Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The other Middle East refugees deserve recognition

The Jerusalem Post pegs a hard-hitting leader on Jewish refugees to the JJAC congress now meeting in London. (With thanks: Lily)

The world knows of the pain and dislocation experienced by roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs when Israel was established; it knows little about the trauma borne by some 850,000 Jews from the Arab world who were uprooted from their homes.

The precise numbers and exact impetus for the departures, in these linked cases, remain in dispute. The motivations of the displaced in promoting their respective narratives are easily suspect because both Jewish and Arab refugee conundrums are tied to claims of "inalienable rights," for restitution and reparations, and (in the case of the Arabs) demands for repatriation.

In any journey toward genuine acceptance and reconciliation that the quest for peace demands, the two narratives will need to be mutually validated in some fashion.

The plight of Jews who left the Arab countries has drawn relatively little attention, notwithstanding the efforts of individuals such as Heskel M. Haddad, a New York-based ophthalmologist of Iraqi origin. Recently, however, this cause received a boost from a non-binding US Congressional resolution adopted in April which urged the administration to raise the Jewish refugee issue whenever the Palestinian one arises. And this week a group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been holding a conference in London to ensure that the narrative of Jewish refugees is told alongside that of the Palestinian Arabs.

It would be a tragedy if this campaign were dismissed as an attempt at one-upmanship in an arena so long dominated by supporters of the Palestinian Arabs; suffering does not negate suffering.

One approach for fair-minded individuals is to consider the Jewish refugees as human beings rather than as pawns in a vitriolic political dispute.

This is why the recent publication of Lucette Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is so welcome. In telling the affecting saga of her family's forced emigration from Cairo to New York, and by sharing memories of her proud father Leon's decline from boulevardier, poker player and businessman - who rubbed shoulders with King Farouk - to a refugee unable to raise the few thousand dollars necessary to open a corner candy store, Lagnado puts a human face on the other Middle East refugee tragedy.

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