If you have been following the work of my organization, Harif, (representing
Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK) you will know that
campaigning for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries has, until last month, been
an uphill struggle.
However, the issue has moved to the mainstream since
the “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” conference last month in
Jerusalem and the meeting at the UN building in New York telling their untold
story and featuring leading advocates Alan Dershowitz and Irwin
Some 64 years after the creation of the State of Israel in what
is often referred to as the forgotten exodus, 850,000 Jews were forced to leave
Arab countries as refugees, leaving their property behind. Over 600,000 went to
Israel, and until the Russia aliya of the 1990s the largest communities in
Israel were Moroccan and Iraqi. The rest went mostly to France, Canada, the
Americas, Australia and the UK.
Today just over half of the Israeli
population is made up of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. The big question
everyone is asking is why is recognition and redress being discussed now? Why
didn’t previous Israeli governments bring the issue to the UN years ago? In
Israel the issue is hardly known. Many of the older generation who have
traumatic memories of witnessing murders, torture and fleeing or being expelled
from with only a suitcase from Arab countries have found the experiences too
painful to retell to their children and grandchildren.
Other reasons why
the Israeli government did not tell the Jewish refugee story were the
eurocentricism of the Israeli establishment, the desire to integrate the
refugees as immigrants returning to their ancestral homeland, and the belief,
especially on the Left during the Oslo years, that the Jewish refugees were a
“stumbling block” to peace.
The issue of refugee rights is now a hot
topic with the national and international media. Arab spokesmen and media have
been thrown onto the back foot. Hardly a day goes by without an opinion piece in
Haaretz, criticizing or extolling the Israeli government’s diplomatic
Israel’s stance on Jewish refugees only changed since the
Yisrael Beytenu party joined the coalition government in 2009 on a platform of
Building on a US Congressional resolution
demanding parity for Jewish and Palestinian refugees in 2008 and a 2010 Knesset
law making compensation for Jewish refugees a condition of a peace settlement,
the initiative to make Jewish refugees a policy issue came from Deputy Foreign
Minister Danny Ayalon, the son of an Algerian refugee father.
In 2010 he
penned an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post headlined “I Am A Refugee.” That was
followed with international op-eds and an information video, “The Truth about
Refugees,” that has already had over a million views. Danny Ayalon was the
driving force behind last month’s conference and UN meeting.
At the same
time, the Foreign Ministry launched a Facebook page called “I am a refugee”: any
refugee could upload his or her story online, giving the lie to allegations that
Jews left Arab countries of their own free will.
Describing the Jerusalem
conference as “historic,” Danny Ayalon said: “we will work on achieving justice
for Jewish refugees, who were expelled and tortured, and whose rights were taken
away.” The conference produced a declaration pledging the Israeli government to
include the history of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the school
curriculum, to build a museum commemorating their rich heritage, and to add a
memorial day to the calendar.
In Israel, the lack of elementary
knowledge, along with many of the older generation withholding their stories,
has led to naive young Israelis ignoring their own rights, while peddling the
“narrative” of Israel’s enemies.
The work is not over, it is only just
beginning. And we are waiting to announce the date for a Jewish Refugee day to
be inserted into the Jewish calendar. The real challenge is to produce an
education program not only for Israeli schools, but also to teach Jews in the
Diaspora the history of the Jews from Arab countries.
JJAC, Harif and JIMENA will continue to work alongside the Foreign Ministry to
instigate education programs in the UK and America.
We have Danny Ayalon
and the current government to thank for putting this issue firmly on the
international agenda. The forgotten refugees are forgotten no more.
author is creative director of Harif.