Some Iraqi Jews skeptical of gov't refugee appeal

In wake of UN conference, Committee of Baghdadi Jews say it is wrong to expect Jewish losses to "offset" Palestinian claims.

Deputy FM Danny Ayalon at Jewish refugee event 370 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram / GPO)
Deputy FM Danny Ayalon at Jewish refugee event 370
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram / GPO)
A few days ago, the UN heard Israel make a case that had never been before the world body. Just as several hundred thousand Palestinians are recognized as refugees who were displaced in the course of Israel’s creation, Israeli officials say, so should the UN recognize the approximately 850,000 Jews from Arab countries who came to Israel during and after the War of Independence and the Six Day War.
Convening the first-ever conference on the issue at the UN, the campaign to gain refugee status for Jews from Arabs lands – spearheaded by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon – is grabbing headlines and generating debate.
But some of the most impassioned arguments are coming from the would-be refugees and their descendants who dismiss Ayalon’s move as political maneuvering at best, and at worst, a wholesale appropriation of the truth.
A group called the Committee of Baghdadi Jews in Ramat Gan said on Facebook last week that it is wrong to expect Jewish losses in Iraq be used to “offset” the losses Palestinians suffered in 1948 and 1967.
“If in future negotiations Israel will convince the Palestinians to offset claims of property between Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees from the Arab world (and if this is not only an excuse to postpone negotiations), we expose the fallacy of this trade,” the group stated.
In an interview over Facebook, the group’s leader said that its members wanted to remain anonymous for the time being, because many of them teach in the Ramat Gan school system and municipality, and are concerned about their jobs in light of their criticism.
“We are refugees from Iraq, but we know that the government wants just to use this against the Palestinian refugees, without trying to give us and the Palestinian refugees compensation for our lost property,” the group’s moderator said.
Poet and young literary icon Almog Behar, who is of Iraqi descent, said he helped translate the group’s statements into English and Arabic.
“My opinion is not far from that of the committee, and that’s why I helped them in passing the word on and in translations,” he said. “They plan to open the group in the future after they have a public meeting... it’s a process.”
About 125,000 Jews left Iraq for Israel in the late 1940s and came in huge numbers until 1952; the community had dwindled to the double-digits by the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is a great, unsolved debate over the subject of whether some of the anti-Jewish violence that spurred the exodus may have been perpetrated by fellow Jews dedicated to the ultimate Zionist cause of encouraging aliya to Israel.
Among the aging generation who left in those years are the parents of Prof. Yossi Yonah, who specializes in education at Ben-Gurion University. Yonah said his mother, now 90, sometimes talked of the buildings and land they left behind. Her father had been a wealthy merchant in the city of Ramadi, and their home was a center of Jewish activity in the community.
Despite that, he said, there was never an expectation that they would be compensated.
“I don’t remember anyone in the family harboring any hope ever that they’ll want to reclaim what they left. It’s not part of the family heritage that we’re waiting to regain what we left behind in Iraq, and it’s not that we didn’t have a lot of assets,” Yonah told The Jerusalem Post. “The best asset I can get is that we’d have peace with Iraq. That’s all I’d like from Iraq, a peace agreement, and maybe to be able to go there some day.”
Part of what bothers Jews from Iraq and many other Arab countries, he said, is the concept that if there were some form of compensation, it would be “nationalized” – done on behalf of all Jews who left a given Arab country before 1968. He compares this to the individual assets of Holocaust survivors from Europe.
“If at all, a lot of people would like their losses to be individually addressed,” he added.
Yonah thinks that raising the issue now and making it a campaign of the Foreign Ministry is primarily to use it as a platform against Palestinian claims, in the absence of peace talks.
“Sixty years have passed, all of us have settled down,” he said. “I think it’s a government ploy to play propaganda chips with the Palestinians in the international arena.”
Jean-Marc Liling, a lawyer who worked for the Justice Ministry’s Department for the Rights of Jews from Arabs Lands from 2002 to 2005, said the issue is far more complex than it’s been portrayed.
“Every country is different, but what I think is clear is that in countries such Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and in Aden [Yemen] as well, there were clear acts of violence against Jews and also legislation aimed at making them leave. At that time, if they had applied for refugee status, they would have received it, no doubt,” he said.
Trying to lump all the countries together, however, indicates that it is being fashioned as a stance about who has a better claim.
“If you’re just going to use it as an argument against the Palestinians, then you’re making instrumental use of this really painful issue,” Liling added.
Since the initiative was launched earlier this month, it has attracted criticism from many corners on the question of whether it contradicts the Israeli narrative. Hanan Ashrawi, a former spokesperson for the Palestinian negotiating team, wrote on The Huffington Post website that “Zionist ideology contradicts the notion that these Israeli Jews are refugees” and said that Israel’s new strategy was manipulative, cynical and hypocritical.
Ayalon, in a telephone interview during his trip to New York to speak on the issue at the UN, told the Post that there is no contradiction between Jews from Arab countries being refugees who also choose to immigrate to Israel.
“There no dissonance about the fact that Jews from Arab countries left as refugees, whether as expulsion or because of the farhud,” Ayalon said, using the name for the anti-Jewish riots in Baghdad in 1941. “The fact that they’re not refugees anymore, because they were not received as refugees per se because of the Zionist ethos, that does not change the demand for justice.
Their citizenship was taken away, their bank accounts were frozen, they couldn’t take a penny. We have all of those testimonies.”
Of the criticism within Israel, including from immigrants who came from Arab countries, he said: “I find it is really not only not useful, but very illogical.”
Ayalon said the fact that the campaign was launched only now was a mistake on Israel’s part.
“Why now? Because now someone was willing to take the challenge and lead the cause. I cannot say why successive Israeli governments did not give attention to this issue. But it’s not too late to right a wrong.”