The Israeli government has recently launched a campaign to win international recognition for the plight of the approximately 700,000 Arab Jews, or Mizrahim, who fled their homes during the 20-odd-year period following Israel’s establishment in 1948. Speaking with much fanfare at a symposium hosted by Israel’s UN delegation in New York last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon stated that there will be no peace (between Israel and the Palestinian Authority) until the Arab League compensates these Jewish refugees. He has indicated that abandoned Palestinian holdings in Israel might be somehow balanced against abandoned Jewish holdings in Arab countries. The Israel lobby in the US and Canada — including all of the usual suspects — has enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. Comparing the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries to the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, Alan Dershowitz proclaimed, “The situation faced by Jews in Arab countries was much worse than that faced by Palestinians in Israel.”
My father and his entire family were forced to leave Egypt in the early 1960s, abandoning their community, their country of birth, and much of their property. Their traumatic uprooting after centuries of life in the Middle East is an egregious example of systemic religious persecution, and one that unquestionably merits acknowledgement and redress.Yet, inviting comparisons between my “plight” today and the plight of a Palestinian of my age who grew up in a refugee camp is both manifestly absurd and unlikely to play well for Israel.
The first immediately obvious question is, why is this happening now? Why is the government of Israel suddenly seeking to reopen an issue that has been closed for the better part of a century? And why has it consistently refused to pursue such claims in the past, despite decades of lobbying by a group calling itself the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries?
I believe there are two answers to this question, the first pragmatic and the second ideological.
1. Victims of Zionism?
Israel, through its entire history, has maintained a position of non-responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. The official Israeli narrative, as stated in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication, is that the Palestinian refugees left Israel voluntarily or at the behest of Arab leaders. When Yitzhak Rabin wrote in his memoirs about personally overseeing the expulsion of nearly 70,000 Palestinian civilians from Lydda and Ramle during a week of fighting in June 1948, Israeli authorities went so far as to censor the testimony of their former prime minister. Now, however, in drawing a direct parallel between the Jews who were forcibly dispossessed by Arab governments and the Palestinians, the Israeli government finally appears to be acknowledging that the latter, too, were forcibly displaced — with all of the political and diplomatic consequences this implies.
Shining a spotlight on the plight of Arab Jews risks raising some uncomfortable questions about Israel’s role in the creation and perpetuation not only of the Palestinian refugee issue, but of the Jewish one as well. Israel’s founders knew long before 1948 that the establishment of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world would spell catastrophe for the Jews living in the region. In declaring Judaism to be a nationality, Zionism transformed Jews in Arab countries from members of a deeply rooted religious minority into perceived “enemy nationals.” When made aware of the impending danger faced by the Jews of Iraq in the 1940s due to mounting hostility toward Zionism, David Ben Gurion felt responsible for the harm he suspected would befall them; he referred to these Arab Jews as potential “victims” of the Zionist movement (quoted in Meir-Glitzenstein “Zionism in an Arab Country” p. 140).
The State of Israel in many cases actively precipitated Jewish emigration throughout the Arab world, its emissaries “preaching the exodus to Jews of modest or unfortunate circumstances,” in the words of the president of the Algerian Jewish federation. Their methods were not always sanguine. For example, in Egypt, the position of Jews deteriorated markedly in 1954 after a group of local Jews was caught carrying out petty acts of terrorism and sabotage at the behest of their Israeli handlers. Israel publicly acknowledged responsibility for this only in 2005. Similarly, Jewish emigration from Iraq accelerated in 1951 after the bombing of a synagogue; this act was blamed at the time (by British consular officials and many Iraqi Jews) on Zionist agents, two of whom were convicted of the crime. While their culpability remains disputed, it is lent credibility by the recent admission by a former member of the Iraqi Zionist underground that members of his group did employ such tactics. The passage in Ben Gurion’s diary that discusses the report he received on this matter from his intelligence chief remains buried under censors’ ink.
Compounding their hardships, Arab Jews who settled in Israel were subjected to deep systemic discrimination, economically disenfranchised, and treated as culturally inferior. Even today, Mizrahim in Israel (in contrast with their relatives in France, Canada, and elsewhere) are only half as likely to attend university as are their Ashkenazi counterparts. This phenomenon remains something of a sore wound in Israel, and is documented extensively in an emerging field of literature. For Ayalon to expropriate these Jews’ suffering to serve the political ends of the very government which in many instances compounded their misery is a particularly galling irony.
You wanted to fit in
You even changed your names
Jojo was no longer worthy
And Farha became notorious
You tasted the Honey;
It wasn’t always sweet
You spilled the Milk,
But didn’t cry over it
— Lehakat Sfatayim, “From Morocco to Zion”
2. How many homelands?
On an ideological level, equating Jewish refugees from Arab countries with Palestinian refugees from Israel fundamentally undermines the Zionist narrative, according to Iraqi-Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav. According to Shenhav, a central element in the Zionist mythos is the idea that the Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries did so not out of compulsion but rather because of their “Zionist yearnings” for their homeland. Zionism’s foundational tenet is that Jews are a nation, and that their homeland is not in Egypt, or Ethiopia, or Yemen, but rather in Israel. Mizrahim who settled in Israel were treated at the time by the government — at both a legal and a rhetorical level — not as refugees who had been forced from their homeland, but as compatriots returning to their homeland after years in exile. Ayalon’s initiative prompted Arab-Israeli member of parliament Ahmed Tibi to ask glibly, “How many homelands do [Jews] get to have?”
Belief in the voluntary and ideologically driven nature of the Mizrahi migration to Israel is not only deeply ingrained in the Zionist narrative, it is also central to the personal narratives of many of those who were displaced, who forcefully reject Ayalon’s take on history:
I have this to say: I am not a refugee. I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.
– Iraqi-Israeli parliamentarian Ran Cohen
We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations”
– Yemeni-Israeli speaker of Knesset Yisrael Yeshayahu
I do not regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.
– Iraqi-Israeli Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel
“You, who left your faraway village
You, who ascended from your verdant town
You left your parents, your friends, and your brothers
When you decided to emigrate
Out of your love, for Zion!”
– Lehakat Sfatayim
To be sure, most of the Arab Jews who left their home countries did not leave voluntarily. Whether they were solely the victims of Arab governments, as Ayalon argues, or also of the Zionist movement, as Ben Gurion wrote at the time, is largely a moot point, however, given that none of those Jews are refugees today. They have all been settled for decades in their adoptive countries and, for the most part, don’t look back. My father and grandfather traveled to Cairo a decade and a half after they had been forced to leave, following the conclusion of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. When they returned to Canada, the story goes, my grandfather told the rest of the family to be thankful that they had had the opportunity to leave Egypt. This from a man who, by all accounts, had been exceptionally well-integrated into Egyptian society.
Ayalon and his supporters note that the Palestinian refugee problem could have been similarly put to rest had there been political will to integrate the refugees into other countries. In advancing this argument, however, Ayalon (himself the son of an Algerian refugee) fundamentally misunderstands — or willfully ignores — the nature of the problem. The Palestinian Nakba, as Shenhav notes, is not a historic individual trauma rooted in the loss of personal property; rather it is the ongoing and collective trauma of an entire nation being dispossessed of its homeland. Proposed solutions that fail to acknowledge and address this cannot hope to resolve the issue. While Jewish refugees have little interest in returning to their former homes (many Arab countries have indeed already invited their return), Palestinian refugees are seeking collective redress through repatriation or remedial self-determination.
A final issue worth considering is the nature of the logical link Ayalon wishes to establish between the Arab countries’ expulsion of Jews and Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians. Given that the expulsion of the Arab Jews took place after that of the Palestinians, the former can hardly be said to have caused the latter. If anything, it could be argued that the expulsion of the Palestinians precipitated that of the Arab Jews, which would only inculpate Israel further. I do not find this claim particularly compelling. On the contrary, I think that there is little if any causal connection between the two exoduses, despite both stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Crucial to note here is that neither Israel nor the Palestinian people are party to any dispute between Jewish refugees and the Arab governments that evicted them.
The notion of Israel conditioning reparations to the Palestinian people upon the government of Egypt paying compensation to my family is thoroughly devoid of internal logic. First, because while I may or may not be entitled to pursue a claim against the government which persecuted my family, the government of Israel certainly has no moral or legal authority to lodge such a claim on my behalf; and second (and more importantly) because the Palestinians are not agents of the Egyptian government and should not pay for its wrongdoings. (It should be noted that Israel has always declined to pursue such claims against Egypt directly; the 1978 Camp David framework agreement that led to peace between the two states, and ostensibly resolved all outstanding disputes between them, makes reference to the claims of Palestinian refugees, but not Jewish ones.) The party most likely to benefit from Ayalon’s proposal is Arab governments themselves, who might be expected to enthusiastically embrace Ayalon’s rhetorical linkage to argue for the repatriation of both refugee groups. The chief losers will be the Palestinians, who will face yet another obstacle to a negotiated settlement with Israel.
In light of Israel’s consistent and longstanding (and as I’ve demonstrated, entirely rational) refusal to address the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries up until now, in light of Ayalon’s utter failure to grasp the crux of the Palestinian refugee situation, in light of the logical fallacy of conditioning peace talks with the Palestinians upon the actions of third parties, and in light of the present Israeli government’s demonstrated and widely recognized aversion to peace talks, I am of the opinion that Ayalon’s campaign is driven by profound cynicism. Rather than genuinely seeking justice for dispossessed Arab Jews, Ayalon and the government of Israel are exploiting their suffering in an effort to “cancel out” Palestinian demands and avoid making political concessions. We must recognize this move for what it is, and oppose it. Danny Ayalon does not act in my name.
This article has been updated and expanded from its original version.