Remembering refugees:rebuttal to Sigal Samuel

 Ma’abara or transit camp in Israel for Jews from Arab countries, 1950s

Sigal Samuel should be happy. Why? Because the Israeli Knesset has passed a law designating 30 November as a Day to markthe expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. Jews like her own parents, from Iraq and Morocco. Children will learn the stories of these Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who, she admits, have been sidelined by the Israeli  establishment. Point of No Return is here posting a rebuttal to Miss Samuel’s Forward article ‘ Holiday for Jewish refugees? Not without Nakba Day’. It was submitted to the Forward (but not published) by two advocates for the rights of Jewish refugees, Lyn Julius and Stan A Urman.

Instead of being happy, Ms Samuel is worried. “The campaign for greater recognition of the plight of Arab Jewish refugees is often part of a larger political campaign to ‘block recognition’ of the plight of Palestinian refugees.” she writes in The Forward.

Asserting rights for Jewish victims does not negate the rights of any others.  All refugees have equal rights under international law – so why should Jews alone not be entitled to seek justice?

 Organizations that promote this cause, like Jews for Justice from Arab Countries, state clearly and unequivocally that promoting rights for Jewish refugees is “not a campaign against Palestinian refugees”. It is a call for equity and justice for all refugees, as part of any comprehensive Middle East peace plan. 

Ms. Samuel writes of ‘Arab Jewish refugees’ – an identifier which Jews from Arab lands rarely use themselves. She is discomfited by a statement made by the bill’s proponent, Shimon Ohayon MK: “This is a vital part of our fight against those internally and externally who delegitimize our presence here in the region and claim we are somehow foreign to the region.”

Yet Ohayon was only stating the facts: that 50 percent of Israelis are themselves, or descendants, of Jews who were displaced from Arab and Muslim countries, uprooted from communities which were living in the Middle East and North Africa continuously since time immemorial. It’s a matter of historical truth.

It’s also a matter of justice. Ms. Samuel’s own parents have certain rights under international law. They have a right to recognition and redress. This may include compensation for property they lost. It also includes the right to memory, a right which their own daughter would deny them.

Now we come to the nub of Ms. Samuel’s objections. The commemorative Day would ‘put the Palestinians ‘at a disadvantage’. “How can I insist on my right to a day spotlighting my family’s tragedy, when Palestinians are denied the right to a day spotlighting theirs?’ she asks.

The notion that an official day in the Israeli national calendar is necessary to ‘spotlight’ the Palestinian tragedy is bizarre to say the least. For over 60 years, Palestinians alone have been almost universally recognized as the conflict’s only victim population. Over 178 UN resolutions have dealt with Palestinian refugees, while the number dealing with Jewish refugees  is – zero.

 Neither the mass violations of human rights, nor the displacement of Jews from Arab countries have ever been adequately addressed by the UN and the international community.  The legal rights of Jewish refugees are no less legitimate than those of Palestinian refugees. And yet, every year,  Nakba Day is marked enthusiastically by the UN, the Arab world and  the world’s media without any mention of the other victim population – Jewish refugees.

If Ms. Samuel were to get her wish, then the true history of Nakba Day should be exposed –  that the responsibility for both sets of refugees lies with the member states of the Arab League. 

 To quote the words of Canadian human rights lawyer and ex-Justice Minister Irwin Cotler: “the lesson to be learned is not that the Nakba was the result of the creation of the State of Israel. Rather, it was the result of the Palestinian and Arab leadership rejecting the UN resolution calling for the establishment of both a Jewish state and a Palestinian-Arab state.

“The Jewish leadership accepted the resolution, but the Palestinian and Arab leadership did not, which they had a right to do. What they did not have a right to do was attack the nascent Jewish state with the objective – as they acknowledged at the time – of initiating a ‘war of extermination.’ The result was, therefore, a double Nakba: not only of Palestinian-Arab suffering and the creation of a Palestinian refugee problem, but also, with the assault on Israel and on Jews in Arab countries, the creation of a second, much less known, group of refugees – Jewish refugees from Arab countries”.

The continuing exclusion and denial of rights and redress to Jewish refugees from Arab countries will only prejudice authentic negotiations between the parties and undermine the justice and legitimacy of any agreement.

It is time that Ms. Samuel and others understand that ensuring rights for both Arab and Jewish refugees is an essential key, on a very practical level, to securing Middle East peace.

For peace to be sustainable, it must be embraced not only by leaders but by the people in the region as well. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has spoken of holding a referendum among Palestinians to seek approval for any peace agreement. Prime Minister Netanyahu has similarly declared that there would be a referendum among Israelis on any peace agreement.

If Israelis are asked to approve a proposal that only provides rights and redress for Palestinian refugees, it would less likely be adopted than an agreement that would provide rights and redress to Jewish refugees as well.

Providing a just and equitable solution to the refugee problem on both sides will be an inducement to peace and reconciliation in the region, something every fair-minded nation aspires for.

Lyn Julius is a journalist and Co-Founder of Harif, a UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr Stanley  A Urman is Executive Vice-President of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC)

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