Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's historic mention of Jewish refugees who left their homes and belongings in Arab countries marks a departure from the vague references of the past. Why has Israel been so reticent to raise the issue over the years? Here are five reasons why:
1) Israel has a fundamental difference in approach from the Arabs - it has been very much “‘we’ll discuss this issue when we come to it.” While the Arabs talk about rights and justice the Israeli approach has always been pragmatic - ‘look how flexible we are and prepared to make ‘painful concessions’. To the outside observer this approach has always made Israel seem on the defensive. Theis perception has been aggravated by the fact many Israeli media and intellectuals have embraced the Arab narrative. This has narrowed the conflict to an Israel-Palestinian dispute and excluded the larger Arab context in which the expulsion of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries plays a significant part. It also casts the Palestinians as innocent victims ( ‘what did we have to do with the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands?’).
2) Israel thought that to raise the Jewish refugee issue was to be seen as socially divisive. Its main task was to integrate refugees from all over the place, and not to privilege one particular group over another. This policy paid off - intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is over 25 percent and barriers between ethnic groups are rapidly breaking down - but it has meant Israel has not exploited the Mizrahim for political advantage as the Arabs have done with the Palestinian refugees.
3) It is often said that the Jewish refugees from Arab lands themselves found that their story had to take a back seat to that of the Holocaust survivors. After all, the Mizrahim had suffered, but at least they got out alive.
4) Another factor for Israel’s silence is that efforts were still going on until the 1990s (eg Syria) to rescue the beleaguered remnants of various Jewish communities. There were delicate negotiations going on behind the scenes to rescue these hostage Jews and they thought any publicity would make their plight worse.
5) During the Oslo years the Left believed that the issue of Jewish refugees was a needless obstacle in the way of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which they genuinely thought was just around the corner. Hence, as Justice minister, Yossi Beilin closed down the department dealing with property claims for Jews from Arab countries and ordered a room containing files dealing with Libyan Jewish claims cleared. The files were destroyed. Subsequent Justice ministers have realised that this was a serious mistake and re-opened the department, but successive Israeli governments have been mealy-mouthed on the issue and, until now, have not made any public declarations drawing parallels between Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Palestinian refugees.