By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director
Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries has at long last become official Israeli government policy. It has taken more than sixty years, but here at Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, we are celebrating this momentous event.
No amount of grassroots campaigning could work without the official support of the Israeli government. And this week, that support came.
On Tuesday, the deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon held a conference in Jerusalem to launch his ministry''s report and recommendations for highlighting the issue of 870,000 Jewish refugees driven out of Arab countries. See full document.
Israel''s Jewish population is made up of 52% Sephardim/Mizrahim who were forced to leave their homes and possessions in Muslim lands. Not not only have they never received compensation, but their plight has never been internationally recognised.
Hitherto, the Israeli government has been hesitant to raise the Jewish refugee issue, for fear that the Arabs would raise the Palestinian refugee issue. But the Arabs have never ceased raising the Palestinian refugee issue while the Israeli government has been silent.
"I would call this conference Yemoth Ha-Mashiah (The Days of the Messiah Coming)," Levana Zamir, president of the Jews from Egypt in Israel, told me after attending the conference. At this very emotional event, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced a new state policy regarding Jews who were forced to flee from their homes in Arab countries.
“We have to correct a historic injustice. But, in a very pragmatic way," Ayalon told the audience. "We believe that settling the refugee problems on both sides —the Arab and the Jewish side — is the only way to really bring about a durable, comprehensive and lasting peace. Peace that will be built on truth and justice for all.”
Levana Zamir with Danny Ayalon, Meir Kahalon (Head of Lybian Jews), and David Nawi (Iraq). (Photo courtesy Levana)
Ayalon said that the issue of Jewish refugees should be raised in the framework of every peace negotiation, in keeping with a law the Knesset passed in 2010. The Prime Minister''s Office “will consolidate the issue [of Jewish refugees] into any future negotiations,” the document stated.
The deputy foreign minister broke new ground by publiclly laying responsibility for the creation of both the Arab and the Jewish refugees at the door of the Arab League. See speech here.
Ayalon recommended the creation of an “international fund” for the compensation of Jewish and Arab refugees and the absorption and rehabilitation of Arab refugees. Contributing countries might include Israel, Jordan and “perhaps Lebanon if it is willing to rehabilitate the descendants of Palestinian refugees in its territory.”
The basis for compensation will be the “value of the assets of the refugees at the time."
During the conference Levana told the story about how her family fled Egypt in 1950. Their troubles worsened on May 14th 1948 when the State of Israel was declared. Her uncle, along with hundreds of other Egyptian Jews was arrested that same night. The next day, May 15, her father found his printing business employing 60 people, confiscated by the Egyptian authorities.
The pretext given was that Habib Vidal was a Zionist, an enemy of the country, and that the Egyptian government was confiscating any properties belonging to Egypt''s enemies. Bank accounts were seized. Three Vidal families - 24 people - found themselves with no livelihood. Some 2,000 other Jewish families found themselves in the same situation.
Levana said: "I realised that nothing would be the same again". Jewish people, including Levana''s 17-year-old brother, were beaten in the streets, sometimes to death, under the eyes of Egyptian policemen. It was only 16 months later, when Levana''s uncle Habib was released from prison, that the rest of the Vidal clan left with him for France, taking only one suitcase for each. You can read her full story here.
After her father Victor Vidal died in 1984, Levana found addressed to her a letter detailing his claims for what he had lost. Levana broke down in tears at the conference as she recounted: "He was telling me to continue to ask for compensation. I have been working on that ever since. Nearly a million Jews were expelled and only 600,000 Palestinians. They can''t go back. Now, the State of Israel, after 64 years, is finally working on arousing international public opinion to get the compensation for us."
Levana reminded Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that this was not the first time the Foreign Ministry was dealing with compensation for the Jews from Arab Countries. "I remember when during the Seventies, I used to accompany my father to the Foreign Ministry, where he submitted hundreds and thousands of claims forms, filled by Egyptians Jews, to the man in charge, Mr. Zian Divon.
The Ministry of Justice was responsible for storing the claims of course, but the Foreign Ministry was also then involved." Ayalon was surprised to hear of this”, Levana said, “but my father left for me many files in his drawer before he died which I will be showing to him."
In view of the scandal that the doorman of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria was now running Jewish community affairs, Levana urged Danny Ayalon to call upon the United Nations to ensure that custody and ownership over the Jewish heritage sites and holy places in Egypt and in other Arab countries was retained by Jews and restored to them.
Seventy members from the Associations of Jews from Arab countries were at the conference. They believed that this time the Israeli Government was sincere. "Besides Levana Zamir, Zvi Gabay representing Jews from Iraq and Meir Kahlon of the World Association of Jews from Libya spoke. “They were talking from their guts and from their true aching heart,” says Levana. “They felt sorry not for themselves, but for their parents who suffered so much when their whole world fell apart overnight. They wanted justice for them and in their memory."
As Jewish families the world over recount the Exodus from Egypt this week, the injustice of the modern-day exodus of nearly one million other Jews from Arab lands, may finally be acknowledged.
Michelle Huberman can be contacted at email@example.com