Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The forgotten narrative: Jews from Arab countries

In his seminal, must-read piece published in the Fall 2005 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review Avi Beker asks two leading questions: Why was the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab Countries suppressed? How did it become a forgotten exodus?

"Historically, there was an exchange of populations in the Middle East and the number of displaced Jews exceeds the number of Palestinian Arab refugees. Most of the Jews were expelled as a result of an open policy of anti-Semitic incitement and even ethnic cleansing. However, unlike the Arab refugees, the Jews who fled are a forgotten case because of a combination of international cynicism and domestic Israeli suppression of the subject. The Palestinians are the only group of refugees out of the more than one hundred million who were displaced after World War II who have a special UN agency that, according to its mandate, cannot but perpetuate their tragedy. An open debate about the exodus of the Jews is critical for countering the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" and will require a more objective scrutiny of the myths about the origins of the Arab- Israeli conflict."

Why was the Israeli government and people silent on an issue that touches the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

On the Israeli Left, Beker identifies a reluctance to grant the Jewish side the moral high ground. The Right and Centre has preferred to stress that the Jews from the Arab states were drawn to Israel by Zionist ideals and did not come as refugees.

As a result of this silence, the Arabs have been able to delegitimise Israel based from the beginning on the tragedy of the Palestinians. UNWRA has not only prevented the rehabilitation of the refugees, but has played into the hands of the militant groups.

Furthermore, Beker alleges, history has been rewritten to suggest that Jews and Muslims have lived in an interfaith utopia under Islam. This myth is used to deny allegations that Jews were expelled from Arab states or faced threats or persecution there. Arab and Palestinian leaders have claimed that the Jews who left those countries can return and resume their peaceful lives. But the historical record of Jewish life under Arab rule is mixed and much less encouraging.

The denial of history and justice has become an important tool in the Arab-Palestinian narrative. The obfuscation of the Jewish exodus from Arab countries is part of a larger revisionist endeavour.

"The Arab demand for a 'right of return' is a formula for destroying Israel as a Jewish state and reflects the unwillingness to seek a realistic settlement. Open discussion of the Jews' flight from Arab countries will encourage a more objective scrutiny of the myths about the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab and Palestinian responsibility for the population exchange that occurred weakens their argument for a 'return'; and highlights the double standard the UN has consistently applied to the conflict.

"The case of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their harsh expulsion is a critical element in transforming the refugee question from a political-military tool to a humanitarian issue and helping to set the Middle East narrative straight."

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