Saturday, November 18, 2006

Making the case for the forgotten Oriental Jews

In the Jewish Chronicle's Open Forum column of 17 November, Lyn Julius says it is time for Israel's refugees from Arab lands to be brought back into the peace equation:

Do an Internet search for ‘Middle Eastern refugees’, and you get 16 million entries. These refer overwhelmingly to Palestinian refugees. A search for ‘Middle Eastern Jewish refugees’ turns up four million references. This is strange, as there were more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than Arab refugees from what is now Israel. The Mizrahim (Oriental Jews) were expelled from countries like Iraq, Egypt and Algeria - or ushered towards the exit by insidious marginalisation and intimidation, as in Morocco and Tunisia.

The dispossessed lost far more than the Palestinians. Of 870,000 Mizrahi refugees, 600,000 sought refuge in Israel, where they now form half the Jewish population. There were between 300,000 and 750, 000 Arab refugees, but four million is often quoted, as, uniquely, their descendants are allowed to inherit refugee status.

For almost 60 years peacemaking efforts have run aground on the Palestinian ‘right of return’. But what of the right of Jewish refugees not to return to despotic countries where civil and human rights violations are rife?

The Jewish refugees give the lie to the myth that the Israelis are western colonial interlopers who ‘stole the land from the native Arabs’. Jewish communities were founded 1,000 years before Islam. The Mizrahim, now integrated into Israel, never left the Middle East.

Israel today has over a million Arab citizens. Yet there are barely 5,000 Jews left in the ‘Arab’ world. Just who is guilty of 'ethnic cleansing'?

The Arabs need to come to terms with their own history of anti-Semitism. Until ‘dhimmitude’ was ended by the colonial powers, non-Muslim dhimmis lived in a system of institutionalised humiliation. Political rights were denied to all but Muslims. This is a huge but underrated factor in Arab and Muslim rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

The argument that Israel is the price paid by innocent Arabs for European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust ignores the Mizrahi need for a safe Jewish haven. The myth needs to be nailed that Jews and Arabs coexisted in total harmony before Israel. Jews were massacred in Morocco in 1912, Algeria in 1934, Iraq in 1941 and Libya in 1945 – all predating the modern state of Israel.

It is a mystery why Israel has not hitherto made the case for the Jewish refugees. By keeping shtum , it has vacated the moral high ground and allowed history to be distorted. This silence sets back the cause of peace by reinforcing the Arabs’ one-sided sense of victimhood, while alienating the Mizrahim, who tend to vote for right-wing parties.

Things are slowly changing. Organisations such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries are trying to raise the refugee issue. They want familes to record their stories and lost assets on the website www.justiceforjews.com - before the last generation of Jews born in Arab countries dies out. But we still need to do more to raise awareness of the injustice committed against the Jews from Arab countries. Restoring them to the Middle East narrative can only advance prospects for peace and reconciliation.

Lyn Julius helped found Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

No comments: