Ayalon critics have ‘no interest in displaced Jews’

With Danny Ayalon’s campaign for rights for Jews from Arab countries making waves in the Hebrew press, Dr Esther Meir-Glitzenstein (pictured) addresses the objections of several writers in Haaretz: Gideon Levy, Yifat Biton, Ahmed Tibi. What they have in common, she alleges, is ignorance or lack of interest in the history of Jews from Arab countries. I would take issue, however, with Dr Meir-Glitzenstein’s implication that Israel is to blame for not recognising that a ‘European solution’ to the Jewish question put communities in Arab countries at risk. It is the Arab reaction of scapegoating Jews with no connection to Israel which is to blame. (With thanks: Yoram, Isaac and Sarah)


The Foreign Ministry’s campaign to recognize early Jewish
immigrants to Israel from Arab countries as refugees has faced a fair
amount of criticism in Haaretz’s pages. Haaretz writer Gideon Levy sees
it as a new level of Israeli chutzpah and asks how it’s possible that
after being told for generations that immigration from Arab countries
was motivated by Zionism, it suddenly turns out to have been nothing but
a wave of refugees (“How many homelands do the Israelis get to have?”
September 20, 2012). 

Daniel Zirlin sees the campaign as “a bad move from a Zionist
perspective” that does more harm than good. He writes that if the Jews
of Arab countries arrived as immigrants, thus fulfilling the Zionist
dream, they cannot simultaneously be considered refugees. He says the
most damaging part of this assertion is that it weakens Zionism and
gives ammunition to its opponents (Letters to the Editor, September 13). 

Israeli civil rights activist Yifat Bitton sees the campaign as just
another way to exploit the Mizrahim and take away their rights. She
claims many Jews from Arab countries came to Israel because of
religious-messianic convictions (like Yemeni Jews) or Zionism (like
Iraqi Jews). So, she says, they cannot be seen as refugees. On the other
hand, she criticizes the idea of equating the financial claims of
Jewish and Palestinian refugees, arguing it belittles the Jewish
refugee’s claim (“Another way to discriminate against Mizrahim,”
September 20). 

These statements show an ignorance of or lack of interest in the
history of the Jews of Arab countries. Jews did not leave Yemen based on
a religious-messianic vision, nor did the Jews of Iraq immigrate to
Israel because of Zionist agitation. In general, the Jews of Arab
countries acted based on rational considerations, just like other Jews
around the world. 

Then there’s the idea that the State of Israel must decide why and how
the Jews of Arab countries came to Israel and, based on that decision,
determine whether they’re immigrants or refugees. “The Jews immigrated,
willingly or unwillingly – Israel has yet to decide on that one,” writes
Levy. He gives the right to decide to MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al), quoting
his question, “How many homelands do you have?” Tibi ignores the fact
that all the immigrants, expellees and refugees have or had more than
one homeland at various times in their lives. 

But the biggest and most important players, the Jew of Arab countries
themselves, are not part of the discussion. When they arrived in Israel,
they were forced to erase their language and culture, as well as their
ancient and recent pasts, and adopt the Zionist ideology that portrayed
them as immigrants. During the 1950s, the State of Israel was unwilling
to recognize that the proposed solution to the Jewish question in Europe
had caused a terrible conflict that endangered the existence of the
ancient Jewish communities in Arab countries. It still doesn’t recognize
this today. It puts the blame for the situation on the Arab countries,
which began attacks against the Jewish state and against the Jews of
Arab countries at the same time. 

But beyond this political debate, the United Nations resolution of
November 29, 1947 was indeed a watershed, which forced the Jews of Arab
countries into the conflict over the Land of Israel and made them into
hostages in their native lands. The pogrom against the Jews of Aden,
Yemen, which broke out at the beginning of December 1947, resulted not
only in dozens of Jewish deaths, but also in economic destruction. In
its wake, most of the Jews of Aden, who were not Zionists, were forced
to immigrate to Israel. Libyan Jews also endured pogroms in 1945 and in
1948, which killed and wounded Jews and destroyed their community’s
economic infrastructure. When, in January 1949, the British authorities
announced they would allow the Jews to leave, 30,000 of Libya’s Jews
chose to go to Italy and from there to Israel, the only place that would
accept them. 

Fifty thousand Yemenite Jews left in May 1949, as a result of
cooperation between the imam and British rulers of Yemen, social and
economic oppression, inferior legal status, forced conversion of orphans
to Islam and humiliations rooted in laws and customs combined with
attacks related to political upheavals and fears of the fallout of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In complete contradiction of the Israeli
myth that they arrived by “Magic Carpet,” the price of their immigration
was heavy in the extreme, in terms of both human life and property.
Many of them died on the way out of Yemen. Hundreds more died at Yemen’s
border, in the long weeks when it was closed to Jews, and yet hundreds
more died in refugee camps in Aden. Those who got out left most of their
property behind, and the little they had managed to take with them was
stolen from them during the journey. 

The largest group – 125,000 Jews – arrived from Iraq. What led them to
Israel was neither Zionist propaganda nor Zionist agitation but rather
their transformation into hostages whose fate was made conditional on
the fate of the Palestinian refugees. The Jews of Iraq feared becoming
the victims of a second round of the war between Israel and the Arab
states. The law that permitted their departure from Iraq was no ordinary
immigration law. It created a short one-year window to leave, required
renouncing the right to return to Iraq, failed to mention that the
government would seize the property of many departing Jews and did not
allow registrants to change their minds about leaving. Many Jews saw
Iraq as their homeland, but even anti-Zionist Jewish communists, who
were jailed in Iraqi prisons, were forced onto airplanes bound for
Israel. Their property was taken only after they had registered for
departure and renounced their Iraqi citizenship. 

The Jews of Egypt suffered an expulsion in 1956, while the Jews who
remained in Iraq faced persecutions and executions after 1967 and fled
via Kurdistan and Iran. The small Jewish community of Syria also
suffered terrible persecution for decades until its members were allowed
to leave in the 1990s. 

Of course, this is not the whole story of the Jews of Arab countries.
The story is far more expansive, complex and varied. It certainly also
invovled Zionism and religious yearning, but even those Jews who started
out as immigrants, whether out of Zionist motives or not, were
transformed into refugees along the way. They arrived in Israel
impoverished and destitute. 

The story of the immigration of Jews of Arab countries has never been
seriously studied. Even as it was happening, Israel used it to
strengthen the Zionist ethos, forcing the new arrivals into silence. The
desire to belong motivated many of the immigrants to eagerly adopt the
Zionist myth, helping to mute the real story of their uprooting. Now
Israeli officials have decided to put the story to a new, completely
different use. It seems that even now, they are not doing so for the
benefit the Jews of Arab countries. Maybe the time has come for the
story to be studied seriously, its events examined outside of any
campaign, and the voices of the Jews most affected to be considered.

Read article in full


  • The idea that one cannot be both a Zionist and a claimant to refugee status is silly. One can leave a country of safety voluntarily, but when you leave a place that is unsafe for a destination that promises greater safety you are a refugee. Once there and safely settled, with rights of citizenship, you cease to be a refugee. What has thrown everything off is the broadly accepted view that Palestinians can be viewed as refugees regardless of where they were resettled or born if of the later generations, whereas the Mizrahi, who fled violence after surviving varying degrees of dhimmitude, are somehow not entitled to be viewed as refugees who chose to be settled in Israel rather than in the Diaspora.

  • Patrick
    There are 78 articles under the label 'Jews of Syria' – you are bound to find SOMETHING you are looking for.


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