Today, Israel is seen as a colonialist entity in parts of the world, as a European transplant in the heart of the Middle East which sought, and continues to seek, to uproot the indigenous Arabs from their ancestral homes. Of course, there is much that is wrong historically, factually and morally with this view, whether it stems from ignorance, malice or a mixture of the two.
However, the greatest antidote to these falsities is the history and subsequent expulsion of the ancient Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa, the descendants of which make up around half of the Jewish population of Israel. In the middle part of the past century there were almost a million Jews living across the region, whereas today that number is no more than a few thousand.
While the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people, for thousands of years Jews developed their unique and indigenous civilization around the Middle East. Jews and Jewish communities have existed in the Middle East, North Africa, Babylon, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region for more than 2,500 years. Before the advent of Islam, the Arab conquest and occupation of the region, Jews even held sovereignty in parts of the Middle East, including Israel.
During the centuries after the Islamic conquest, the region became forcibly “Arabized,” becoming known as the “Arab World,” and the original non-Arab peoples became minorities in their own lands. Under Islamic rule, Jews were considered dhimmis, second-class citizens, forced to pay special taxes and wear distinctive signs and articles of clothing and suffering other discriminatory decrees and legislation. The position of the Jews was frequently precarious.
Over the centuries, there were numerous massacres and ethnic cleansings of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, like the many Jewish communities in the Arabian peninsula which were wiped out in the 7th century. In Morocco, Libya and Algeria Jews were forced to live in ghettos or mellahs. On other occasions, as in places like Yemen and Iraq, Jews were given the choice of converting to Islam or facing death.
False accusations and blood libels frequently led to massive riots in Jewish areas leaving many dead, expelled and degraded. In the 1930s and 1940s there were Nazi-inspired massacres of Jews in Libya and Algeria, and most infamously in Baghdad, known as the Farhud.
Following the United Nations Partition Plan, which recommended the creation of a Jewish state in Israel, the Political Committee of the Arab League (League of Arab States) drafted a law that was to govern the legal status of Jewish residents in all Arab League countries. This law, instituted across the Arab world, demanded that Jews be seen as enemies and their assets frozen or confiscated and their citizenship stripped. Jews were frequently imprisoned or worse.
These and other state-sanctioned repressive measures, coupled often with violence, precipitated a mass displacement and expulsion of Jews, who were forced to leave without their assets and property, and caused the Jewish refugee problem in the Middle East. This problem was exacerbated by a continuing expulsion and exodus of Jews en masse from Arab countries until the 1970s.
The personal and communal assets left behind were substantial, far greater than those lost by Arabs who fled during Israel’s battle for independence.
Sadly, almost none of this is known, in Israel or around the world.
With this in mind, earlier in the year I passed a long overdue law that instituted November 30 as a day in Israel of national commemoration for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. On this day, there will be special Knesset sessions devoted to the issue; the Education Ministry is enjoined to teach students about the history and expulsion of their ancestors and the Foreign Ministry will instruct its representatives around the world to commemorate the occasion appropriately.
With our partners around the world, organizations like Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJA C) and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA ), based in the US, Harif in the UK and Organization of Jews of Libya & Sant Egidio in Italy, we are arranging a host of events around the world, including in Washington, DC, New York, Montreal, Sydney, Singapore, Paris, London and Rome, and a commemorative event at the United Nations.
However, there is still much work to do. Most Jews do not know this history and it is seldom taught in Jewish schools, synagogues or institutions around the world.
If we are to rectify this historic injustice we must first learn about it. Over the next year, a traveling exhibition created by the Foreign Ministry will be sent to Israeli embassies and consulates around the world with the intention of informing other countries around the world about this neglected subject.
It is vitally important that Jewish communities participate in these events so that ignorance will no longer be an excuse. The Jewish refugees issue was recognized in the past by United Nations officials, in peace agreements and most importantly, under international law.
It is time that we placed the story of and ultimate redress for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries back on the Jewish communal and international agenda.
We can start on November 30.The writer is a Knesset member for Yisrael Beytenu and chairman of the Knesset Caucus for the Rights of Jews from Arab Countries.