Open Zion

08.09.12

Denigrating Jewish Refugees

For Lara Friedman, a lobbyist for Americans for Peace Now, the sun was not shining last week. Jews from Arab countries are being cynically exploited, she claimed on Open Zion, by a two-pronged drive that seeks to abolish the hereditary status of Palestinian refugees, while pushing for the rights of Jews from Arab Countries. A Congressional Bill, coupled with an Israeli diplomatic initiative, will, she fears, pit the refugees against each other.

Jewish refugees from Arab countries do indeed outnumber Palestinian refugees– by 850,000 to 750,000. According to economist Sidney Zabludoff, Jews lost 50 percent more in assets. Two sets of refugees were created after 1948—one by violence and persecution, the other by war. Jewish refugees were absorbed in Israel and the West; the Palestinians were left to fester in camps.

But the new initiatives do not, as Friedman alleges, set new terms for the peace agenda: they mean to correct a historic distortion.

Friedman’s main argument echoes the radical Marxist professor Yehuda Shenhav: after conceding that Jews from Arab countries have legitimate rightsshe proceeds to question if Jews were ‘refugees’ at all—a ‘degrading’ term. Although Yisrael Yeshayahu and Shlomo Hillel, who arrived before Israel was born, are on record as saying they came as Zionists, they are exceptional. Jews fled because certain push factors made life hell after 1948—murderous riot, anti-Jewish incitement, arrests, executions

For ethnocentric reasons, Israel discouraged the Jews from seeing themselves as refugees, but as immigrants returning to their ancestral homeland. Bizarrely, Friedman seems to believe that unless Jews want to return to their countries of birth, they cannot be real refugees: “They are either refugees, or they are new immigrants—they can’t be both.”

I say they can be both.  Were they dispossessed, their ancient, pre-Islamic communities destroyed, their families dismembered—of their own free will?  Did Jews choose to spend up to 13 years in tents or huts (ma’abarot) with inadequate sanitation and food?

What would Friedman say about the 200,000 Jews who did not flee to Israel, but found refuge in the West? Read this refugee’s comment to Friedman’s piece:

Less than one month after the Six Day War…We left with one suitcase each. Leaving everything behind was the least of our concerns, although we had lived well in Casablanca, Morocco. Our primary concern was to get on that plane bound for Paris because staying in our country meant risking our lives. In Paris, we had to live in a dingy, one-bedroom apartment with no bathroom, no hot water, and lots of rats.

Undeniably, Jews arrived as refugees. But they ceased being refugees once they were given citizens’ rights in their new countries. It is the Palestinians, consigned to squalid camps as political pawns, who have been cynically exploited, denied a ‘right of resettlement’ in their host countries and fed the delusion of return. A humanitarian solution would demand for them full citizenship, property ownership rights and jobs in Arab countries.

Here’s another Friedman fallacy: Palestinians are not responsible for what happened to Jewish refugees. Yet the two issues are linked. The Palestinian leadership pushed for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab countries, while driving the Arab League into the 1948 war against Israel. 

The pro-Nazi Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, instigated the Farhud pogrom against the Jews of Iraq in 1941. He sought Nazi license to exterminate Jews in Arab countries as well as Palestine “ in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis Countries.”  Before the mass Palestinian exodus, the Arab League hatched a  postwar, coordinated Nuremberg-style plan to persecute their Jewish citizens as enemy aliens.

The expulsion of Jews from Arab states and Arab genocidal intentions against the fledgling State of Israel were essentially two sides of the same coin.

An involuntary exchange of populations took place. Jews may yearn for the countries of their birth, but as long as these remain hostile and dangerous, return is inconceivable. And if one set of refugees cannot return, neither should the other. But both sets of refugees should be able to claim to compensation—the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has proposed an international fund.

Unless the claims of both sets of refugees are dealt with equally, a final peace settlement will not be based on truth. 

By what right can Lara Friedman denigrate the rights of half the Jewish population of Israel, who descend from refugees of Arab and Muslim lands? What is truly degrading is her denial of Jewish refugee rights and belittling of Jewish suffering. Justice for Jewish refugees is an unresolved human rights issue with no statute of limitations. Its pursuit is more, not less, likely to achieve reconciliation between the two peoples.