A briefing in a UK Parliamentary committee room on 19 March called for recognition of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their inclusion in the Middle East peace process. Peace without recognition 'won't fly', said the speakers :
Chairing the meeting (which was organised by Harif - The UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa - the think tank, The Henry Jackson Society, and the grassroots campaigning branch of BICOM, We believe in Israel) Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow-East, urged the 150-strong audience to write to their MPs and demand equal recognition.
Stanley Urman, chief executive of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, recalled that all minorities had suffered in the Middle East, commending Britain for welcoming Jews from Arab countries. More Jews were forced to leave Arab countries (850,000) than Palestinian Arabs who left Israel in 1948 (726,000): their rights must be recognised. The UN has spent $17.7billion and passed 175 resolutions on Palestinian Arab refugees. Not one has dealt with Jewish refugees, despite the UN acknowledging on at least two occasions that Jews fleeing Egypt and North Africa were bona fide refugees. International aid of $30,000 to assist Jewish refugees from Egypt had even been repaid by the Jewish refugee organisation, the Joint Distribution Committee.
In Canada, following foreign affairs committee hearings, the Government was on the point of making recognition of Jewish refugees mandatory in Canadian Middle East foreign policy. The US Congress had passed a resolution in 2008 demanding that any mention of Palestinian Arab refugees be matched by a mention of Jewish refugees. However, the UK has done nothing to-date to recognise the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. There was a desperate need to raise awareness, as even MPs sympathetic to Israel knew nothing about the issue.
The current Middle East peace framework proposals being hammered out by US secretary of state John Kerry, it had been strongly hinted, included compensation for Jewish refugees. However, the Israeli government is committed to ratifying any peace settlement with a popular referendum. A peace agreement that only included compensation for Palestinian refugees and failed to include the rights of Jewish refugees, Dr Urman said, " would not fly" with an electorate composed of 50 percent of Jews descended from refugees from Arab and Muslim countries, or themselves refugees. Other forms of redress could include the restoration of Jewish shrines and cemeteries.
An international fund to compensate both Palestinian and Jewish refugees, an idea first mooted by US president Bill Clinton in 2000, had a precedent in 1991, when Kuwaiti, Saudi and Israeli victims of Iraqi Scud missiles all received compensation.
Jenny Stewart (née Setton), born in Cairo in 1935, told the story of her expulsion and departure, stateless, in 1956, with three suitcases and £20. Her stepfather needed hospital treatment shortly after their arrival in the UK and her mother became clinically depressed. In spite of his Egyptian nationality, her father was imprisoned in Egypt 'with thieves and robbers' while his property was seized. All attempts by Jenny’s family to claim compensation had failed.
Albert Zubaida told how Jews in Iraq were fired from jobs and universities in 1967, their assets confiscated and telephone lines cut. His father died of a heart attack. Recalling the public hanging of nine “Zionist spies” in 1969 in front of a hysterical crowd, it took him six months to plan his escape. He was smuggled out to Iran with his 85-year-old grandmother.
Edwin Shuker, of the Board of Deputies, who left Iraq in the 1970s, had recently visited a number of Jewish shrines, including the shrine of Nahum in northern Iraq. He had witnessed the destruction and abandonment of what were once centres of local Jewish population. His stated objective should not be to belittle the claims of Palestinian Arab refugees but to act now, while peace negotiations provided a window of opportunity, to demand rights for Jewish refugees.
THE FULL TRANSCRIPT:
Bob Blackman MP
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Apologies for the slight delay, but there has been another event here, in these hallowed chambers; we have been rather concentrating on matters to do with the UK budget, as opposed to necessarily what is happening in the Middle East peace process. But can I welcome you all, I’m Bob Blackman, I’m the MP for Harrow East, sometimes referred to as the MP for Tel Aviv East [laughter]. Can I welcome you to this meeting where we are going to be talking about the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and the impact that has on the Middle East peace process, which we are all looking forward to.
We have got a range of speakers this evening, and there will be an opportunity for questions and answers from you after all of the speakers have had their opportunity. Now, given that we are slightly later than I anticipated, I’m not going to do a big run through of the biography of each of these wonderful, distinguished speakers that we have got for you, because I think it is better that they speak themselves rather than listening to me. So, what I will say is please listen to the speakers, see what they have to say, and then let’s have a lively question and answer opportunity, as we have this room booked until just after seven, I believe. Seven thirty. And, so, from that perspective there is going to plenty of time for good debate, and good questions and answers.
Now, I am going to take the speakers in the order I’ve been given them. So, whether they have changed their minds is another matter, but Dr. Stanley Urman is our first speaker. So, Stanley, over to you.
Dr. Stanley Urman
Thank you, Bob Blackman, the honourable member from Harrow East, for hosting and chairing this event on Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Bob Blackman MP
Can you speak up a bit?
Dr. Stanley Urman
I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of the Member of Parliament, Ian Austin, for booking this committee room. I believe it is important that this initiative is a bi-partisan effort for indeed, seeking out truth and justice in the Middle East is a daunting task. And this particularly applies to the issue of refugees. It is sad but true that conflict has dominated Middle East affairs for over 65 years. The ultimate and inevitable victims of these years of strive are the peoples of the region; Arabs, Jews, Christians, other minorities, who were uprooted from their homes and forced to resettle elsewhere.
In this House of Commons, I am mindful of the historic and extensive involvement by Great Britain in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region.
mandate over Palestine from the League of Nations
in 1922, Britain played a seminal role during significant benchmarks in Middle
East history: the Balfour Declaration of 1917; the Zionist Partnership with
Britain from 1917 to 1930; the tenuous relationship between these two parties
from 1930-1948; the partition plan; Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal
Each of these was a pivotal moment in the region’s political history. Throughout this period, Britain was well aware of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that were seeking safe haven in Israel, emanating not only from across Europe, but also from Arab countries, as well. As a protector in the region, Britain was a witness to the uprooting of Jews and Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq, Aden and Yemen]. Britain is to be commended for opening her doors to Jews fleeing from these and other Middle East countries. Indeed, in the second half of the 20th century, Britain was among a small number of nations who recognised the need to provide safe haven to many Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Yet, when the issue of refugees is raised in context to the Middle East, the international community, and I dare say, the UK as well, it invariably refers to Palestinian refugees - virtually never to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
It must be stated, that there is some justification for the international community's focus on Palestinian refugees; Palestinian refugees are the world’s longest standing refugee population, they are among the world’s largest, statistically, population of refugees. And, further, for the 1.6 million Palestinians who still live in recognised refugee camps, their plight remains compelling, requiring continuing international assistance.
Within this context, it is important to underscore that asserting rights and redress for Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not intended to argue against any claims or Palestinians refugees rights, nor to negate the suffering of any people. It is a legitimate call to recognise Jewish refugees from Arab countries, as a matter of law and equity, possess the same rights as all other refugees.
Now it must be stressed that Jewish people in the region are in fact the indigenous people of the Middle East. Jews and Jewish communities have existed in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region for more than 2,500 years – fully 1,000 years before the advent of Islam.
Following the Muslim conquest of the region under Islamic rule, Jews and Christians were considered a privileged minority, but still second-class citizens. Jews were, for a period of time, permitted limited religious, educational, professional, and business opportunities. This situation changed dramatically in the 20th century, as witnessed by a widespread pattern of persecution, and the mass violations of human rights of Jewish minorities in Arab countries.
By way of example, official decrees and legislation denied human and civil rights to Jews, expropriated their property, removed them from civil service and all forms of employment. Edicts of expulsion were enacted in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Many Arab regimes stripped Jews of their citizenship. In Egypt, the first nationality code enacted as early as May 26, 1926 stated that a person born in Egypt was entitled to Egyptian nationality only if their father belonged racially to the majority of the population of a country whose language is Arabic, and whose religion is Islam.
This provision later served in the mid-1950s as the official pretext for expelling many Jews from Egypt. In Iraq, law number one of 1950, entitling [the state] to cancel Iraqi nationality was utilised to deprive Jews of their citizenship. In Libya, the Council of Ministers announced a royal decree that a Libyan national forfeited his nationality if he had any contact with Zionism. At that time, this was defined as anyone who had acted morally or materially in favour of Israel’s interests; the vague language allowed authorities to deprive Jews of their nationality at will.
Now, we are not speaking here of discriminatory decrees enacted in a vacuum. We are dealing here with real traumas, affecting real people. You will be hearing shortly from Jenny Stewart and Albert Zubaida, who came to the UK from Egypt and Iraq, respectively. Theirs are harrowing tales of being uprooted from their homes, and forced to rebuild fractured lives elsewhere. Throughout the region, Jews were often victims of murder, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and execution. The danger was well known.
The status of Jews in Arab countries worsened dramatically in 1948 as virtually all Arab countries declared war, or backed the war, against Israel. Jews were either uprooted from their countries of residence or became subjugated, political hostages in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The result: the mass displacement - or in today’s terms, the ethnic cleansing - of Jews from some ten Arab countries. Here are the facts; in 1948 there were 856,000 Jews in some ten Arab countries, today some 4,300 remain. As a result of every conflict - in 1948, 1956, 1967 etc. - the status of Jews worsened precipitously. And Jews were force to leave as a result of these conflicts.
Some 856,000 Jews, ethnically cleansed from the Arab world. By way of comparison, this chart [points to presentation] provides estimates of Palestinian refugees. This is a copy of an original document currently housed in the archives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. It lists the number of Palestinian refugees, providing estimates by the British, by the United States, by Palestinians, by Israel, and by the United Nations. More clearly, in September of 1949, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine estimated that there were 726,000 Palestinian refugees displaced as a result of Israel’s War of Independence.
As I noted earlier, 856,000 Jews displaced: i.e. more Jews displaced than Palestinians displaced. The world knows well what happened to Palestinian refugees, but little known is the fact that Jewish refugees were similarly under threat. Yet they did not remain refugees for long. Jews displaced from Arab countries immigrated to Israel, most of them to fulfil the Zionist dream of returning to the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. Some two-thirds, or nearly 660,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, while one third, or over 200,000 Jews, sought safe haven in countries other than Israel, including, obviously, the United Kingdom.
In virtually all cases, as Jews were forced to flee, individual and communal property was seized and/or confiscated without any compensation provided by the Arab governments involved.
Now when we first raised this issue with US State Department officials, they asked two fundamental questions: were Jews displaced from Arab countries really refugees? They contended, of course, that they were not. They had a place to go, Israel, they found safe haven in other third-party countries. And secondly, they stated, even if Jews were refugees way back when, do they have any rights today, 65 years later after the fact? If not, Why are you even raising this issue with us at this time?’
Legitimate questions, requiring legitimate answers. We spent two years conducting legal research to be able to respond definitively to these questions. Were Jews displaced from Arab countries actually, legally refugees? The answer is definitively, yes. On two separate occasions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determined that Jews fleeing from Egypt in 1957, and Jews fleeing from North Africa in 1967 here, indeed, bona fide refugees, according to international law, under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Second question. Even if Jews were refugees, what rights, if any, do they have today? Once again, the answer is yes indeed, they do possess rights. There is no statute of limitations on the rights of refugees. The passage of time does not negate refugee rights to petition for redress for the mass violations of human rights, as well as for personal losses. If a refugee left behind assets – including bank accounts, pension plans – they do not lose their rights to these assets, notwithstanding how many years have passed.
So under international law, Arabs were declared as refugees by the UNHCR, and Jews were declared as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yet, there is a glaring anomaly in the way the United Nations responded to these two Middle East refugee populations. Our research revealed startling differences, and disproportionate treatment by the United Nations, in favour of the Arab refugees. We looked at the United Nations resolutions, we looked at agencies dealing with refugees, and we looked at financial resources provided to refugees.
Let’s start with resolutions. From 1949 until the year 2009, there had been a total of 1,088 UN resolutions enacted by the Security Council and General Assembly on every conceivable Middle East issue. There are 172 resolutions that deal specifically, and only, with Palestinian refugees. The world ignored the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. There were no Security Council resolutions, or General Assembly resolutions, that specifically addressed the issue of Jewish refugees, or any resolutions on other topics that even mention the term, ‘Jewish refugees’.
This differential pattern of exclusivity, focusing only on Palestinian refugees, continues to this very day. Each year in the United Nations, four resolutions are adopted reinforcing the rights of Palestinian refugees. Many of them would apply equally to Jewish refugees; they talk about right to recognition, right to redress, right to loss of personal property. These factors apply not only to Palestinian refugees; they similarly apply to Jewish refugees.
With respect to the second criteria, the affiliated UN agencies, once more we see skewed responses. The UN mandated, or created, ten separate agencies to address the rights and welfare of Palestinian refugees. They had a three part mandate: one – protection. If the Palestinians were in danger, there was a responsibility to protect them from peril. Two – resettlement. The international community has a responsibility to resettle refugees. Three - recovery of assets. All of these agencies ostensibly dealt with these three mandates for Palestinian refugees. Only one agency ever dealt with Jewish refugees, and that was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Unlike UNRWA, the UNHCR, did not deal with protecting Jewish refugees; it was Jewish welfare and refugee relief agencies which dealt with protection. Secondarily, the international community never dealt with the resettlement of Jewish refugees; once again, it as Jewish communal resources that were brought in to play. And lastly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees did indeed try to recover some assets, particularly with references to Jews leaving Egypt. But, unfortunately, their efforts did not meet with success.
With respect to financial resources allocated to Middle East refugees, from 1950 to 2012, the United Nations, through UNRWA, has contributed US$17.7 billion to maintain and sustain Palestinian refugees in its geographically mandated areas of the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. By contrast, during that same period, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees did not provide any comparable assistance to Jewish refugees.
However, we did discover one allocation from the UNHCR to Jewish refugees. In 1957, a grant of US$30,000 was allocated to provide “emergency aid” to Jewish refugees from Egypt. This funding was given with two provisos; number one, that there would be absolutely no publicity given to this allocation, whatsoever, i.e. lest the world know that an international agency has provided financial resources to Jews; and number two, this allocation was later converted into a loan, and the JDC paid back the US$30,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That was the extent of the international community’s financial support to Jewish refugees fleeing from Arab countries.
This lack of symmetry in the way that the United Nations dealt with these two refugee problems contradicts history. The world failed to recognise the culpability of the Arab nations for creating both sets of refugees. Not only did the Arab league reject the United Nations proposal of a Palestinian state, they then declared war to extinguish the nascent Jewish state, and then they launched a campaign of aggression against their own Jewish nationals.
And yet, in this latest incarnation of Middle East negotiations – the so called ‘framework agreement’ to be proffered by US Secretary of State, John Kerry – while the discussion of Jewish refugees may, indeed, be on the table, there is some question as to whether Jewish refugees will even be included in this framework proposal. This belies history and legal precedent. In the international political arena, Jewish refugees have been inextricably tied to Palestinian refugees. Virtually all international understandings on the Arab-Israeli conflict, including seminal United Nations resolutions, refer generically to refugees and do not make any distinction between Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees.
By way of example, United Nations resolution 242. It was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United Nations, Lord Caradon, who crafted the only one of five draft resolutions presented for the consideration of the United Nations that was acceptable to all countries, including the Arab nations. As ultimately adopted, Lord Caradon’s resolution states that a comprehensive peace settlement should necessarily include a just settlement of the refugee problem; not the Arab refugee problem, not the Palestinian refugee problem, but the refugee problem. No distinction is made between Arabs and Jews.
That was the intent of Lord Caradon, and the resolution’s other co-sponsor, Justice Arthur Goldberg, from the United States, who stated in his memoirs – and I quote – ‘The language of 242 refers both to Arab and Jewish refugees, for an equal number of each abandoned their homes as a result of those several wars’. So, resolution 242 is the strongest recognition of the legitimate rights of Jewish refugees, a fact that was subsequently replicated in other international peace initiatives.
- The Madrid conference created a working group of refugees whose mandate was to consider practical ways of improving the lives of people throughout the region who had been displaced from their homes.
- The roadmap, which is still in force today, which the EU keeps promoting, currently states in phase three, to an ‘agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee problem’ - language applicable to both Palestinian and Jewish refugees, once again.
- As a result of previous bilateral negotiations, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority have signed bilateral treaties and agreements with Israel whose language, once again, was generic, calling for a just solution for all refugees.
- The 1978 Camp David Accords, which led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, refers to a commitment by parties to work with each other, and other interested parties to establish agreed procedures for a ‘prompt, just, and permanent resolution of implementation of the refugee problem’
- In 1994, the bilateral treaty between Jordan and Israel, article 8 is entitled ‘Refugees and Displaced Persons’, refers to – and I quote – ‘massive human problem caused to both parties by the conflict in the Middle East’.
I mentioned the bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority because, in fact, today, Palestinians are asserting that the Jewish refugees should not be on the table at this current time; that these negotiations are bilateral, and that the Jewish refugee problem is multilateral, and, therefore, rights and redress for Jewish refugees from Arab countries has no place on a bilateral negotiating table. Yet we see that in 1993, in 1995, for example, previous bilateral Palestinian-Israeli agreements propose refugees as a subject for permanent status negotiations, utilizing generic language once again applicable to both Arabs and Jewish refugees.
Now, on a national level, the linkage, and requisite to deal simultaneously with both refugee populations has been enshrined in parliamentary initiatives in the United States, Israel, and in Canada. In 2008, the US Congress adopted resolution HR185, which unanimously proclaimed that in all Middle East negotiations the President asked to have US negotiators ensure that ‘any explicit reference to the rights of Palestinian refugees must be matched by a similar explicit reference to the rights of Jewish refugees’.
In Israel, in 2010, the Knesset passed a law that required, as part of negotiations to achieve peace in the Middle East, the government to includethe subject of providing compensation for the loss of assets of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
And most recently, just last week in Canada, the cabinet announced that they – quote – ‘officially recognise the experience of Jewish refugees who were displaced from states in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948’.
These governments have concluded that it would be inappropriate, and would constitute a further injustice, for the international community to recognise rights for one refugee population – Arabs - without recognising equal rights for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. After decades of effort, from so many of you in this room who at times have been loath and other times willing to tell their stories, it must be stated that the modern-day chapter of the support of the United Kingdom for Jewish refugees from Arab countries has yet to be written.
As a key interlocutor in the Middle East, I would suggest that the policies and actions of the United Kingdom must be studiously balanced to maintain its credibility and influence. Therefore, I would like to proffer the following two principles which, as citizens of the UK, you could ask your government to consider. Number one: to officially recognise the experience of Jewish refugees who were displaced from states in the Middle East and North Africa in 1948. And two; to encourage the direct negotiating partners to take in to account all refugee populations as part of any just and comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
Seeking a just solution for the losses incurred by both Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees may not be as problematic as many people assume. Two important Arab-Israeli negotiations - at Camp David II and Taba - have already addressed the need to create an international fund as part of any Middle East peace process, as proposed by President Bill Clinton in the year 2000.
Some say it is naive that such an international fund could ever be created, with a mandate to provide compensation to both sides of the same conflict, equitably and equally. But, in fact, there is such a legal precedent. In 1991, the United Nations established a UN administered compensation commission that provided restitution to victims of all sides of the First Gulf War who were, among others, Kuwaitis, Saudi Arabian citizens, and Israelis. This international precedent can serve as a model for providing compensation equitably to both Jewish and Palestinian refugees.
In closing, let me say that it is time for courageous leadership by moral and responsible governments like the United Kingdom to recognise these truths: number one, it is time for justice for Jews from Arab countries to assume its rightful place on the international political agenda; number two, that any narrative on the Middle East that does not include justice for Jewish refugees is a case study in Middle East revisionism, and three; that rights for Jewish refugees from Arab countries must be part of any narrative and peace process, if that narrative or peace process is going to have integrity, credibility, and legitimacy.
Let there be no doubt about it, in the words of the honourable Justice Irwin Cotler, former justice minister of Canada, ‘where there is no remembrance there will be no truth, where there is no truth there will be no justice, where there is no justice there will be no reconciliation, and where there is no reconciliation there will be no durable peace between, and among, all peoples of the region; something we earnestly hope for’.
Thank you very much.
Bob Blackman MP
Thank you, Stanley, for that excellent overview. And I have to say, this is a message that needs to go out very, very loud and clear, because I, as an MP, and other MPs, receive on a regular basis the concern about Palestinian refugees; we never, ever hear about Jewish refugees. So, I think your presentation is timely and apt, and I will certainly make use of the information that you have kindly shared with us this evening.
Our next speaker is Jenny Stewart, who had the experience of being expelled from Egypt in the same year that I was born, so she has lived her lifetime outside of her native country. Jenny, without further ado.
Thank you, I’m Jenny Stewart. I was born in Cairo in 1935, and in 1956 our family was one of the first to be forced out of Egypt. I was 21 years old, a primary school teacher. [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser has nationalised the Suez Canal, and in an effort to regain it, the British and French have colluded with Israel and invaded the Suez Canal. In response, Nasser started to expel both British and French nationals, as well as the Jews of Egypt, Jews who had lived in Egypt for centuries.
As I recall, events started to get very close in November, 1956, when there was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Kromovsky, a Jewish friend of ours, who lived in the Suez area, was evicted by the Egyptian military. She begged us to take her in, which to our great regret we were unable to, as we felt threatened too. Three days later a couple of police officers came to our door and gave us three days notice to leave Egypt. All we were allowed to take was EGP£20 and three suitcases each.
I remember packing our suitcases with warm clothes, I sewed in a EGP£10 note in to my dress and my mother insisted on taking her jewellery, which, unfortunately, was confiscated at the airport. Although my Mother had a UK passport, I had none, and my stepfather was stateless. I recall getting travel documents from the Swiss embassy, and it goes without saying we had to buy our own tickets.
We left Cairo on the only air transport available, which was the United Nations transport plane bringing peacekeepers in to Egypt. After a long and complicated journey via Naples, I remember arriving at Heathrow, which was not as it is now, but just corrugated huts. Being November, it was cold and damp, and coming from the heat of Egypt, it was all the more so to us. We had to stay in my stepsister’s house for a couple of months.
My stepfather became very ill, having previously lost a kidney to TB, at least 20 years before; my mother became clinically depressed. Those who were expelled after us in great numbers were sent to refugee camps in the North, meanwhile, my father, an import/export merchant, had remained in Egypt. He had a British passport, which he gave up in the thirties, in the hope of better employment prospects.
He was arrested on trumped up charges of being a Zionist; he was sent to an awful prison with thieves and robbers. After eight months he was given a choice; either sign his property and possessions away, or stay in prison. He took the only real choice open to him, and was then put on board to Italy, and from there to Israel. For him, life in Israel was a struggle; he was well educated, multi-lingual, but at sixty he had to start work as a postman.
He managed to rebuild his life there. Our family business was two shops selling designer clothing for adult and children – but on our departure we left the shop in the hands of my brother-in-law, but later he, too, had to flee Egypt, leaving all his property and business behind. Even our car was left at the airport, as we were not allowed to be accompanied by anybody. My father had a large plot of land in Alexandria, on the site of an ancient Greek temple; it must have been purchased by my paternal grandparents in the 19th century. After Nasser took power, Jews were forbidden to buy land.
After the 1979 peace treaty, my husband and I visited Egypt. I remember staying in a palace converted into a hotel that I used to walk past as a child on the way to school, the shops had their original name, but their original owners had been forced out with nothing. The street name, however, had changed. Using an Egyptian lawyer, we tried to get compensation for our losses. But this came to nothing. I am grateful to England, and forever in her debt for her kindness.
What I would like is an acknowledgment of the suffering of the people that lost their livelihood. But most of all, we Jews, we never stay refugees for long; we want to be part of the country that took us, and be good citizens.
Bob Blackman MP
Thank you, Jenny, for your personal experiences. And what a good job that we live in an enlightened society in this country. Our next speaker is Albert Zubaida, who was expelled from Iraq as a very young man a substantial period of time ago; some 43 years.
We covered quite a lot with Dr. Urman, and yes, with Jenny we covered quite a lot, too. My story, I was born in Baghdad, my ancestors came from Jerusalem, some 2,600 years ago. They were taken as prisoners by Nebuchadnezzar and taken in to Babylon, and rebuilt Babylon.
The situation deteriorated so rapidly in 1967, after the war between the Arabs and Israelis, and I vividly remember that the president, or someone prominent in the Iraqi government, took it upon himself to rid Iraq of ‘traitors and spies.’ And, sure enough, within a few days, people started disappearing from the streets, having been arrested. New rules came up within a few days; Jews could not work; if anyone employed a Jew, his business would be closed; telephone lines to Jewish homes were cut off; Jewish youngsters no longer were accepted in university; all travel outside of Baghdad, in a five mile radius, was prohibited; if any person sold a property, he could not take the money, but had to leave it in the bank; passports had suspended for Jews in 1964, so no one could leave the country legally.
Within a few days of the 1967 war, there was a blackout; the government decided to switch off the lights at night, as they were worried in case Israel bombed Baghdad. I remember very well that one evening we had a knock on the door, my mum went to the window to see what was happening; there were a few policemen outside, and they asked her to open the door. She let one of the officers in, and he said, ‘don’t you know there’s a blackout? You left one of the lights in one of the bedrooms on’. She apologised, and he left.
By the time she went to the bedroom, my father had had a massive heart attack from fright and we couldn’t ask a doctor to come as that day our telephone line had been cut off. By the morning he was deteriorating. We were worried to take him to hospital, because in 1941 Jews were injected and killed in hospitals. Sadly, my father died within two weeks, at the age of 58.
At the beginning of 1969 – everyone knows about nine Jews being hanged in Baghdad, in the main square – well, as two Jewish boys we were going to school in the morning, the driver on the bus said, ‘why don’t you go down and go back home’. So we went back home, and when we got back home we figured out what happened with the situation. Two of my uncles were in prison at the time, with another 30 men and we didn’t know what their fate was to be.
When leaving school in Baghdad, every boy needed to have documentation for the army, and normally they stamp it with ‘not suitable for army service, for medical reasons’. And I used to go to the ministry every ten days for a mark, during the heat of the day, waiting from 8 o’clock in the morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon just to get my document stamped. Meanwhile my father’s friend appears who was in the jewellery trade, which I used to go and practice, I was good at making things, so I made my own stamp and gave myself six months leave.
At that time I had promised my grandmother, who was living with us, to take her with me, and she took the offer. She was about 85, quite big, she can’t see well, and it took me six months to manage to take her, to find a smuggler willing to take us. We had to cross the border on mules and horses, so the smuggler took us in a Land Rover from Baghdad to the border [to Iran], and then I had to stand with my little suitcase and handkerchief opened, as a sign for the smuggler to approach.
He came and we followed the track to his horse until the evening when he got a Land Rover, he put us in and covered us with canvas. I had, at that time, stuffed my shoes with dollars. We had to pass through five army checkpoints, and each time I was really sweating in case we got caught. It took us about two miles to reach this point until the Land Rover could go no more. So, the chap took us in the middle of the night and said, ‘why don’t you wait here and I’ll get some horses and mules to come pick you up’, so I begged him to keep one person with us or he might just leave us stranded on the mountain; he did.
He went and he got the horse and mules, put my grandmother on, tied her up, and we proceeded. After a couple of hours, we got to a small stream and he said that this was the frontier between Iraq and Iran. As soon as we crossed it, we were surrounded by army personnel, but when they came near us they were Iranians. And I told them we wanted political asylum, they said that was fine and brought an Army jeep to put us in, and took us to a frontier hotel.
The next morning we had to go to the police station to register. They brought us teas and coffees, and what have you. His accent, and his language, was so pure Baghdadi that I thought we hadn’t even crossed the border. So I asked him to take us to Tehran, about eight hours inland, and he said, ‘Fine, no problem’.
I got the doctor in Tehran to look at my grandmother, and he said that she was fine and had nothing wrong with her; he gave her some medication and within a couple of days we had a couple of people from the Israeli embassy who had information that we had crossed the border. I took her to Israel, she lived for two years, but had cancer, but I took all around – to the Kotel and everywhere, and I then got myself to England.
This is my story.
Bob Blackman MP
Well, thank you, Albert, for that personal recollection. The final speaker is Edwin Shuker, who is the Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and Vice Chair of the International Division of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to give us some concluding remarks, and, I think, to close the speeches before we go to the question and answer.
First of all, I want to acknowledge the presence here of my President, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr. Vivian Wineman and thank him not just for coming here tonight but for the continuous support on the issue.
Today, I carry none of the titles that Bob has mentioned. Today I’m a refugee, I’m a Jewish refugee from Iraq. We have heard the statistics from Dr. Stan Urman who, without his meticulous research and obsessive dedication to the issue, this subject would not have seen the light. And I acknowledge that in public today. We also heard testimonies from Egypt, from Iraq, so now what? Most of you sitting here, I know, have seen pogroms, have seen your relatives being tortured, some killed, and as we heard from Albert, hanging in Baghdad’s public square.
For the past sixty years or so you have been waiting for an answer, why? Why does the world ignore this issue, what do we have to do for the international community to recognise the story, and to recognise the rights of us to be recognised as refugees under international law. How can you explain that a Palestinian, a fifth-generation Palestinian born in the United States, with an American passport is considered, by the United Nations, as a refugee, entitled to compensation; $17.1 billion spent in 60 years.
How can I, and how can Albert, who grew up and lived in the country, and ran away like criminals in the night’ leaving our homes, our possessions, our cemeteries, our schools; how can I not be recognised as a refugee? I share your anguish, and I share your frustration. My Grandparents were displaced in 1951; three dresses, one ring, and four books. They arrived to the young state of Israel and slept in tents for several years; they passed away without seeing closure or acknowledgement.
Twenty years later, my family and I went through the same experience, and I am so grateful to the United Kingdom for receiving us, asylum seekers, and giving us a new life. But I do not want to pass away without seeing closure to this, because who will follow me? And who will tell my story. Over the past thirty days I have gone through a rollercoaster of emotions. Three weeks ago I went back to Iraq, I went there and I was able to locate and pray at the shrines of three prophets. When I was praying at Daniel’s Shrine, which was totally desolate, totally abandoned, falling apart.
I put on my tefillin and I prayed. And at that time somebody came from the neighbourhood and asked what I was doing there. I when I explained, he said, ‘I am not Jewish, but I am the protector of this Shrine, the fifth generation protecting this place, and I have not seen Jews for a very long time; why have you abandoned your prophet?’ And you know what? I asked myself, what right do we have to abandon our prophets, our shrines; my grandparents were buried in Iraq.
After coming back from Iraq I took my daughter to New York, in New York toady there is a display of archives, called the Iraqi-Jewish archives of about 30,000 documents that the Americans located in 2003. They were floating in water, almost destroyed. The Americans took it upon themselves to take them back to America and preserve them, and for the last ten years they have been working on them, spending $3 million preserving them. Now there are a small sample of them, 24 items, exhibited in New York in the Holocaust Memorial Museum. And as Providence has it, one of those 24 items is my very own school certificate.
I took my daughter there because I realise that time is short, and that it is running out for us to say the story as it was, for us to say it as eyewitnesses. What I did, I past on the mantle to her, I passed on the story, I said to her, ‘Please God, I won’t be like my grandparents, I will live to see a closure’.
Today we want action, positive action. We are not here to place blame, to say who said what. So, today, what do I want? I want the UK government, the US Government, Europe to realise that this is the right time, now, to resolve it together with the peace negotiations… Let us change the Middle East, let us bring closure to the Middle East, let us have truth and reconciliation where everyone apologises and tells the truth. Let us move on with our lives, because we cannot move on while one side of the same coin gets compensation and the other side is ignored. It is neither fair, nor just, nor lasting.
What do I want from Israel? I want Israel to recognise that this issue is a critical, core issue that goes to the very existence of that state. Because every time you mention the refugees from Arab countries you tell the world that Israel is not a European implant, that Jews have lived there for 2,600 years in that area, and that we belong to that area. You also tell the world that Israel is not an oppressor and the other side is victim. Every side shares victimhood and everyone shares violence, there was a conflict and the conflict has to come to a close, but the truth has to be prevalent.
What do I want from the Jewish community here, and worldwide? I want you to hear and learn about this subject as if it is your own story and your own history, I don’t want it to be seen as a one-off, once a year ethnic issue. I want you to learn it and I want you to pass it on. Dr. Urman was startled in the last couple of days when he came to the Houses of Parliament here and he spoke with MPs who were very influential on the Middle East, and every one of them said that they hadn’t heard of the story before. Never heard of this story before! People in charge of Middle East policy and strategy had never heard of it!
What do I want from you? You the victims, you the Jews of Arab countries who are sitting here; I want you to teach your children, and I want you to teach your neighbours, I want you to tell your story to your MP, and to tell it to the newspapers, and to support those who are working, people like Harif [Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa], Lyn [Julius], and Michelle [Huberman], who sign up these pledges. Write to your MPs; as you just heard, hundreds and thousands of letters are written by Palestinians about Palestinians, and how do you expect an MP to listen to us if we are not even writing to him?
This is the time for this subject, and this is a win-win-win subject because if it is treated properly and there is a peace fund like the one Stan Urman spoke about, that peace fund can change the face of the Middle East. That peace fund should be used by Jews and Arabs to go back to the way we lived for 1200 years, to refurbish our synagogues, to preserve our cemeteries in the Arab world. The shrines, let’s go visit them. And let’s the Arab and Jew to live together, because God has decided we should live in the same place, so let’s do it properly.
Finally, one of our greatest Rabbis, who lived in Babylon, Rabbi Hillel, what he said was so apt for tonight, and I quote, ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, then when?’
Bob Blackman MP
Thank you, Edwin, for that excellent over view, and I think it was a good summary. I just wanted to share with you – you may have seen my using my phone earlier on – I just thought I should tweet out these comparisons as Stanley was speaking, and I just wanted to demonstrate what we are up against here. Because I got a response from someone, who I’ll spare their blushes, who replied to my tweet about there being comparatively the same number of Palestinian refugees as there are Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
His reply was; ‘That is because the Jews have money, they are even stealing Palestinian land in contravention of edicts from the UN, the Palestinians have nothing, but nothing, and are simply being bullied by the big, ugly beast with nuclear weapons who live next door.’ And this is the worst bit; ‘It is way past time that the Jews learnt some humility, they seem to think they are a special case.’ Well, ladies and gentlemen you’ve heard tonight what the case is, both at first hand and the facts. But I think that demonstrates what we are all up against in producing this for the world and for the UK.
Let’s have some questions - and we’ll get some answers – if you want to direct your question to a particular member of the panel, please say so, otherwise I shall invite each member to make a quick comment.
Question 1 – Hamid Al-Sharifi
We have heard all these touching stories; of course, they are quite painful. The people of this hall knew, or thought, that they knew everything, but not everything is well known. There are a lot more tragic stories, of course, of the Iraqi Jews, from Baghdad; they lost their parents, they were hung... [Recording stops]
[Recording starts] He doesn’t want me to say that, so without his permission, his father was executed in 1969, he was forced to join the Iraqi Army, he fought against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. So, now, hopefully, we start to know a lot of things, thanks to Edwin, of course. But we need more action, we need the media to know – it’s not right telling our friends, telling our neighbour; that’s not enough.
We need drastic measures, so we’d like to hear from you, Mr. Blackman, if there is any strategy toward that?
Thank you very much indeed.
Bob Blackman MP
We will take three people’s questions and then take answers from the panel.
Question 2 – Sydney Assor, Head of the Moroccan Jewish Community in Britain
I would like to say in January, ’69, I was, on that fateful day of hanging, in the Baghdad hotel in that square. I have never been so shocked [as I was] by the attitude of the concierge. We were on a trade mission, and he said, ‘May I take your camera, and I’ll show you around the square’. I said, ‘Why not’. Then we saw this crowd coming down; we were curious … I can only be revolted by your experience. I was an outsider, and I was revolted.
Dr. Urman, you are aware that in November of last year, that the Chief Rabbi of Israel was honoured by the King of Morocco with the highest decoration ... Why don’t you use this as an example of what some moderate Arab countries can do? Because Jihadists, Islamists are taking the power and, God forbid, that this happens in Morocco, then we have no hope.
So, I think you should use this. Tunisia is begging for Jews to come to see the trail of the Jews. Why do you not use this? I beg you to use this as a force to reinforce you justified claim, your experience, and so on.
Question 3 – Eylon Aslan-Levy
At the period we are speaking of, Iraq was an independent country, but it is very easy to forget that at the time Britain was the relevant colonial power, and exercised an enormous degree of influence in Iraq. In 1949, Britain looked favourably upon a non-compulsory population transfer between Palestinian Arabs to go to Iraq in exchange from 100,000 Jews from Iraq to be sent to Israel. It is on record that the Foreign Office did not look favourably upon the idea of interceding the half of the Jews of Iraq, even as a humanitarian rather than a political issue.
To what extent do these speakers on the panel believe that Britain has a share of the blame in the creation of the refugee problem for failing to exercise its influence, as the formal colonial power, in the government of Iraq in the fifties?
Bob Blackman MP
Who wants to go first? Stanley?
Dr. Stanley Urman
To Mr. Assor – with respect, I make no apologies for giving valid statistics. The statistics are: that there were 235,000 Jews in Morocco [in 1948], and today, roughly 3,500 remain Having said that, I agree with you. I have visited Morocco on a number of occasions. I have met with senior officials of the King, I know that the King himself has taken money, personal money, and paid for the restoration of Jewish cemeteries through Morocco.
It is not my intention to come here and to pillory. My intention is to come to educate. And in that context, it would be the best of worlds, if we were able to rely on moderate Muslim leaders, such as the King of Morocco. Morocco is a place where Jews still today do function with absolute freedom to worship, can congregate, and where Jews are part of the court of the King of Morocco. So I do accept your comment, and do accept the hope that other countries throughout the Middle East would learn from Morocco, notwithstanding the fact that in the near future the Jewish community’s future and fate in Morocco are still uncertain.
With respect to any responsibility of the British Commonwealth, the United Kingdom, may have in the displacement of Jewish refugees, very candidly, I do not feel qualified to speak upon that subject. I do not purport to be an expert in UK history. I have heard the contention that you have made. Clearly, colonialist powers did not do enough; not only during their tenure, but subsequent to their departure, to ensure the safety and security of the populations they were leaving behind.
On the other hand, there are those who say that without the protectorate powers, a lot of Jews in virtually of the Arab countries would have been much worse. I leave it to history to judge the answer to that.
I want to move on from the blame story; only because I think time is short, not here, but in a world where we need to move on. And I think it is incredible opportunity … we have heard, three weeks ago, two pieces of good news. First of all, Canada is on its way to adopt a law recognising Jews from Arab countries as having equal rights as Palestinians. This is the first country that has adopted it as a law.
The second good news is Martin Indyk, Chief of Staff to John Kerry, declaring that Jews of Arab countries will be on the agenda of the peace process. If that is the case, we are very close to an incredible solution that satisfies everybody. At the end of the day, the whole campaign is not to belittle the Palestinian claims, or to challenge them, or to refute them. It is just saying there are two people who both suffered from the same conflict, two sides from the same coin, and it is time for the international community instead of spending $3 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, to spend 5% of that to redress an injustice. And use that money to build a brand new Middle East, based on peace rather than incitement and hate.
I just wanted to make a brief statement to let you know that I’m here from an American-Jewish television network in New York, and my colleague, Catherine is based in London. And I have to say that I had no idea about this problem, and we have some responsibility in the US for what’s happened in Iraq. But the American-Jewish community is very charitable, speaking for Shalom TV; we would very much like to help you to disseminate your information through to our audiences, if this is something of interest to you?
Thank you for tonight.
Question 5 – Alfred Nathan
I am a refugee from Iraq, as many people here are. And I just want people to understand the difference between what happened to the Palestinians and what happened to the Jews. The Palestinians, even today, fourth or fifth generation born in the surrounding Arab countries are denied citizenship. It is an active policy by the Arab countries to deny them citizenship, the sole purpose of this is to keep them in camps in order to use them as a whipping tool against the Jews. So these people are being deliberately badly treated and keep in camps and these situations. And I implore everybody, and parliamentarians, to make this message understood that this is a deliberate policy.
If this had been the Jews, when I had arrived in England I would have been put in to a field in Kent, surrounded by barbed wire, given tents, received money from the UN, and sixty years later we would have schools and hospitals and a town surrounded by barbed wire in a field in Kent, and my children wouldn’t be British citizens. But they are, thanks to this wonderful country.
Question 6 – Sara Rose
My name is Sara Rose – I belong to the Henry Jackson Society. There was a talk put on by the Henry Jackson Society a few days ago talking about the way British taxpayers are sending money to Palestine, and a lot of that money is used to provide hate teaching in the schools and teaching those children the wrong story about the refugees. Something needs to be done about that. Organisations that fight that situation need to be supported.
Question 7 – Yossi Shukran
My name is Yossi Shukran, I am not a refugee anymore, but my mother was, and still is. I want to pick on two phrases that I really liked in these speeches; ‘justice’ and ‘move on’. The blame game won’t get us anywhere, as some people in Israel are in their seventies and eighties and need help now. My father died, my grandparents died, they came from Iraq, but as everybody has said, they go to the UK and got citizenship, got their children educated, and they are not refugees anymore.
The question of how to get justice is, in my view, down to the US government and community, it has to come to the agenda as an important topic. And, another point that didn’t come up so far: I remember speaking to my dad, and he said that we can’t complain too much as our brothers in Europe suffered far more than us. So, they were really shy to bring it up, because they hadn’t felt really anything in comparison. This is one reason really, when Lyn and Michelle started [Harif], I was really sceptical that anybody was going to get something out of this movement.
But now, when I see everyone here, I am really encouraged. And we really need to pull together and get it to the top of the agenda – forget the blame game, let’s move on.
Question 8 – Alec Nacamuli
My name is Alec Nacamuli, I left Egypt in 1956, thank goodness in much less traumatic circumstances than Jenny. At that time the Jewish community was 75,000, today there are 15 Jews left in Egypt. Now, that community contributed enormously to the development of Egypt; politically, Jews were amongst the founding members of the Wafd Party before independence; economically, the first finance minister of Egypt, Yusuf Qattawi, was Jewish; also, culturally, one of the founding fathers of the cinema in Egypt, Togo Mizrahi, also a Jew.
So what we are seeing is the Arab countries trying to systematically erase from their history the contributions of the Jewish community; be it Iraq, be it Syria, be it in Egypt. Also, there is the question of the archives of the community. My birth certificate was not issued by a British consulate, it was issued by Egypt; those registers of birth, marriage, and death are currently in Egypt and we have been refused permission even to scan them. Or to digitise them so we can do historical research.
So, my question to the panel; what can we do to prevent to prevent this important page of the history from those countries, which is a contribution of the Jewish communities, to be airbrushed and erased.
There is no hope, according to me, for any return of the Jews to anything, or anything being returned. I remember my husband had collected several Torahs from Hungary and bought them to England, he wouldn’t let anyone touch them but him and another Jewish person. And this is basically, there is no chance, it is no good, we have to start fresh and make our communities somewhere else.
Let the Arabs not progress, just make money from oil. That’s all it is about.
Dr. Stanley Urman
Your question is a good one and an important one. Because too often when people talk about rights and redress they talk about compensation. Redress under international law can take many forms. Redress can be the right to commemorate. You’re right. Much of the history of the Iraqi Jews has been eradicated, and is continuing to be systematically eradicated in the Arab world. But what can we do about it?
Number one; we can have more hearings, such as this. Or reach out to newspapers to make sure this issue is being properly addressed. That is number one, because most people have not even heard of this story; the valued, rich life that has been expunged from the Middle East. Number two; we talked about an international peace fund. Number three; redress can be the right to commemorate. In some Arab countries there are museums that have been created. There is a value in that, to have places where, perhaps, archives and Jewish treasures can be exhibited.
Number four; perhaps we need to endow chairs in universities to study and promote the rich cultural heritage that has been eradicated from the region. Perhaps we must conduct additional research and produce publications. These are the ways in which we are able to retain, promote, preserve, and still cherish what may have been lost. Some might say, why should we spend good money now on supporting projects that might ultimately accrue to the benefit of the Arab world?
I would suggest that the right to history and the right to memory is a value that is worth preserving.
One thing: I refuse to give up hope. [For example,] when I mention my certificate, which I saw after I abandoned it forty three years ago when I ran away, that certificate that went to the cellars of Saddam Hussein, where is was flooded with water, dried in the sun, taken in deep freeze to America, and for the past years preserved. For me to walk in to a museum and see it in front of me, to see it looking pristine, if that can happen, anything can happen. And this story of this certificate is the story of my identity and your identity.
Jewish people have always risen up from when they fell. And our story is well documented, and we will be here for eternity. The hope, we will never give up. I believe, truly believe, that once this peace fund starts, and once we venture in to the Arab world, we will be received with open arms. I am a dreamer, but sometime it is good to be a dreamer, good to be hopeful. And I tell you one thing; that one that happens we can change, together, the face of the Middle East, it has happened before and it will happen again.
Let’s do it in our lifetime.
Bob Blackman MP
Can I say that there will be two things that I will ask; there about one hundred and fifty people here, if you all go back and write to your MP, draw their attention to the issues that have been raised tonight it will help spread the word among MPs. I’m secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, and once of the things I will take away from tonight is the need to educate our colleagues and Members of Parliament on this particular issue so we can balance the rhetoric and the issues raised.
And, certainly, I will use this material as effectively as I can, and it may be so that we may require your services and some meetings in order to get this information over to colleagues in the house.
Without further ado, my I thank all our speakers for their time, and for giving such emotional testimony. And can I also thank all of you for attending, and the organisers, on your behalf, for making it happen. And can I ask you to speedily leave this room, as we are already over time.