Response

05.20.13

Throw Away That Rusty Key

Dear Maysoon,

I was moved to read your piece commemorating the flight of your husband from a village near Jerusalem in 1948. He has kept the rusty iron key to his home. Yours was one of hundreds of articles in the global media, together with demonstrations and marches, marking your Nakba—the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in 1948.

But let me tell you a little known-fact: as your husband's family was fleeing their village, a greater number of Jewish refugees were streaming out of the Arab world with one suitcase—in the opposite direction. 

Over 800,000 Jewish refugees fled in the years immediately following 1948. This is the Jewish Nakba—a forgotten tragedy shrouded in silence. One of those refugee families was mine. We lived in a comfortable house in a riverside Jewish neighbourhood in Baghdad. 

"There is no place like home," as you say. Iraq was home to Jews for 2,600 years. A third of Baghdad was Jewish. But in 1948, persecution became so intolerable that my parents, along with 90 percent of Iraq's Jews, had no choice but to flee. The Jews lost everything—citizenship, homes, lands, businesses, synagogues, schools, hospitals and heritage. The same story repeated itself across the Arab world, as dispossessed Jews fled discrimination, abuse, riots and executions. Of a million Jews, only 4,000 remain.

You complain that there are Jews who deny the Arab Nakba. But plenty of Arabs and their supporters deny that Jews were ever refugees—let alone suffered a monumental injustice. They claim that Jews left the Arab world "of their own free will." Or they blame the Zionists—although a third of us resettled in the West. 

If you are tempted to blame the Jewish exodus on Israel’s creation, let me assure you that Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism did not begin in 1948: If you then ask, what has the injustice against the Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries got to do with you Palestinians? The answer is: everything.

This Nakba Day happened to coincide with the 72nd anniversary of the Farhud against the Jews of Baghdad. The rape, mutilation and murder of hundreds of Jews was directly incited by the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem and 400 Palestinian teachers exiled to Iraq between 1939 and 1941. Seven years later, your leadership dragged five Arab states into a failed war to destroy Israel.

Israel is full of people who fled, not the German Nazis, but the Arabs: 52 percent of Israeli Jews descend from refugees from Muslim and Arab lands. Your husband's village—now renamed Musreya—was repopulated by Yemenite and Moroccan Jews.

Palestinians are not "red indians" and Israelis are not colonialists. Quite the opposite. We Jews of the Middle East and North Africa are indigenous—predating Islam in Palestine, and the region, by 1,000 years. Israel is not only the "largest and most successful refugee camp" in the region, but the authentic expression of a native Middle Eastern people.

Both sets of refugees suffered, with one glaring difference: the Arab refugees—and those 10,000 Jews chased out of Jerusalem and "the West Bank" by the Jordanian Arab Legion—fled the horrors of war. But the Jews living in Arab countries were non-combatants, targeted as members of the "Jewish minority of Palestine."

The Arab states continued to persecute Jews who stayed behind until the '60s and '70s, as a Canadian Parliamentary committee heard this month. The million Arabs who, as you put it, "held strong" and became Israelis—never suffered "ethnic cleansing" of this kind.

But let’s not get into a suffering contest. Let's see how we can best resolve the conflict between us and achieve peace.

Recognize that there were two Nakbas—one Jewish, one Arab. Stop clinging to that retrogressive yearning for
"home." Will you correct the injustice done to you by committing another injustice—forcing the Jews who overcame great hardship to rebuild their lives in Musreya to return "home" to hostile Arab lands? They neither wish to return, nor are they able to.

Some 600,000 Jewish refugees—about the same number as the fleeing Palestinian refugees—were resettled in Israel. Let’s agree that an irrevocable exchange of populations occurred.

Palestinian refugees should be absorbed in the state of Palestine, or campaign for full civil rights in the Arab host countries where most were born. Both Arab and Jewish refugees ought to be able to claim compensation for lost assets from an international fund.

So throw away that rusty key, Maysoon. This obsession with the past is unhealthy. Get over it. We Jewish refugees did.