Clueless in Cleveland about Jewish refugees

I must confess that I don’t make a habit of reading the Cleveland Jewish News, but a commentary by Cliff Savren caught my eye the other day. Entitled “Arab and Jewish refugees not alike,” the piece criticizes the current campaign in the US to create an equivalence between Arab and Jewish refugee rights.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives of the US Congress last week corrects a historic distortion in the terms of the Middle East peace agenda. It calls for the resolution of claims by Jews who were expelled from their homes in Arab countries to be linked to any future negotiated settlement of Palestinian refugees’ claims.

Savren notes that the numbers of displaced refugees on both sides were roughly the same. Most of 850,000 Jewish refugees came to Israel.

“It would be inappropriate and unjust for the United States to recognize rights for Palestinian refugees without recognizing equal rights for Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” said one of the Congressmen proposing the bill. “Moreover, Jewish rights do not conflict with the right of Palestinian refugees to claim redress.”

Savren agrees that property claims of Jews from Arab countries should be raised in any final peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs. But as far as Savren is concerned, that’s as far as it goes. “The two refugee situations are asymmetrical in character, and this must also be recognized,” he writes.

They are only asymmetrical in the following way: One group of refugees has been resettled and is now made up of full-fledged citizens of Israel and the West. The other group is, uniquely among the world’s refugees, still festering 60 years later in camps (although these are now more like small towns). Its members depend on the UN agency UNWRA for support and, except in Jordan, are deprived of civil rights and the right to own property and to do certain jobs.

That is exactly why Jewish and Arab refugees should be compared: In the former case, Jews were absorbed, resettled and built new lives, making a vital contribution to Israeli culture and society.

In the second case the Palestinian refugees were allowed by the UN to pass on their refugee status in perpetuity, to the extent that the number of “refugees” has ballooned from about 700,000 to five million, very few of whom were born in Palestine. Not only does the existence of these Palestinians in a perpetual refugee limbo create an obstacle to peace, but to leave them in that state seems both supremely unnatural and an obscene abuse of their human rights for political purposes. In that sense, the resettlement of the Jewish refugees is an object lesson to the Arab side.

We come to Savren’s second argument:

Even calling the Jews from Arab countries “refugees” is somewhat at variance with the core of Israel’s national ethos. Though Jews in Arab countries did flee pogroms and riots to resettle in Israel, from a Jewish perspective they were coming home. The Forward quoted former Knesset member Ran Cohen, who was born in Iraq, as saying: “No one is going to define me as a refugee.” He explained: “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that (Israel) exerts.”

It’s true that for years Israel treated Jews coming to Israel as Zionist immigrants, not refugees. But there is no denying that the majority of Jews would never have come in such numbers to Israel — where initially they faced harsh conditions in desert tent camps called “maabarot,” insufficient food and inadequate sanitation — unless they felt they had no choice but to leave their countries of birth. It is somewhat cheeky of Ran Cohen to say that he came at the behest of Zionism, when he arrived as a 13-year-old refugee with his family on the Ezra and Nehemiah airlift from Iraq.

Of course, one can be both a refugee and a Zionist, but virtually the entire Jewish community of Iraq was expelled from a homeland they had lived in for 2,600 years. Their assets were frozen and they were allowed to take a handful of cash, only three summer and three winter suits, one pair of shoes, a blanket, six pairs of underwear, socks and sheets, one wedding ring, a wristwatch and a thin bracelet. As the victims of a brutal uprooting and dispossession, Jewish refugees are entitled to justice under human rights law, no matter how much time has elapsed since the injustice was committed.

Yemenite Jews en route to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950)
Yemenite Jews en route to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950)

But Savren turns the Israeli government’s longstanding argument against itself: the Jews can’t be refugees because they were “coming home.” There are many flaws with this argument. First of all, 200,000 Jews from Arab countries did not go to Israel. Do Jews who are now French or Brazilian citizens feel any less “at home” in their new countries than Jews in Israel? Savren’s assumption is that Palestinian aspirations to “come home” remain unfulfilled.

The Palestinians could make Arab states “home” if there was a will. At the very least, a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would be expected to welcome Palestinian refugees home and give them full civil rights, although pronouncements by the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon do not bode well on this score. Objectively, Palestinian Arabs ought to be easily integrated in host countries where people speak the same language, share the same culture and religion, and where their children were born.

And now comes the kicker: Savren states that Jewish and Arab refugees are not alike because “Palestinian Arab society was ripped asunder” during Israel’s War of Independence.

So the Jewish communities of the Arab world — with their traditions, culture, cemeteries, and shrines; their synagogues, schools, and communal structure — were not ripped asunder, with families scattered to the four corners of the earth?

If anything, the current campaign demanding equivalence between the two sets of refugees does a disservice to the uprooted Jews.

We are talking about the massive ethnic cleansing of age-old communities. Apart from enduring dispossession, humiliation, arrest, torture and murder, the Jews lost their entire civilization, their Judeo-Arabic language and much of their culture. Their displacement was on a larger scale than the Palestinian one, and their material losses greater. Whereas Arab refugees fled a war situation of their own making, the Jews were victims of unpredictable violence and a deliberate policy scapegoating them for being Jews. The proof is in the pudding: A million Arabs live in Israel today, whereas only 4,000 Jews from a 1948 population of one million live in Arab countries.

So why is the US bill demanding equivalence for the two sets of refugees if it’s not fair to the Jews? The answer is that the Palestinian issue has held unchallenged sway on the agenda for so long that the Jews are forced to “play catch-up.”

But this is no reason for well-meaning but fundamentally ill-informed commentators to privilege Palestinian rights, while despising the rights of Jewish refugees and their Sephardi and Mizrahi descendants, who make up 50 percent of Israel’s population. There’s a word for that: racism.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)