Thursday, July 26, 2007

When the Jews were targets, the world was quiet

In his Jerusalem Post blog David Harris reflects on the unfair international double standard that has long ignored the ethnic cleansing of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and other minorities:(with thanks: Edwin)

The other evening, I attended a program in New York with Lucette Lagnado, an Egyptian-born Jew who writes for The Wall Street Journal and has just authored a moving book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.

The audience was filled with Jews from the Arab world eager to hear about and discuss the life that is no longer theirs. They are part of a mass of people that were compelled to leave their ancestral homes because of intolerance and persecution.

So few popular books have been written on this history, so little media attention has been accorded it, that Lagnado’s new work was welcomed by many before it had actually been read, helped by a major and all-too-rare front-page story in The Wall Street Journal on June 30.

Among those in the audience was my wife. She had lived in Libya until the age of sixteen, at which time, together with her parents, seven siblings, and the remainder of what was once a thriving Jewish community, she was unceremoniously kicked out of the country, never to return. So-called constitutional guarantees were trampled on, as Jews became targets of hatred, violence, expropriation, and expulsion. In fact, exactly forty years ago this month, the 2000-year-old Jewish presence in Libya came to a screeching halt.

As if the forced exodus weren’t traumatic enough, there were two added insults.

First, in the years that followed, Libyan leaders erased every vestige of the Jewish presence. It was as if Jews had never lived there. Nothing was off limits – synagogues, cemeteries. They all disappeared.

And second, it’s no exaggeration to say that the world didn’t give a damn. The media barely covered the story, the United Nations didn’t utter a word, and democratic governments remained largely silent.

For years I’ve tried to grasp why we hear so much about the Palestinian refugee question and so little about the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands (and Iran). And I’ve sought to understand why, as I’ve witnessed quite often, diplomats and human rights activists can get so exercised about the Palestinian issue, while mentally turning off as soon as the fate of the Jews is mentioned.

Some would attribute it to anti-Semitism. Maybe. But even if that’s the case, there’s more.

However awful the experience, the Jews essentially accepted their fate; they started over in other countries and moved on.

They didn’t wallow in self-pity, or allow themselves to be instrumentalized by those with larger political agendas, or vie to become the poster children of victimization. Nor did they teach their children incitement or organize terrorist groups and suicide bombers to exact a price from those who cut them off from their heritage.

And, regrettably, I might add, they didn’t spend a lot of time writing books or articles, or going on the speaker’s circuit, to share their experiences with larger audiences.

So, as far as the international community was concerned, there was no problem, so why create one? The Jews had left; life goes on.

But apart from the inherent unfairness of this mindset, it was also shortsighted in the extreme.

The expulsion of the Jews from Arab lands was, in fact, a cautionary tale, a harbinger of what was to come in this part of the world. And that should have set off alarm bells. But, of course, it didn’t.

It didn’t because other nations were too focused on this region’s energy supplies or export markets.

Or because other nations adopted the patronizing attitude that Arab nations, unlike others, were incapable of protecting basic human rights and adopting genuine pluralism.

Or because other nations embraced a moral relativism that justified Arab behavior in the context of its purported distinctiveness and monoculturalism.

Or because other nations were fearful that speaking up for one minority might endanger other minorities, including their own nationals or co-religionists living in this part of the world.

And so, Jews who resided for thousands of years in the Arab world, and contributed so much to those societies, fled. Today, with small exceptions in Morocco and Tunisia, there’s virtually no one left.

Strikingly, that pattern of silence, blindness, self-censorship, fear, intimidation, you name it, goes on to this day. But it’s no longer about Jews—they’re gone—but others.

Christian communities in various countries are harassed and their numbers are declining, due to emigration.

Hatred and distrust of the “infidel”, i.e., non-Muslims, are being taught in Saudi Arabia and Saudi-funded schools around the world.

The Baha’i are hounded in Iran.

Black Africans in Darfur are victims of genocide by Sudan and Arab Janjaweed militias. This, of course, comes after the government-led war against Christians and Animists in Sudan’s south, which resulted in up to two million deaths.

Women suffer widespread abuse and physical violence, “honor” killings, unequal legal status, and countless other indignities.

Homosexuals are arrested in Egypt and sentenced to death in Iran.

Journalists in Iran are thrown in jail for their criticism of the regime.

Students in Iran are imprisoned for protesting government policies.

Labor unions are few and far between.

The list goes on.

When the Jews were the targets, the world was quiet. Some in the Arab world may have correctly concluded that “what goes on here, stays here.” They could do what they wished in the name of politics or religion, and there would be few, if any, consequences.

Isn’t it long overdue for those concerned with the protection of human rights to be heard in a strong and sustained manner on these issues? Are they only motivated by selective outrage? Or do they really choose to believe that human rights are divisible, with some people entitled to their protection and others not?

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