Thursday, June 02, 2011

Jewish refugees have the power to change minds

You may not agree with everything he says (I don't), but I am posting this comment by George on the 'Farhud' thread at Harry's Place ( the blog removes comments after two weeks). I'm doing so because it shows how awareness of antisemitism in the Arab world can change the minds of those who have no dog in the Middle East fight: (My emphasis in bold).

"I’ve commented before (although, as an infrequent commenter, I hardly expect anyone to remember something I may have written on another thread months or years ago) on how my attitude to Israel changed from a pretty bog-standard ‘anti-colonial’ one as I began to realise how many Jews had been uprooted from their homes in the Arabo-Muslim world during the 20th century: at least as many as the number of Arabs who lost their homes in what is now Israel.

"I’ve never bought into the type of Zionist narrative that places the emphasis on the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel; after all, many peoples across the world have strong historic connections to places where their ancestors once lived but which have since been populated, in whole or in part, by other groups. In that sense, the Jewish claim to Israel is no stronger (and, given the time involved, is probably less strong) than a putative Welsh claim to England, or the traditionally irredentist Irish nationalist claim to Northern Ireland or, indeed, the Serbian claim to Kosovo.

"Expressing this view here resulted in a lot of vituperation being heaped on my head by a number of commenters (some of whom, in fairness, have since been banned or have at least disappeared), incensed by my less than sufficiently ‘pure’ support for Israel’s right, not only to exist, but to defend itself.

"The Farhud is a particularly important event because it shows that the hatred which forced the exodus of Jews from elsewhere in the Middle East and some parts of North Africa (arguably less so in the Maghreb) was not just a reaction to the creation of Israel; it was already there.

"But the thing is, most people are simply unaware of this. Most people in the West do not know that there was a population exchange within the wider region. And the sense I get is that too many defenders of Israel do not put enough emphasis on this, perhaps fearing that to use that line of argument would weaken the narrative that sees the Jewish ‘return’ to Israel as legitimate in and of itself, without needing any additional justification.

"Now I know that some people here have a very bullish we-don’t-need-to-justify-ourselves-to-anybody-else approach to people like me. But I think it’s a very foolish approach. Israel does need international support and a lot of that support is going to have to come from people who, like me, don’t like the whole mystical nationalist thing. If those people don’t get a message that they can deal with on their own terms, the support won’t be there."

Update: Alan A has since endorsed George's comment - but is curiously cynical about whether the Jewish refugees argument can make a difference. In my comment I argue it can:

Alan A:


I agree with you, and this was the decisive argument for me as well.

“But I strongly believe that if more people were aware that there were large indigenous Jewish populations across the region and that these populations lost everything in many cases, then more people would take a less simplistic and one-sided view of the whole refugee issue.”

The trouble is this. How would you get such a message out? How many people would take notice?

The great European story of the last century – not just for Jews, but for our common culture – is that of the Holocaust. This is the defining event which shapes the political consciousness of many, most people.

The story of Palestinian dispossession is, in many ways, an echo of that. This is one of the reasons for the persistence of Nazi and Holocaust metaphors in Palestinian advocacy. It has an intuitive attraction, a symmetry, and a familiarity.

By contrast, there’s no real understanding of the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Middle East, or the conditions which made that possible. It doesn’t fit a narrative. It is also under-reported an unfamiliar.

How would that change? Well, it might change were there the sort of high profile, well organised and established network of advocacy organisations for Jews from Arab and Persian lands. But there isn’t. The primary reason that there isn’t is that most of the Jews from Arab and Persian lands are now citizens of other countries: chiefly Israel and the US.

So, there’s no current story of disposession, and nobody really here to carry out that campaigning.

What, in any case, would you be campaigning for? Palestinians and their supporters can campaign for either a homeland or, as is often the case, the end of the Jewish homeland. But Middle Eastern Jews aren’t calling for the end of Egypt, or Iraq, and do not want to return to countries where they would be killed.

Were Israel to fall, it would mark the near complete ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Middle East. You and I know that this has, in fact, already significantly happened: with the exception, of course of Israel.

But this is not a story that anybody cares about.

2 June 2011, 5:43 pm

I’m disappointed to see that you think we Jews from Arab countries and their descendants have given up the fight. It’s true that there are only a few of us volunteers, we don’t have resources, and up till now we’ve had little support from advocacy organisations. But that’s no excuse: we have truth on our side.
We are not calling for the end of Egypt, etc, but we are calling for justice. We want recognition and compensation.
No, we don’t want to return to countries that ill-treated us, but as long as we can’t return, why should the Palestinians have a right to to return to Israel?
We are there to inject logic, reason, context and morality into the Arab-Israeli conflict. Remember, we are your decisive argument.

2 June 2011, 5:57 pm

@Alan A

What you write makes a lot of sense, unfortunately. There are people writing about this but they’re not exactly high profile (sorry, bataween!) enough to break out of that part of the blogosphere where most people only read stuff that they already agree with anyway.

So, yes, that is a big challenge. But in response to your question about what the purpose of a campaign would be, I think it would simply be a question of (please forgive the cliché) awareness-raising. There wouldn’t have to be any concrete objective (e.g. compensation) beyond increasing the number of people, particularly well-meaning people on the left, who are prepared to give Israel a fair hearing.

I am less convinced than many here that the anti-Israel left is completely contaminated by an irremediable antisemitism. There is a sincere sense that Europe assuaged its guilt over the holocaust by ensuring that reparation was made but by somebody else, that the Palestinians alone were hard done by and that Israel is really just another example of colonialism. I used to think along those lines myself before I spent some time reading into the history of the region.

And even among those who proclaim loudly that of course they recognise Israel’s right to exist, this recognition is often grudging and it is this grudging, highly qualified recognition that prevents them from taking the next, crucial step: recognising Israel’s right to defend itself, even if it may appear self-evident that a right to exist is meaningless without a right to defend that existence.

Alan A
2 June 2011, 6:00 pm

You clearly haven’t given up the fight.

However, you don’t have a network which includes Amnesty, War on Want, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, the Methodist Church, all the major trade unions, a number of Labour front benchers, a series of senior newspaper journalists, or bodies equivalent to the Palestinian Return Centre, MEMO, the PSC, the ISM, a series of university departments, and so on.

You are the decisive argument. However, Jews are very isolated in the UK, politically. You need institutional strength, and allies.

You also need funding.

Read comments thread


David said...

What is your take on the idea of a land swap with the Palestinians? Let them have all the property Jews left behind in Arab lands in exchange for a forfeiture of any claims of property Arabs abandoned inside Israel?

bataween said...

Problem is - it would not be a fair swap: the Arabs would be 'quids in'. The World Org of Jews from Arab Countries has estimated that Jews lost four of five times the size of Israel itself in terms of deeded land. Jews lost prime property in every city in the Middle East.
So far the whole debate narrowly focuses on Israel-Palestine without taking the wider context into account.