Danny Ayalon listens to Gina Waldman tell her story of escaping Libya. Photo by: R. Goldwasser
Hallelujah. He said it.
Last week, as I watched Bibi sitting in the White House with President Obama, I raised a cheer when he mentioned Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries. At long last the subject has been mentioned in front of prime time TV viewers around the world.
I am amazed at the wide scale ignorance on Jewish refugees from Arab Lands. When Obama gave his famous speech in Cairo in 2009 he made no reference to the 75,000 Jews that were ethnically cleansed from Egypt in the past 63 years. Today only a handful of elderly Jews remain. Or American-Lebanese journalist Helen Thomas believing Jews come from Germany and Poland. In Lebanon there were 10,000 Jews before 1948 and today Beirut has only 40 left. All in their eighties. Why do so few people know these facts?
Well now, whilst our Mizrachi/Sephardi witnesses to the expulsions across the Middle East and North Africa are still alive, it has to be instilled into our Jewish narrative and remembered as much as the Exodus from Egypt and the Holocaust. It is our duty to broadcast these facts to a blinkered world. We have to repeat over and over again that Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees whilst Arab countries did not absorb their Muslim brethren.
As Netanyahu said: “The Arab attack in 1948 on Israel resulted in two refugee problems – Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees, roughly the same number, who were expelled from Arab lands. Now, tiny Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees, but the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees. Now, 63 years later, the Palestinians come to us and they say to Israel, accept the grandchildren, really, and the great grandchildren of these refugees, thereby wiping out Israel''s future as a Jewish state.”
It’s not the first time that as Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu mentioned Jewish refugees – he did so in his Bar Ilan speech but this time, the mention of Jewish refugees was explicit and most importantly, Netanyahu said it in front of Obama himself, confronting his ignorance on Jewish refugees from Arab Lands.
But why stop there? Bibi should be pressing Obama and EU leaders to put pressure on the neighboring Arab states to give citizenship to the Palestinian refugees huddled in squalid camps on their borders. Without citizenship they are not permitted to work in their host countries and are dependent on donations. They should have dignity with their Muslim brothers and compensation should be used to create wealth and jobs, rather than just handouts.
And the Jews who lost their wealth in the Arab countries must be remunerated too. In February 2010, the Knesset passed a law to ensure that Israel would sign no peace treaty which did not take account of Jewish refugee rights - notably compensation. Ever since he became Deputy Foreign Minister in the current cabinet, Danny Ayalon, himself the son of an Algerian refugee, has been spearheading a robust campaign to raise public awareness of Jewish refugees.
Netanyahu‘s words also mark a departure from the mealy-mouthed statements of the past. As foreign minister in 2007, Tzipi Livni made a fleeting and confused reference of Jewish refugees at the Annapolis conference by conflating them with Jewish refugees from Europe. She did not stress that those Jews from Arab countries had been resettled by Israel, only that they "longed for Israel." At the time this was at least an improvement on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He did not mention Jewish refugees at all, but empathized with ''Palestinian suffering'' mumbling that he was sorry for both Jewish and Palestinian refugees.
Thankfully, we now seem to have made headway since the euphoric days of the Oslo accords, when Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin closed down a department headed by the late Professor Yaakov Meron dealing with Jewish refugees'' property rights.
On the 23rd of May, Jimena organized a press briefing on Jewish refugees. Gina Waldman introduced a short 18 min video of the film ''The Forgotten Refugees'' after which she described her own personal story of growing up in Libya and in 1967 after the 6 day war being forced to leave the country, barely escaping attempts to kill her and her family on their way to the airport. Ralph Goldwasser, the producer of the film was at the conference and reported how Gina talked about the lack of recognition and acknowledgement by Arab countries of their ethnic cleansing of Jewish communities. She also pointed out that as a Jewish refugee from the Middle East conflict she did not receive any support from the UN after she was dispossessed from Libya unlike the billions in payment the Palestinians refugees received from the UN.Deputy FM Danny Ayalon spoke at the event and said the Arab side needed to recognize the humanitarian aspect of the plight of the Jewish refugees as well as the political one. He pointed out that although the 20th century saw tens of millions of refugees almost all have been permitted to be resettled - except for the Arab countries refusing to let the Palestinians resettle and resume their lives - Jordan being the only exception. He also pointed out that the issue of Jewish refugees was noted in resolution 242 (it spoke of refugees not just Arab refugees) and the Israeli government had brought the issue up in private meetings with Arab leaders. This issue has to be addressed by the Arab countries as not all Palestinian will be returning to a newly formed Palestinian state - whenever the two state solution is implemented.
But the main question that journalists asked was: Why did it take so long for the Israeli government to break its silence?