Israel’s new diplomatic campaign to draw attention to the forgotten plight of Jews from Arab countries is an attempt to use historical injustices to justify current injustices. It is also a lost opportunity.
After years of denial and neglect, the Israeli government has rediscovered the issue of the Mizrahi — Jews from Arab countries. Following up on a successful 2008 US Congress resolution, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, has instructed diplomats to request that foreign parliaments recognize the refugee status of Jews forced from Arab countries.
That many Jews were forced out and that the Mizrahi community was almost entirely destroyed is not in doubt. More than 850,000 Jews left or fled the Arab world between 1948 and 1990. Many because of persecution or fear of persecution, others in response to the “call” of Zionism (see Philip Mendes, “The Forgotten Refugees: The causes of the post-1948 Jewish exodus from Arab Countries”). However, that the Arab states bear a legal and moral responsibility to those who left as refugees is indisputable, yet this is scarcely what lies behind Israel’s new diplomatic initiative.
Behind the facade of what Ayalon claims is a quest for the truth, the real intent is simply to nullify the right of return for Palestinians displaced and dispossessed by Israel. By highlighting the plight of Arab Jews while simultaneously placing the blame on the Arab states for the creation of both exiled communities, Israel hopes to escape its own legal and moral responsibilities.
As an Israeli foreign ministry document distributed to journalists states: “A true solution to the issues of refugees will only be possible when the Arab League will take responsibility for its role in creating the Jewish and Palestinian refugee problem” (“Changing tack, foreign ministry to bring ‘Jewish refugees’ to fore,” Times of Israel, 3 April 2012).
That this is nonsense one scarcely needs to point out. Yet it illustrates the hypocrisy of a government that legislates to suppress the memory of the Nakba — the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine at the time of Israel’s foundation in 1948 — while disingenuously appealing on behalf of Mizrahi Jews. The faux concern provides good cover for its denial of its own obligations.
Sadly, much of the same partisan and faux concern is evident amongst supposedly independent organizations that campaign for Jewish refugee rights. Foremost amongst these is Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. In a 2007 report, the organization claimed that in raising the issue of Jewish refugees, it is not waging “a campaign against Palestinian refugees.” Yet it goes on to press the unhistorical lie that the Palestinian leadership was responsible for the Palestinians’ expulsion.
Likewise, while it calls for the voices of all refugees to be heard and for human rights standards to be implemented, the organization ignores Palestinian refugees’ wishes and makes no reference to their internationally-guaranteed right of return. Instead, it suggests Palestinians would be better served if UNRWA — the UN agency for Palestine refugees — was wound up (“Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress,” 5 November 2007 [PDF]).
The same tack is evident in recent articles by Lyn Julius, a founder of Harif, a UK-based association for Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she recently described the expulsion of the Mizrahi as an unresolved human rights issue that requires recognition and compensation (“Jewish refugee rights is an unsolved human rights issue,” 27 April 2012).
On this I can agree with her, but then she goes on to deny the Palestinian right of return by characterizing the two very different expulsions as “a permanent exchange of roughly equal numbers of refugees” — in other words, a population exchange, which from Israel’s perspective, bar monetary compensation, is pretty much finalized as an issue.
Nevertheless, lest we doubt her humanity, Julius goes on to decry the non-settlement of Palestinian refugees in their host countries as an abuse of their human rights before commenting that Jordan’s treatment of Palestinian refugees is “cynical and cruel.” For those stateless Palestinians facing dispossession and expulsion by Israeli forces from East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, one can only stand in awe at the chutzpah.
Perhaps most worrying of all though is not Julius’ insensitivity and abuse of the human rights discourse to deny rights, but rather the racist terms in which she characterizes the Palestinian right of return: something she refers to as “their ‘right’ to Arabize Israel by flooding it.” The obscenity of this caricature need hardly be pointed out. Either refugees have the right to return to their homeland or they do not; that they be Arab, European, Jewish, Muslim or Christian should not matter. That is the whole point of human rights.
But, of course, with the help of US politicians, this new campaign to delegitimize Palestinian refugee rights is likely to expand. And indeed it is not the only recent tactic being brought into play to nullify and marginalize the Palestinian refugees: Einat Wilf, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and a prominent figure in the new political party Independence, has argued “that the international community should raise its voice every time that a baby born in Gaza is given the status of a refugee.”
Wilf has called for the refugee agency UNRWA to be restructured so new registrations can be halted (“Wilf to ambassadors: UNRWA an obstacle to peace,” The Jerusalem Post, 1 February 2012).
Similarly, US Senator Mark Kirk has successfully proposed an amendment to the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill (2013) requiring UNRWA to draw a distinction between refugees physically displaced in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants (“Is the UN making the Palestinian ‘refugee’ problem worse?” The Washington Post, 23 May 2012).
The obvious intention here is to decouple Palestinians from refugee status. Something that, not incidentally, Einat Wilf is urging foreign parliaments to do. “By all means, keep funding hospitals, schools and welfare programs,” she has said. “But delink it from refugee status.”
In the end there is a deeply saddening aspect of the attempt to delegitimize Palestinian refugees, especially when it is promoted in tandem with calls for recognition and justice for another refugee community. What is being lost is not just historical truth and lived reality, but the possibility of human connection and shared understanding.
Instead of displacing the blame for the plight of Mizrahi Jews onto the Palestinians, or attempting to use their story to nullify Palestinian rights, those who claim to be genuinely concerned for peace, reconciliation and rights should be reaching out to both Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian refugees and inviting them to come and discuss how, as two communities of dispossessed peoples, they can make a new future together.
Depressingly, however, while advocates for Israel call for “truth and recognition,” the reality is they prefer continued separation and dispossession; they prefer, in fact, to pit one group of exiles against the other.
Richard Irvine teaches a course at Queen’s University Belfast entitled “The Battle for Palestine” which explores the entire history of the conflict. Irvine has also worked voluntarily in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and is coordinator of the Ireland-based Palestine Education Initiative.