The controversy surrounding Amir Benayoun and whether his recent song “Ahmed Loves Israel“ should lead to cancelation of his invitation from the president’s residence has sadly become a major distraction from a far greater injustice predicated on racism and discrimination. Few people who have followed this front-page story are aware that the event at which Benayoun was supposed to appear was the first ever official state ceremony in commemoration of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

The real issue of racism here is the expulsion and forcing out of 850,000 people from their ancestral homes because they were Jews and no one is talking about that, or has talked about it for 66 years. Suddenly a song that some consider offensive is gaining attention and once again people are forgetting about the historic injustice done to so many people that has still not been rectified.

Unfortunately, most are not aware of the history of the Jews and their eventual ethnic cleansing from the Middle East and North Africa during the Twentieth Century. While the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish People, for thousands of years Jews developed their unique and indigenous civilization around the Middle East. Jews and Jewish communities have existed in the Middle East, North Africa, Babylon, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region for millennia.

Well before the advent of Islam, the Arab conquest, colonization and occupation of the region, Jews lived and thrived in the Middle East.

However, during the centuries after the Islamic conquest in the Seventh Century, the region became forcibly ‘Arabized’, becoming known as the ‘Arab World’, and the original non-Arab peoples, including the Jews, became minorities in their own lands. Under Islamic rule, Jews, as well as Christians and other minorities, were considered dhimmi, second-class citizens, forced to pay special taxes and wear distinctive signs and articles of clothing and suffered other discriminatory decrees and legislation. The position of the Jews was frequently precarious.

Over the centuries, there were numerous massacres and ethnic cleansings of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the many Jewish communities in the Arabian Peninsula which were wiped out in the Seventh Century. In Morocco, Libya and Algeria Jews were forced to live in ghettos or mellahs. On other occasions, as in places like Yemen and Iraq, Jews were given the choice of converting to Islam or facing death. False accusations and blood libels frequently led to massive riots in Jewish areas leaving many dead, expelled and degraded. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were Nazi-inspired massacres against Jews in Libya and Algeria, the most infamous of which was a pogrom in Baghdad known as the Farhud.

Following the United Nations Partition Plan, which recommended the creation of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, the Political Committee of the Arab League drafted a law that was to govern the legal status of Jewish residents in all Arab League countries. This law, instituted across the Arab world, demanded that Jews be seen as enemies and their assets frozen or confiscated, their citizenship stripped. They were frequently imprisoned or worse.

These and other state-sanctioned repressive measures, often coupled with violence and repression, precipitated a mass displacement and expulsion of Jews, who were forced to leave without their significant assets and property, and caused the Jewish refugee problem in the Middle East. This problem was exacerbated by a continuing expulsion and exodus of Jews en masse from Arab countries until the 1970’s, in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing.

The personal and communal assets left behind were substantial, far greater than those lost by Arabs who fled during Israel’s battle for independence and national liberation. Many of these Jews, who make up the majority of the Jewish population of Israel with their descendants, were barely able to escape with little more than the clothes on their back.

Earlier in the year, I was proud to have authored and passed a law which for the first time created an official national day of commemoration for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. On this day, there will be special Knesset sessions devoted to the issue; the Education Ministry is enjoined to ensure schools teach students about the history and expulsion of their ancestors; and the Foreign Ministry will instruct its representatives around the world to commemorate the occasion appropriately.

With our partners around the world, organizations like Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), based in the US, Harif in the UK and Organization of Jews of Libya & Sant Egidio in Italy, we are arranging a host of events around the world, including in Washington D.C., New York, Montreal, Sydney, Singapore, Paris, London and Rome, and a commemorative event at the United Nations.

Unfortunately, much of this is now of lesser interest and the only focus appears to be on the appearance of a singer who wrote a song some find offensive and call racist. It is my sincerest hope that we turn our attention to the real issue of racism and the ethnic cleansing of Jews from what has now become known as the ‘Arab world’.

If we focus on one song but forget the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jews who have still found no redress, recognition, compensation or apology for being thrown out of their homes, communities and countries then we as a nation have our priorities completely wrong.