A day of commemoration for refugees

The resolution began with the partition plan and ended with the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands, including Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

December 5, 2016 21:05
4 minute read.
Jewish refugees

A PHOTO of displaced Iraqi Jews in 1951. The government hopes to give a voice to the story of the millions of Jewish refugees. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In international politics, it is often clear how to correlate cause and effect. Less clear is how to predict and identify the consequences for innocent people.

It was on November 29, 1947, that Resolution 181 was presented at the United Nations for a two-state solution. A Jewish state and a Palestinian state for 600,000 Palestinians. The resolution began with the partition plan and ended with the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands, including Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

The Jews from these countries were significant contributors to their countries of origin. Many were indigenous. My own country of origin, Iraq, had a Jewish community that dated to Mesopotamia and the destruction of the First Temple 2,600 years ago. At the time the partition plan was suggested there were 140,000 Jews living in Iraq. Today, there are four.

Opposition to the resolution from the Arab countries presaged revenge against Jews by these countries. In 1963, I was born into the consequences. Jews from Arab countries such as Iraq were the most obvious scapegoats. Whereas Eastern European Jews were flooding to the State of Israel (because the Jewish League accepted the plan), the Jews from Arab lands were being ethnically cleansed and divested of their wealth.

It became clear that rejection of the UN partition plan meant our eventual expulsion, preceded by sanctions that made it impossible to live freely, travel freely, attend university, or, in the case of Jewish men, even keep their jobs. The Jews of Arab countries had no means to make an international appeal for what was theirs.

Yes, “theirs,” for it was land their ancestors had tilled and toiled over for 2,600 years.

Both my parents are from Iraq, and, as far as I know, we go back to the destruction of the Temple, when Jeremiah instructed the people to build and be prosperous in that land between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. If each Arab Jew expelled had taken with him only one square foot of the land that belonged to him, I wonder if we would not have would up with a territory much larger than the State of Israel today.

Between 1948 and 1951, the Jews of my native Iraq were not welcome anymore in their own country. They had to denounce their citizenship and all of their assets to leave, holding on to only their most precious asset: life.

It was not until 2014 that November 30 became a day of “awareness” of all of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. I often wonder what took so long. Why did the world never validate us before then? Why didn’t the United Nations, at least? Was it that, by comparison, losing your home and your national authenticity are negligible when compared to the atrocities of the Holocaust? Can you even compare? Are they truly separate? The answer to both questions is no.

You cannot compare a genocide to anything.

But the situation after 1948 was a kind of psychological genocide. And the Holocaust and the forced expulsion of Jews from their native lands are not discrete events, because they were both part of a mentality and chain reaction that spread throughout the world, infecting it.

Or was it that the Jews now had their own state – even if plenty of countries rejected the resolution – and therefore no longer deserved empathy from the rest of the world? In fact, many Jewish refugees from the Arab countries did not settle in Israel, but instead, like the refugees of today, left their homes with nothing but one suitcase to wander and settle in foreign lands.

We all need a safe haven, a home for future generations and a place in which we can forge our lives freely and with reasonable predictability. Every person on earth is entitled to this. When a refugee leaves his country, whether because of war or religious persecution or both, it takes many years for the physical and mental dust to settle, for the day to arrive when awareness and clarity and a sense of belonging and peace prevail. In my case, it took 40 years.

According to the Bible, that is how long the Jews wandered the desert before they were ready to enter the land of Israel. Forty years: that is how long it took me to arrive in the land of realization and acceptance that this was a permanent part of my identity, being a refugee.

Perhaps we can speed up those 40 years by establishing an international Refugee Day. A day designed to expedite awareness of and assistance to our refugee friends and to foment acceptance. Such a day may even impart implicit lessons on the consequences of tyranny. We needn’t wait 66 years to acknowledge the unfortunate consequences of an international policy. Perhaps the UN will dedicate a (small) plaque in our honor, the 850,000 refugees who began as Jews from Arab lands. And better yet, perhaps it will also inaugurate an annual occasion for remembering, respecting and helping the many other people worldwide who have been displaced against their wishes, who have nowhere to call home.

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