By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director
Danny Ayalon holding Harif mezuzzah to highlight stolen Jewish Properties in Arab lands Photo: Harif
If you have been following the work of my organisation 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 Cotler.
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 aliyah of the 1990''s 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 on to the back foot. Hardly a day goes by without an opinion piece in Haaretz, criticising or extolling the Israeli government’s diplomatic initiative.
Israel’s stance on Jewish refugees only changed since the Yisrael Beytenu party joined the coalition government in 2009 on a platform of rights-based diplomacy. 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’. Danny Ayalon was the driving force behind last month’s conference and UN meeting.
At the same time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 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 to Jewish refugees, who were expelled and tortured, and their 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 programme not only for Israeli schools, but also to teach Jews in the Diaspora the history of the Jews from Arab countries.
Organisations like JJAC, Harif and JIMENA will continue to work alongside the Israeli Foreign Ministry to instigate education programmes 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.
Michelle Huberman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 17/10/2012