side of the border but both sides. There are Arab refugees
and there are also Jewish refugees and we should use the same yardstick
for them all.”

Mr Ayalon spoke at the first special conference on the issue
at the UN headquarters in New York last week. He suggests that an
international fund could be set up to deliver compensation for both sets
of individuals.

‘I am a Refugee’: Palestinian leaders though are angry at the “I am a Refugee”
campaign, which they see as an Israeli attempt to create a new obstacle
for any future peace efforts.

“This is not an issue in the
negotiations that we agreed on with them – they include Palestinian
refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements, water and security,” says
chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. 

“They continue loading issues to the overloaded wagon of complexities in order not to have a solution.”

He suggests Israel’s timing is designed to coincide with the
latest plans to ask for the UN General Assembly to admit Palestine as a
non-member state. This will enable the Palestinian leadership to pursue
Israel through the international courts.

“These people are destroying the two-state solution and that
is why we are going to the UN in order to preserve it,” Mr Erekat says.

The refugee issue has proved so difficult that it was put off
by the two sides to be tackled as part of any eventual final status
discussions under the Oslo Accords in 1993.

It has been a key Palestinian grievance since 1948.
Palestinians argue that their “right to return” is enshrined in UN
resolution 194 passed that year, which states that “the refugees wishing
to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should
be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”.

Israel says that such a move would obliterate the country’s Jewish majority.


While Jews from Arab countries are now naturalised citizens of
Israel, many Palestinian refugees remain in camps; most are in the West
Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

At al-Jalazun refugee camp on a rocky hillside near Ramallah
in the West Bank, 86-year-old Ahmed Safi lives with his family in a
small, overcrowded house. His grandchildren have just arrived home from
the local school run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

Ahmed Safi and his wife Um Hazem


Um Hazem holds up the keys she says belonged to her original home in present-day Israel.


“We had a huge house in Beit Nabala in Ramla [in present-day
Israel],” Mr Safi says. “All the family lived there. Our life was very
nice. We had work and a good income, but when we left we couldn’t take
anything with us because we were scared and we left in a hurry.”

His wife, Umm Hazem jangles some large keys, which she sees as symbols of her right to return.

“You see these? I grabbed them from the cupboard and took
them with me. I couldn’t take anything else as I had my new baby in my
arms,” she says.

Read article in full

BBC ‘balancing’ refugee claims (HonestReporting)


  • Eliyahu
    Those are laments in verse from those days sung in judeo-maghreban.

    Yes, it is just harrowing.
    I think I'll go ahead and translate.
    although I was hoping I could spare myself the depressing task and just find one I could copy and paste.

  • I heard Paul Fenton when he lectured here in Jerusalem last winter. The story was horrifying –but there have been so many similar stories since.

  • 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tritel (sac and bombing) of the Mellah of Fes.The Refugee Campaign is fine with me and it is a just cause. But confronting the whole story is to many an urgent imperative.

    I thought of translating into English nand posting some of those Qinot (Complaint, Lament) into English starting with the Qina of the Tritel of Meknes in 1911.
    I have the Meknes Qina in French translation (seems to be a close translation almost literal) of Fenton/Littman, and the Fes Tritel in Maghreban dialect.

    Before I do it, I would like to know, however, if anyone knows if any of them has already been translated into English. Thanks.

  • al Beeb is irredeemably antisemitic and we should ignore all their random silly efforts to paint themselves as anything but.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.