The family of Lucette Lagnado in Cairo before they fled Egypt
Over at the Jerusalem Post, Leslie Susser has a succinct analysis of the current Jewish refugees campaign, its effects and implications. There are some red herrings here: the fact that not all Jews from Arab countries came to Israel as refugees or still see themselves as refugees - a factor mirrored on the Palestinian side - does not invalidate the claims of those Jews seeking compensation from an international fund. Those leftwing Israeli critics who suspect the Israeli government is seeking an exchange of property unfair to refugees on both sides are also ignoring the international fund proposal. In addition, the persecution of Jews in Arab countries is framed as a backlash to Zionism, when it should be seen in the context of the marginalisation and oppression of all non-Muslim (and even non-Arab) minorities.
If the case of the
Jewish refugees from Arab countries was so obviously worthy, why had it been
neglected for so long? Indeed, do the estimated 860,000 Israelis who came from
Arab countries see themselves as refugees about to get belated justice or as
pawns in a game of high politics? And what do the Palestinians and the Arab
countries make of it all?
The overarching story of the exodus of Jews from Arab
lands is not in dispute. The more the Zionist state-building enterprise
succeeded, the more the Jews in Arab lands suffered. There were pogroms in Iraq,
Libya and Egypt in the early and mid-1940s, and the November 1947 UN partition
resolution providing for a Jewish state in Palestine sparked a wave of
anti-Jewish rioting across the region. Jews suffered attacks, bombings, death
threats, torture, murder, boycotts, frozen bank accounts, expropriation of
property, arbitrary interrogation, annulment of citizenship and other forms of
discriminatory legislation. In short, they became hostage to the Arab-Israeli
conflict. Between 1947 and 1951, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled, most of
them penniless, many having left valuable property and businesses
behind. The official Israeli estimate is that up to 1972, well over
800,000 Jews emigrated from Arab countries, leaving behind assets worth around
$6 billion in today’s terms. By comparison, the Israeli figure for Palestinian
refugees is around 600,000 with lost assets of about $3.9 billion.
one of the unintended consequences of Zionist success was to put Jews in Arab
countries at risk, it also served as a magnet for a return to Zion. Many
“Mizrahim” – Jews from Arab countries – answered the call voluntarily. Indeed,
large numbers of Mizrahim in Israel today fervently reject any notion of
refugeehood. One of the questions the government will be hard-pressed to answer
is just how many of the 860,000 can be considered to have been refugees on
Indeed, for years Israeli leaders nurtured the myth that the
waves of Jews from Arab countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s had come to
Israel in fulfillment of a deep-seated yearning for Zion. In most cases this was
not true. But their unshakeable determination to maintain the myth, which served
the Zionist nation-building ethos, was one of the prime reasons why Israeli
leaders shied away from the Jewish refugee issue. For them the notion that the
“Ma’abarot” – Israel’s tented transit camps for new immigrants in the 1950s –
were akin to refugee camps was anathema. They also feared that if they
pressed the Jewish refugee issue, Palestinian demands Not all Mizrahim agreed with the government’s lowprofile approach.
the 1970s, the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries, and its
successor, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, lobbied Israeli governments on
the Jewish refugee issue with little success. JJAC, however, continued work to
establish the Jewish refugees’ legal and political case. In 2007, it produced a
paper entitled “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and
Redress,” which noted, inter alia, that all key Middle East peacemaking
documents – UN Resolution 242, the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, the
Israeli-Palestinian agreements, the Clinton parameters of 2000, the 2003 Road
Map – invariably and deliberately referred to the refugee question in ways that
included both Palestinians and Jews from Arab countries.
In other words,
if an Israeli government decided to press the Jewish refugee issue, it would
have international law on its side.
The turning point in Israeli
government thinking came with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at
Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, in which he accepted the two-state model as a
basis for negotiations with the Palestinians. After the speech he instructed
then-national security adviser Uzi Arad to prepare negotiating positions. As
part of this effort, Arad set up a task force of academics and government
officials to formulate a new Israeli stand on the Jewish refugee issue. On May
24, 2011, the panel submitted its groundbreaking recommendation that Jewish
refugees be made a core issue in future negotiations with the Palestinians,
arguing that Israeli negotiating strategy would be served by linking the two
refugee populations and presenting the problem as one inseparable issue. It
proposed that compensation for Jewish refugees be made an integral part
of negotiations; that Israel insist that both sets of refugees waive the right
of return and accept compensation instead; and that it demand a 3:2 ratio in
compensation in proportion to the higher number of Jewish refugees and
greater assets lost. The underlying idea was to take the sting out of the
emotion-laden refugee issue by reducing it from unrealistic Palestinian demands
for return to Israel proper, to pragmatic questions of financial compensation
for both sets of refugees. So far no Palestinian leader has indicated the
slightest readiness to accept a formula of this kind.
Along with its
acceptance of the main thrust of the Arad committee recommendations, the
government launched a campaign to promote awareness of the long-neglected Jewish
refugee issue. Spearheaded by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who anchored
a video clip purporting to tell “the truth about the refugees,” it entailed
approaches to diplomats and legislators across the globe, as well as
international conferences in Jerusalem and New York.
Ayalon also called
on Israelis from Arab countries to upload their personal stories onto the
Ayalon’s own personal story highlights the complexity of the issue.
His father came to Israel from Algeria in 1947, out of free Zionist choice.
After working for a while on the Algerian coast helping illegal immigrants from
Morocco on their way to Palestine, he boarded one of the ships headed for
Marseilles and then Palestine himself. He was just 16 and by no stretch of the
imagination a refugee. His parents, however, were forced to flee in 1962 after a
wave of anti-Jewish riots in the wake of Algeria’s independence from France.
They left considerable assets behind and could certainly be considered refugees
with bona fide property claims. But they went to Strasbourg, not
Interviewed in his spacious Foreign Ministry office, the
soft-spoken Ayalon, a former ambassador to the US, is relaxed and informal. A
leading member of the far- Right Yisrael Beytenu party (now allied to the
Likud), he is convinced that highlighting the Jewish refugee issue is not only
justified but that it will help bring peace. “Primarily, we needed to bring it
to the fore at home, so that the people of Israel would know their own history
and give the Jews from Arab countries the recognition and respect they deserve.
But of course, it is also a very significant argument we have vis-a-vis our
neighbors on the road to real reconciliation,” he tells The Jerusalem
Ayalon speaks of reconciliation “based on truth,” in South
African style, in which both sides presumably recognize the others’ suffering,
loss of property and dislocation.
The new Israeli policy, he says, is not
an obstacle to peace, but on the contrary, points to a solution – an
international fund to compensate both sets of refugees as prescribed in
president Bill Clinton’s peace plan of 2000, known as the “Clinton
And if Jewish refugees are included in the compensation
package, the chances are that raising money for the Palestinians will be that
much easier. “I say very clearly our raising this issue is not meant to deny any
Palestinian rights. On the contrary, if the Palestinian would cooperate along
these lines, everyone would benefit,” he declares.
Ayalon strongly denies
that the new policy is a tactic to neutralize Palestinian demands for a right of
return to Israel proper, because, he says, “there is no such right.”
notes that throughout the 20th century, tens of millions of refugees were
resettled in the countries to which they fled. Only the Palestinians, used by
the Arab side as pawns in the conflict with Israel and aided by UN agencies, deliberately maintained an
openended refugee status, now in its seventh decade. Like other refugees, they
should be resettled and compensated, but not allowed to return to Israel proper,
Ayalon says. “Most people in the international community already understand
this,” he asserts.
“So we didn’t need any new
Nevertheless, the new policy led to heated intellectual
sparring between Palestinian and Israeli supporters.
rights advocate Hanan Ashrawi argued bluntly that if Israel claims to be the
homeland of the Jewish people, Jewish people returning to it could not be
considered refugees. Israeli spokesmen retorted that in her eagreness to deny
the Jewish refugee claim, Ashrawi actually seemed to be recognizing Israel as
the homeland of the Jewish people. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a
staunch pro-Israel advocate, added that according to Ashrawi’s criterion for
refugeehood, Jews fleeing the Nazis could not be considered refugees either –
challenging her to a public debate on the subject.
political fact, though, is that the Palestinians reject the new Israeli approach
out of hand. They make two staple political arguments. If Israel has a refugee
problem, they say, it is with the relevant Arab states, not them. And in an
effort to turn Israel’s parallel solution argument on its head, they suggest
that instead of both sets of refugees being compensated, both be allowed to
return. Bottom line: The fact that Israel took in refugees from Arab countries,
they say, has no bearing on the Palestinian refugee issue and the Palestinian
right of return. Israel only raised the issue to avoid dealing with the
Palestinian question altogether, they charge.
Palestinians were not the
only ones aggrieved at the government’s new refugee policy. Left-wing Mizrahi
intellectuals were also deeply offended. Some saw the Israeli proposal as a
conspiracy that would enable Arab countries to keep Jewish property and Israel
to keep Palestinian property with neither giving anything to the refugees or the
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