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But this flurry of activism has done little to resolve inherent conflicts raised by the calls for recognizing Jews from Arab countries as refugees. Two leading Sephardic lawmakers in Israel, former Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel and former Meretz MK Ran Cohen, both from Iraq, have spoken out in the past against such recognition. “I am not a refugee,” Cohen said. “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”
The other conflict raised by the issue is more practical — but no less fraught: Should Jewish refugees from Arab countries receive compensation for their hardship and lost property?
Even as Israel has demanded that Arab governments acknowledge wrongful treatment of their expelled Jewish populations, successive Israeli governments have discouraged Sephardim themselves from claiming compensation for their lost property.
The reason, said Yehouda Shenhav, a sociology and anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University, was Israel’s wish that this lost property be deemed fair exchange for the property lost by Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 war that accompanied the country’s founding. This narrative is part of a broader Israeli claim of “population exchange,” according to which a rougly equal number of Jewish and Palestinian refugees essentially exchanged places during the 1948 war and subsequent conflicts. In Israel’s view, both communities should be seen as resettled, thereby preempting the Palestinian refugees’ demand for a right to return to present-day Israel, or proposals from some in the international community that both sets of refugees receive compensation for their losses.
Palestinian leaders argue that the settlement of their refugee issues with Israel cannot be held hostage to the separate displacement of Jews, in which Palestinians played no role.
Efforts to obtain comment from the bill’s congressional sponsors on why their bill makes this link were unsuccessful.
Urman stressed that JJAC and other activists for the cause were not after material reparations. “Our issue is not about money,” he said. “We want recognition and justice.” He cited South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which identified the victims of the Apartheid era and set the historical narrative straight, as one possible path to justice for both sides at some point, “after resolution of many other urgent problems that need to be settled.”
Shenhav, author of the 2006 book “The Arab Jews” and a leading thinker of Israel’s left, saw attempts to equate Mizrahi Jews such as himself with Palestinian refugees as politically motivated efforts to circumvent dealing with the Palestinians’ claim. “There is no doubt that Sephardi Jews are hurting themselves with this,” he said.
The closest that Israelis and Palestinians ever got to discussing the two refugee communities was during the Camp David Summit of 2000. President Clinton then proposed setting up an international fund that would support all victims of the conflict, including Jews displaced from Arab countries.
Today, in the absence of any visible action on the peace process front, “There is an extreme asymmetry,” to any linkage between the mass population movements of the Palestinians and the Sephardic Jews, said Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. The arrival of Jews to Israel from Arab countries, even when forced, marked “the fulfillment of a national project,” he said, while the displacement of Palestinian Arabs marked “the destruction of a national project.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org