Israel validates the Mizrahi refugee experience

Is the commemoration of the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries a failure of Zionism? No, the commemoration is a validation of the Mizrahi experience, and Israel is a vindication of it.  Lyn Julius in the Times of Israel responds to Shayna Zamkanei in the Forward.

Huts in the refugee camp at Yavne, Israel.

30 November was Jewish Refugee Day. This year
marked the second annual commemoration of the mass exodus of Jewish
refugees from Arab countries and Iran, as  designated by a Knesset law
passed in June 2014.

For Shayna Zamkanei writing in The Forward,
however, the choice of 30 November – the day after the UNGA resolution
181 for the Partition of Palestine – is an unfortunate one. She charges
that Israel usually follows days of mourning and blame  with days of
hope and joy. For instance Holocaust Memorial Day and Remembrance Day
for Israel’s fallen soldiers are followed by Israel Independence Day. 

Not so in this case. The elation following the passing of the Partition Plan on Kaf-Tet Be’ November is followed by remembrance of the outbreak of violent anti-Jewish riotsin several Arab countries.

These riots must not be glossed over – they
are a watershed in the demise of the ancient, pre-Islamic Jewish
communities of the Arab world. 30 November is not just an important date
in Jewish history – but in the history of the Middle East.

The purpose of 30 November is not only to
educate Israelis about the forced exodus of 850,000 Jews after 30
November 1947. This story has been crushed by the weight of the
Holocaust. It has been expunged from the history books worldwide, not
just in Israel – while ‘refugee’ has become synonymous with

The choice of 30 November is significant
because it places the Jewish refugee issue in the framework of the Arab
-Israeli conflict – which created two, not one set of refugees – and
demands justice for the wrongs that were done to them.

The main problem with 30 November, I’ll
concede, is that it reflects an Arab backlash to the ‘provocation’ of
the Partition Plan. The Knesset could have chosen other dates: 17
February would have recalled the date in 1947 that the Arab League drafted a plansystematically to persecute their Jewish citizens before a single Arab refugee had fled what would become Israel.

This date would have demonstrated that the
oppression of Jews in the Arab world was not simply an Arab reaction,
but a premeditated strategy.

Another contender was the anniversary of the 1 June 1941Farhud,
in which  179 Jews were murdered in Iraq. This event clearly
demonstrated that the Jews of Iraq were not victimised for being
Zionists, but simply as Jews.

And why stop there?  Constantine 1934. Fez 1912. Shiraz 1910.
Throughout 14 centuries Muslim majorities needed no pretext to turn on
their defenceless  Jewish minorities. There are no stories of resistance
to memorialise.

More controversially, Shayna argues that 30
November represents a failure of the original Zionist project. Huh?  The
influx of 600,000 immigrants in the years immediately after the
creation of Israel, doubling the resident Jewish population, represents a
massive victory for Zionism. The descendants of these Mizrahi and
Sephardi refugees now comprise more than half Israel’s Jewish

It is true that the Israeli government treated
them as Zionists returning to their ancestral homeland and not as
refugees.  Without a shadow of a doubt and according to the accepted UNHCRdefinition, these people were refugees
fleeing the push factors of persecution and violence, and arriving in
Israel with nought but the shirts on their backs. In Israel’s short
history, it was ever thus – refugees from the Holocaust, refugees from
the Soviet Union, refugees from Ethiopia, and not from the secure and
comfortable West, have flocked to the Jewish state.

 Yet there were also
pull factors, drawing Jews to the mesmerising and exciting idea of
building their own nation, and this mindset helped  them in their
integration and re-settlement. Why not celebrate this miraculous
achievement, too, on Jewish Refugee Day?

The establishment of Israel validates the
Mizrahi experience. It is not the cause, but the solution to the
antisemitism which Mizrahim and Sephardim suffered periodically
throughout history.

A day of hope does indeed follow 30 November. It is called Israel Independence Day.

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