This Sunday is the Israeli national day for commemorating the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Stephen Oryszczuk finds out why the issue is a question of justice
The Israeli government this year designated a new day, 30 November, to remember historic wrongs done to the Jewish people. The wrong in question was the uprooting of 850,000 Jews from ancient communities in Arab and Muslim lands, including Iran, after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Some call it a period of “systematic persecution” or “ethnic cleansing”.
Events will be held around the world on Sunday. There will be a Board of Deputies reception at the Jewish Museum in Camden. On Saturday at St John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue, historian Nathan Weinstock will explain “how a Belgian Ashkenazi Jew wrote the story of the eradication of Jews from Arab lands”.
Weinstock says the story “demands an understanding of the dhimma – Jewish social status under Islam – and an appreciation of the repercussions of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, leading to the great post-World War II Jewish exodus”.
Once-equal Jewish citizens were persecuted, Jewish stores and workshops were looted, Jewish workers were fired and Jews were restricted from entering universities. Expelled from Egypt, displaced in Iraq and held hostage in Syria (on the suspicion that they would “join the Zionist enemy” and attack their country of birth), most left when they could, leaving all possessions behind. The story is one of immense sadness.
Many Sephardi Jews had deep cultural ties to the land, and influenced it greatly. Jewish writers were the foundation of Iraqi literature, for example, and in mid-19th century Egypt, the man who invented the nationalist slogan ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’ (known as ‘the Egyptian Molière’) was a Jew named Jacob Sanua. The repercussions of this huge and little-known upheaval shape today. “No understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict is complete without taking into account the fact that half of all Israeli Jews are descended from, or are themselves, Jewish refugees from Arab or Muslim lands,” says the Board of Deputies.
But why is the issue only now being recognised? “Successive Israeli governments didn’t really make much of it, contrary to what Arab countries did for Palestinian refugees,” says Baghdad-born Edwin Shuker, who now lives in London. “It was a huge mistake on many levels. There are fewer than 5,000 Jews left in Arab lands. I am part of a dying generation. We want this narrative incorporated into the Jewish people’s story.”
For Shuker, the 30 November commemoration “opens a new chapter” in that story, and Lyn Julius, co-founder of Harif, the UK association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, agrees that it is a “watershed” moment. But she says the refugees themselves partly explain the slow process of recognition. “When they came to Israel in the 1950s, they compared themselves to Europe’s Jewish refugees, to Holocaust survivors.
What happened to them was far worse, so they thought ‘let’s just get on with it, let’s not make a fuss’.” It was early in the state’s creation, and the country needed to build an Israeli identity, she explains. “Forget the past and move on, that was the only way to integrate Jews from 130 countries,” says Julius.
“Politically, it was disastrous, and the Palestinians made all the running, screaming that they were the only refugees, which the world bought.” Some are cynical about the timing of the Knesset law, which came in the middle of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians earlier this year. Arab- Israeli peace process analyst Dr Constanza Musu says Israel “conducted a very systematic campaign to have the issue of refugees addressed in the negotiations”.
Other countries have already said the issue of Jewish refugees should be included in any final agreement. The Canadian government recently said it would recognise Jewish refugees, while in 2008, the US Congress declared it “inappropriate and unjust to recognise rights for Palestinian refugees without recognising equal rights for former Jewish, Christian, and other refugees from Arab countries”.
It added that “any resolutions relating to the issue of Middle East refugees… must also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries”. The struggle for equal recognition will be greatly aided by Sunday’s commemoration, but is that all Jewish refugees (and their descendants) want? “In an ideal world they’d like both recognition and redress, which includes compensation,” says Julius. “But the latter is difficult. Arab states are in denial over their role. They also can’t afford it. Some can’t even feed their own people, while others are fighting to survive.”
For Shuker, this is not about money. “I’m not looking for thousands of dollars for my home in Baghdad,” he says. “Handled confrontationally, it can be a deal-breaker, but it can also be a bridge-builder.
But Jews and Palestinians have claims. We need a peace fund, to safeguard synagogues in the Arab world and educate Arab children fairly. It’s about justice, about creating a bridge. We need to work together to solve the problem.”