Last month, Ottawa once again took the international lead in raising an issue
important to Israel and Middle East peace. The Harper government initiated
hearings in the Canadian Parliament on the matter of Jewish refugees from Arab
The hearings are part of a new push by Jewish groups
(including Canada’s Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which I represent in
Israel, and the World Jewish Congress) to highlight the plight of the Jewish
refugees in the context of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The issue is
important because it highlights the justice of Israel as the legitimate
expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people.
Shimon Koffler Fogel,
CEO of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, told the House of Commons
Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development that Canada
should officially recognize the persecution and displacement of more than
850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
“Much of the
Arab-Israeli peace process is about validation, of the legitimacy of Israel as a
Jewish state and the recognition of the Palestinians as a people,” he said.
“Redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries is another example of this, and
needs to be included for true and lasting peace to be achieved.”
noted: “Achieving peace in the Middle East is not a zero-sum game. The rights
and claims of one group need not come at the expense of or displace those of the
other. And thus, the purpose of incorporating the historic claims of Jewish
refugees from Arab countries is not to diminish or compete with the claims of
Palestinian refugees. The inclusion of the issue of Jewish refugees is meant to
complete, not revise, the historical record.”
As gavel-holder of the
multilateral refugee working group (a moribund product of the 1991 Madrid Peace
Conference), Canada is uniquely placed to raise the profile of the Jewish
refugee issue and to ensure that it is given the fair consideration it
The initiative in Canada needs to be repeated everywhere. In
fact, there is a bill pending introduction in the US Congress which will require
the State Department to report annually on what it has done to advance the
Jewish refugee issue.
Why is this issue so important? Because it
establishes that Israel is not a “foreign implant” in the Middle East; that
Israel is not a mere by-product of the Nazi Holocaust and of European war
Rather, some 50 percent of the Jewish citizenry of today’s Israel
descends from Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Jews who lived in Middle East
communities that stretch back up to 3,000 years.
As such, modern Israel
is the legitimate expression of the self-determination of an oppressed,
indigenous, Middle Eastern people. Israel is the nation-state of Jews from Arab
countries with a long history in the Middle East; of Middle East Jews who were
ethnically cleansed from Arab countries in the 20th century, both prior to and
mostly after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
levels the playing field in international debate over the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. It makes it clear that Israel deserves and demands justice just as
much as the Palestinians do, if not more so.
Note this as well: The
differences in the two refugee experiences could not be starker. Unlike
Palestinian refugees who fled war, Jewish refugees fled systematic persecution.
Unlike Palestinian refugees who for seven decades cynically have been kept in
deprivation and isolation by their Arab brothers, Jewish refugees have been
welcomed and were successfully absorbed by their brethren (mainly in Israel, but
also in Diaspora Jewish communities).
Unlike Palestinian refugees, the
narrative of Jewish refugees has all but been ignored.
displaced from Arab countries were indeed bone fide refugees, under
international law, is beyond question. This was recognized by the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees in 1957 and 1967. An international committee of
legal experts, co-chaired by Prof. Irwin Cotler and David Matas, produced an
unassailable report (www.justiceforjews.com/jjac.pdf) which documents strong
political and legal arguments for the legitimate rights of Jews displaced from
And Stanley A. Urman, executive director of Justice For
Jews From Arab Countries, wrote a PhD thesis
(www.justiceforjews.com/stan_phd.pdf) documenting the UN’s differential
treatment of Arab and Jewish Middle East refugees.
There is no reason for
any person involved in Middle Eastern affairs to be unaware of this important
issue, and no excuse for the fact that to date, few pro-Israel activists have
made this an important part of their advocacy. (Judy Feld Carr, the heroine who
almost single-handedly smuggled Syrian Jewry out Syria, is a laudable exception.
In the ’70s and ’80s she ran a Canadian Jewish Congress effort on this matter,
and was a founding member of the now-defunct World Organization of Jews from
Arab Countries.) It’s high time for us all to get educated. There is an
excellent educational unit produced by Justice For Jews From Arab Countries
available to teach students about the history, heritage and subsequent plight
and flight of Jews from Arab countries.
There are good resources online
also from Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), and a
weblog, Point of No Return.
Key books on the topic are Forgotten
Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands, by Malka Hillel Shulewitz
(Bloomsbury Academic), The Case of the Jews From Arab Countries: A Neglected
Issue, by Maurice M. Roumani (WOJAC), In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in
Muslim Lands, by Martin Gilbert (Yale), The Jews of Islam, by Bernard Lewis
(Princeton), and two JPS books by Norman A. Stillman: Jews of Arab Lands: A
History and Source Book and The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times.
State of Israel has been slow to recognize the importance of this issue. Only
last fall, Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon, launched the “I
am a Refugee” campaign in a bid to create parity between the struggle of Jewish
and Palestinian refugees. The Senior Citizens Ministry is running a radio
campaign to collect testimonies and claims from Arab-born Jews. Likud Beytenu MK
Shimon Ohayon has introduced a bill in the Knesset to fix November 30 as the
Memorial Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries. And only last week, Sir
Martin Gilbert’s book In Ishmael’s House was released in Israel in Hebrew
It’s important to note that this initiative is not about
money, nor about launching legal proceedings to seek compensation. It is about
rights and recognition – that Jews were victimized and became refugees; and
about equality – that the international community must recognize equal rights
for all Middle East refugees.
As Prof. Cotler says: “In the absence of
truth and justice, there can be no reconciliation. And without reconciliation,
there can be no just, lasting peace between all peoples of the region.”