Tel Aviv — Naim Reuven was only 8 when he left Baghdad more than 50 years ago, but he still remembers going with his father to catch fish in the Tigris River.
His dad worked in a laundromat, a middle-class father of six and one of Iraq’s more than 100,000 Jews. Baghdad’s Jewish community suffered a pogrom in 1941, but Reuven, born a year later, has only fond memories of his childhood there – until Israel declared independence in 1948.
“When Israel was established it began, there was hate,” said Reuven, now 70. “We had a neighbor we got along with, and then there was hate.”
He still remembers the fear when grenades were thrown into his family’s synagogue.
In 1951, after three years of increasing animosity and persecution, the Reuvens moved to Israel, where the government placed them in an immigrant absorption camp and gave Reuven’s father agricultural work. Reuven now lives in Tel Aviv’s low-income Hatikvah neighborhood, retired after a career in construction.
More than 800,000 Jews lived in the Arab world at the time of Israel’s founding. Virtually all of them left, fled or were forced out of their homes after Israel’s birth, with more than three-quarters moving to Israel. The once-thriving communities they had established in places such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia shrunk and, in some cases, virtually disappeared. In many cases the emigrants were forced to leave behind much of their property.
As part of an effort to have those Jews recognized as refugees and demand compensation for their lost property, the World Jewish Congress will be hosting a conference in Jerusalem next week focused on “raising the flag of rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” according to WJC Secretary General Dan Diker.
Then, on Sept. 21, the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Israeli Foreign Ministry will host a similar conference at United Nations headquarters.
“It’s important that the world accept and recognize that most of them were forcibly exiled and subjected to the worst kind of anti-Semitic assault,” which included Jews being “attacked, assaulted, killed, robbed,” Diker told JTA. “This issue has been largely ignored by Jewish leaders over the past number of years. They were resettled, so it wasn’t perceived as an acute bleeding.”
In addition to the WJC efforts, the Israeli Knesset is slated to vote soon on a resolution to establish a day commemorating the history of Jews from Arab lands and to found a museum focused on that history. The U.S.-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries also advocates for the refugees’ rights.
While the campaign for the Jewish refugees ostensibly is aimed at winning some recompense for Jews from Arab countries and their descendants – known in Israel as Mizrahim, Hebrew for Easterners – it’s also part of a political effort to create a Jewish parallel to Palestinian refugee claims from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Advocates want the Jewish refugee issue to serve as a counterbalance to the Palestinian refugee issue in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and want recognition and monetary compensation for Jewish refugees to be a part of any final-status deal.