The refugees keffiyeh-wearers ignore

Lyrical sermon given by Rabbi Andrea Zanardo of Brighton today,  the Shabbat following 30 November, the Day to remember Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. Evoking the story of Jacob and Esau, he wonders if supporters of the Palestinians can ever stop thinking of them as the only victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict (With thanks: Michelle, Jonathan)

Nowadays I don’t
see many keffiyehs. You know: that scarf
with fringes, usually black and white, which is a sort
of a symbol of Palestinian identity. It used to be a
regular feature of the uniform of Mr Arafat, and many
Israeli haters wear it. But as I said, the number of
people wearing such a scarf is dwindling nowadays,
even in Brighton. Palestinian identity and fashion
don’t match anymore. 

Be as it may, I
noticed the first keffiyeh of this year only this week.
Just one. But it struck me, because it was on November
30th What’s so special about such a date, you may ask.
Well, in the Israeli calendar November 30th is the
“Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from
the Arab Countries and Iran”. The tragic end of those
centuries’ old Jewish communities is remembered
throughout the country, with official ceremonies of
commemoration, at the Knesset and in various public
places, such as schools and city halls. 

I must admit: I was
tempted. There was this lady, wearing that Palestinian
scarf, one which I haven’t seen for a long time, on
the day devoted to remember and to honour the
tragically lost Jewish communities in the Arab
Countries. I was tempted to ask that lady whether she
knew the significance of the day in Israel, a State
which I suppose she was not so fond of. I was tempted
to ask that lady, who certainly cares very much about
the Palestinians, if there was room for other Middle
Eastern refugees, other victims, in her bleeding
heart. If she knew that in 1948 there were more than
140.000 Jews in Algeria, and now there is none. 

Whether she know that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian
autocrat, declared all the Jews enemies of the State
in 1956, (yes, just like in Nazi Germany, less than 30
years before), and signed the death sentence for the
oldest Jewish community of the Mediterranean. Whether
she has heard about the pogroms in Libya in 1966, when
the mob assaulted, of all places, the Jewish orphanage
in Tripoli, and left the teachers beheaded: that is
long before the army of the Islamic State decided to
revamp that ancient tradition. 

I resisted the
temptation and did nothing of that kind. But the
comparison between the Palestinians and the Mizrahim,
or North African Jews (and Jews from the Middle East – ed), lingered in my mind for a
while. 

What a stark
contrast. The Palestinians are kept in refugee camps,
in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, (if there are still some
there), and the Palestinian Authority: those who at
the moment rule the West Bank, that of Abu Mazen. They
cannot find a job out of these camps, let alone live.
They have to live off the benefits provided by the UN.
The United Nations has a special agency, a well funded
agency, expressly for Palestinian refugees; while all
the other refugees, of all the other conflicts in the
world, are cared by another agency. The Agency devoted
to the Palestinians needs to justify its existence in
order to receive funding from the UN. So they
constantly review the very definition of “Palestinian
refugees” in order to have a larger number of clients
to care for. At the moment if you are a son, or a
grandson, or a great grandson, of someone who, prior
to 1948, lived in, what is nowadays Israel, for two
years in then Palestine, you can call yourself a
“Palestinian refugee” and you and your family can
receive money from the United Nations, that is from
the Western Countries, including England, and of
course, oh the irony, Israel. And so you have all
these people living in so called refugee camps, that
actually are slums of Arab capitals, dreaming of an
impossible return, to places that they themselves have
never seen and in which only a grandparent had lived,
for two years. 

On the other hand
think to the Mizrahim, the Jewish refugees from North
African Countries (and the Middle East) . Part of them had also lived in
refugee camps set up in France, Italy or (mostly) in
Israel. But they had left those places after a few
months. There is no such thing as a UN sponsored
agency for the Jewish refugees. Mostly, because there
is no need. They, their children and their
grandchildren have moved on, and do not live in the
shadow of the tragedy that happened in the past. They
have been able to rebuild their lives and to turn the
page. 

It helps to put
things into perspective, doesn’t it? It is an
interesting comparison between Palestinian refugees,
and the way they have been treated, one would say even
spoon-fed, by the international community. Who did not
help the Jewish refugees, that much, as we all know. 

And it reminds me
of the comparison between Jacob and Esau, which is
narrated in this week’s Torah portion. Rebecca pushes
Jacob, we are told, to steal the blessing that his
father wanted to give to Esau, his brother. That is
what we know from the text of the Torah. But think
about what happened afterwards. Esau lived for years,
for decades, in the shadow of the event, looking
forward to the moment of revenge. While Jacob grew up
and became a more mature person, through the
vicissitudes that the Torah tells us: he met Rebecca,
fell in love, worked for seven years to marry her, was
cheated by Laban, found himself with Lea, whom he did
not love, worked hard other seven years and finally
could marry. 

On one side you
have someone, Esau, who became obsessed of being a
victim, who could think of himself only as a victim of
his brother’s tricks, which he had to suffer when he
was young. While Jacob, on the other side, built a
life for himself and became independent, mature. As a
young man, he was so easily manipulated by his mother;
as a mature human being, is able to see nuances and to
understand complexities. He knows, he has learnt, that
things are not always in black and white, that life is
more than a perennial confrontation between victims
and perpetrators. 

This is not, as we
know, the way the media look at the Middle East. They
want us to believe that the situation is in black and
white, that the Jewish State is the perpetrator, that
the Palestinians are victims, always victims, forever
victims, the only victims. And by peddling this
representation, they erase or ignore the Jewish
victims of the conflict. Which of course we, children
of Jacob, have the duty to remember. At least one day
per year.

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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.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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