A few days ago, the UN heard Israel make a case that had never been before the
world body. Just as several hundred thousand Palestinians are recognized as
refugees who were displaced in the course of Israel’s creation, Israeli
officials say, so should the UN recognize the approximately 850,000 Jews from
Arab countries who came to Israel during and after the War of Independence and
the Six Day War.
Convening the first-ever conference on the issue at the
UN, the campaign to gain refugee status for Jews from Arabs lands – spearheaded
by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon – is grabbing headlines and generating
But some of the most impassioned arguments are coming from the
would-be refugees and their descendants who dismiss Ayalon’s move as political
maneuvering at best, and at worst, a wholesale appropriation of the
A group called the Committee of Baghdadi Jews in Ramat Gan said on
Facebook last week that it is wrong to expect Jewish losses in Iraq be used to
“offset” the losses Palestinians suffered in 1948 and 1967.
“If in future
negotiations Israel will convince the Palestinians to offset claims of property
between Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees from the Arab world (and if
this is not only an excuse to postpone negotiations), we expose the fallacy of
this trade,” the group stated.
In an interview over Facebook, the group’s
leader said that its members wanted to remain anonymous for the time being,
because many of them teach in the Ramat Gan school system and municipality, and
are concerned about their jobs in light of their criticism.
refugees from Iraq, but we know that the government wants just to use this
against the Palestinian refugees, without trying to give us and the Palestinian
refugees compensation for our lost property,” the group’s moderator
Poet and young literary icon Almog Behar, who is of Iraqi descent,
said he helped translate the group’s statements into English and
“My opinion is not far from that of the committee, and that’s why
I helped them in passing the word on and in translations,” he said. “They plan
to open the group in the future after they have a public meeting... it’s a
About 125,000 Jews left Iraq for Israel in the late 1940s and
came in huge numbers until 1952; the community had dwindled to the double-digits
by the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is a great, unsolved
debate over the subject of whether some of the anti-Jewish violence that spurred
the exodus may have been perpetrated by fellow Jews dedicated to the ultimate
Zionist cause of encouraging aliya to Israel.
Among the aging generation
who left in those years are the parents of Prof. Yossi Yonah, who specializes in
education at Ben-Gurion University. Yonah said his mother, now 90, sometimes
talked of the buildings and land they left behind. Her father had been a wealthy
merchant in the city of Ramadi, and their home was a center of Jewish activity
in the community.
Despite that, he said, there was never an expectation
that they would be compensated.
“I don’t remember anyone in the family
harboring any hope ever that they’ll want to reclaim what they left. It’s not
part of the family heritage that we’re waiting to regain what we left behind in
Iraq, and it’s not that we didn’t have a lot of assets,” Yonah told The
. “The best asset I can get is that we’d have peace with Iraq.
That’s all I’d like from Iraq, a peace agreement, and maybe to be able to go
there some day.”
Part of what bothers Jews from Iraq and many other Arab
countries, he said, is the concept that if there were some form of compensation,
it would be “nationalized” – done on behalf of all Jews who left a given Arab
country before 1968. He compares this to the individual assets of Holocaust
survivors from Europe.
“If at all, a lot of people would like their
losses to be individually addressed,” he added.
Yonah thinks that raising
the issue now and making it a campaign of the Foreign Ministry is primarily to
use it as a platform against Palestinian claims, in the absence of peace
“Sixty years have passed, all of us have settled down,” he said.
“I think it’s a government ploy to play propaganda chips with the Palestinians
in the international arena.”
Jean-Marc Liling, a lawyer who worked for
the Justice Ministry’s Department for the Rights of Jews from Arabs Lands from
2002 to 2005, said the issue is far more complex than it’s been
“Every country is different, but what I think is clear is that
in countries such Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and in Aden [Yemen] as well, there were
clear acts of violence against Jews and also legislation aimed at making them
leave. At that time, if they had applied for refugee status, they would have
received it, no doubt,” he said.
Trying to lump all the countries
together, however, indicates that it is being fashioned as a stance about who
has a better claim.
“If you’re just going to use it as an argument
against the Palestinians, then you’re making instrumental use of this really
painful issue,” Liling added.
Since the initiative was launched earlier
this month, it has attracted criticism from many corners on the question of
whether it contradicts the Israeli narrative. Hanan Ashrawi, a former
spokesperson for the Palestinian negotiating team, wrote on The Huffington Post
website that “Zionist ideology contradicts the notion that these Israeli Jews
are refugees” and said that Israel’s new strategy was manipulative, cynical and
Ayalon, in a telephone interview during his trip to New
York to speak on the issue at the UN, told the Post
that there is no
contradiction between Jews from Arab countries being refugees who also choose to
immigrate to Israel.
“There no dissonance about the fact that Jews from
Arab countries left as refugees, whether as expulsion or because of the farhud,”
Ayalon said, using the name for the anti-Jewish riots in Baghdad in 1941. “The
fact that they’re not refugees anymore, because they were not received as
refugees per se because of the Zionist ethos, that does not change the demand
Their citizenship was taken away, their bank accounts were
frozen, they couldn’t take a penny. We have all of those testimonies.”
the criticism within Israel, including from immigrants who came from Arab
countries, he said: “I find it is really not only not useful, but very
Ayalon said the fact that the campaign was launched only now
was a mistake on Israel’s part.
“Why now? Because now someone was willing
to take the challenge and lead the cause. I cannot say why successive Israeli
governments did not give attention to this issue. But it’s not too late
to right a wrong.”