Israel takes issue of Jewish refugees to UN

Activists call on int'l community to recognize claims of Jews from Arab countries in the same way they do displaced Palestinians.

Jewish refugees from Yemen cross desert 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Israeli National Photo Archive)
Jewish refugees from Yemen cross desert 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Israeli National Photo Archive)
NEW YORK – Israel on Friday called on the international community to recognize the suffering of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their material claims the same way it acknowledges the plight of displaced Palestinians.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder presented the recently launched diplomatic campaign in a special gathering at the UN before Israeli officials, foreign diplomats, activists and journalists.
“Today’s event is about the past but more importantly about the future,” said Prosor.
“Our purpose is clear and simple: To give justice for one million Jews whose stories have been hidden and left untold.”
He added: “For 64 years the history has been distorted and whitewashed in the UN. Arab countries have never taken responsibility for creating more than 800,000 refugees.
Yet not a single syllable – and listen to this – can be heard in any of the 1,888 UN resolutions on the Mideast.”
Israel was founded on the ethos of being a safe haven for Jews in their historic homeland as a response to the persecution of Jews throughout history and the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe in particular.
The story of its citizens who left, fled or were expelled from Arabic-speaking countries while the Israeli-Arab conflict flared has been relatively neglected, a fact Ayalon acknowledged in his speech.
“For some reason this issue was never raised, never discussed, and without too much mea culpa, this was wrong,” Ayalon said. “But it’s never too late.”
Critics have said the timing of the campaign ahead of the gathering of the General Assembly of the UN next week is not accidental. Palestinian politicians like Hanan Ashrawi have argued that Jews from Arab lands are not refugees at all and that, either way, Israel is using their claims as a counter-balance to those of Palestinian refugees against it.
“The claim that Jews who migrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees’ who were uprooted from their homelands... is a form of deception and delusion,” she wrote in a recent article in Arab media outlets. “If Israel is their homeland then they are not ‘refugees,’ they are emigrants who returned either voluntarily or due to a political decision.”
A chorus of Jewish politicians and activists at the event, however, said the rights of Palestinian and Jewish refugees were were not mutually exclusive.
“We should solve both refugee issues now,” said Lauder. “The world has long recognized the Palestinian refugee problem and they should recognize those of Jews too.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, took aim at the UN, where the gathering was taking place, saying it passed thousands of resolutions relating to the rights of Palestinian refugees but not one pertaining to those of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
“It was manipulation by Arab delegates as early as ’48 and they took it off the agenda never for it to reappear again,” he said. “They say Jews left freely and were not refugees, denying reality in an attempt to keep this issue off the agenda.”
Lawyer and pro-Israel activist Alan Dershowitz was even harsher in his criticism of the international organization.
“Think about all the refugees from places like Königsberg, who were forced to leave when the Soviets came or in India and Bangladesh. They have all built new lives for themselves, only the refugee problem of the Palestinians persists,” he said. “Why? UN!” Sylvain Abitbol, a Moroccan Jew who emigrated to Montreal in 1967, the year a wave of anti-Jewish violence and legislation sparked by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War spread across the Arab world, sat in the crowd listening to the speeches. He shrugged when asked why it took so long for Israel to launch the current campaign.
“We’ve been working with Israel for many years, but it took Ayalon to raise this,” he said.
Whatever the reasons for the delay and regardless of the political context, he said standing up for the rights of Jews from Arab countries such as himself was a worthy and just cause.
“It was very difficult for Jews in Morocco, that’s why I left,” he said wistfully. “It was not as bad as other countries, true, but it was bad. Listen, there used to be 200,000 Jews in Morocco and with the exception of about 2,000 who still live there, they all left.”