Recognizing Jewish Refugees From Arab World

Nearly 1 Million Jews Had To Flee Since Israel's Founding

Forced to Flee: Yemeni Jews get instruction at a center for immigrants in Israel.
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Forced to Flee: Yemeni Jews get instruction at a center for immigrants in Israel.

By Ben Sales (JTA)

Published September 04, 2012.
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While no mechanism for such compensation exists now, Diker envisions an international fund that would resolve claims for Jewish and Palestinian refugees. Meir Khaolon, chairman of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, which is collaborating with the WJC in its campaign, says Mizrahi Jews have listings of 80 percent of the property left behind in Arab countries.

“It restores parity to Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” Diker said. “That narrative has become distorted in recognizing and advancing the narrative that the Palestinian Arabs are the sole aggrieved party in this conflict.”

The issue of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is now new, but Diker said it has risen in prominence now because of a parallel effort by Knesset members to celebrate Mizrahi history and culture in Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is leading the effort and introduced the resolution in the Knesset two months ago to memorialize Mizrahi communities, will speak at the upcoming WJC conference along with other Israeli and international politicians.

“All those Jews wanted to be part of the Jewish rebuilding” of Israel, Ayalon said. “But the fact that they were harassed, that they were killed, that they were robbed of their dignity as human beings is something that has never been recognized.”

Most Mizrahi Jews who moved to Israel did so because they faced persecution in their home countries, according to Maurice Roumani, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and an expert on Libyan Jewry. While Jews had lived under Muslim rule for centuries with restricted rights, their situation became increasingly precarious during the years leading up to Israel’s founding. When Israel declared independence, Jews across the Arab world lost rights and in many cases citizenship, and expulsions followed in the years and decades following 1948.

“The claim that Jews left on their own is not reflecting the truth of history because the true history shows that Jews could no longer continue living there without having their lives threatened,” Roumani said. “Jews from Arab countries had been living in continuous insecurity for generations. If their lives had not been so insecure, few of them would have left.”

Reuven said he does not see himself as a refugee from Iraq.

“I’m Israeli for everything,” he said.

Clara Yona Memshumar, whose parents left Libya for Israel in 1947 and 1950 before marrying, said her family left not under duress but “out of religious faith. They always said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

“From my parents’ stories it was the fulfillment of the dream,” said Meshumar, who also serves as the academic director of Kedma, an Israeli nonprofit that in part promotes the teaching of Mizrahi history in Israeli schools. “They were not Zionist in the European sense, but they were Zionists. The moment that legal immigration became possible, most people went.”

While the Palestinian refugee community places its refugee status at the center of its identity, Meshumar and other Mizrahi Jews said their families made no formal effort to preserve the memory of their former homes or commemorate their exodus from Middle Eastern countries beyond telling stories or performing Mizrahi Jewish rituals during holidays.

By contrast, Palestinian families retain mementos of their former homes in present-day Israel, such as keys or land deeds, and annually commemorate losing their homes during Israel’s establishment, which they call the Nakba – the “catastrophe.”

Israel and the Palestinian Authority haven’t negotiated directly since 2010, but Diker said that creating parity between refugees could allow the parties to resolve their respective refugee claims separate from negotiations on borders and security.

“You don’t need a final status agreement in order to solve the refugee problem,” he said. “We’re not adding a claim. We’re recognizing a claim.”


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