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Dismissing Jewish refugees — a case of moral evasion

Daniel Haboucha, by using Israel’s compassionate welcoming of Jewish refugees against it, does nothing but reward the Arab states for their ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians

I recently had the misfortune of reading Daniel Haboucha’s screed here at The Times of Israel against Israel’s new campaign to raise awareness of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Haboucha’s piece dismisses as an exercise in cynicism Israel’s decision to bring attention to the plight of the 800,000-900,000 Jews that were expelled from Arab countries following the establishment of Israel in 1948. To Haboucha, it is Zionism that is to blame for the fate of these Jews. Zionism is also, in Haboucha’s opinion, to blame for the plight of Palestinians, i.e., “the ongoing, collective trauma of an entire nation being dispossessed of its homeland.”

Haboucha’s thesis is untenable, and his piece is a shameful endorsement of the Arab states’ cynical use of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

An endorsement of cynicism as politics

Haboucha starts by informing us that his family was “forced to leave Egypt in the early 1960s, abandoning… 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 redress.” And yet, Haboucha spends the rest of his long-winded diatribe effectively arguing against any viable means of achieving that redress. Why? Because, as he would have it, “inviting comparisons between [his] ‘plight’ [as a Canadian citizen] today and the plight of a Palestinian… who grew up in a refugee camp is both absurd and unlikely to play well for Israel.”

In fact, the “plight” of Haboucha can and should be compared to that of Palestinians in camps in Arab countries, and that should play very well for Israel by exposing its foes’ cruel cynicism.

A Jewish girl from Yemen in the Beit Lid refugee camp in 1950
A Jewish girl from Yemen in the Beit Lid refugee camp in 1950

The Palestinians presently in camps in Arab states are not refugees.  They are the descendants – after three or more generations – of refugees, just like Haboucha. Unlike Haboucha, however, they have been eternally confined to refugee status not by Israel but by the refusal of Arab leaders to integrate them into the countries in whose territories they are located. The Palestinians that Haboucha refers to have been deprived by their own brothers of any chance to better their lives and are made to suffer veritable apartheid in Arab countries. They have passed on their refugee status, in contrast to every other group of refugees on earth, from generation to generation, their children thus inheriting the Pyrrhic benefit of UN dependence and eternal grievance. If their plight is deplorable it is solely because the Arab world and the UN have engineered it to be so. Haboucha’s refusal to investigate the plight of Palestinians in camps rewards the Arab states by shielding them from their direct responsibility for that plight.

The bed that they made

Haboucha then tries to inform his readers of a supposed Israeli responsibility in creating the Palestinian refugee problem. We are told that Yitzhak Rabin “personally oversaw the expulsion of nearly 70,000 Palestinian civilians from Lydda and Ramle during a week of fighting in June 1948.” Also, Haboucha alleges that, “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 its role in creating the Palestinian refugee crisis, with all of the political and diplomatic consequences this implies.”

Slowly, Haboucha is working his way to a PLO-worthy narrative (his article was in fact sent out to the mailing list of the PLO Department of Culture and Information with the subject line “worth reading”). What he is really trying to say is that Israel bears responsibility for the War of 1948 because that war is what created the refugee problem. Or maybe he just doesn’t realize that in war, shit happens. People die. Others are displaced. Wars are ugly and should only be turned to as a last resort. And that is why in its very Declaration of Independence, Israel first sued for peace and called on the Palestinian Arabs not to leave but rather to remain within the Jewish state as citizens and as equals:

WE APPEAL — in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months — to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.


WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

As a consequence of this invitation, Israel today counts over one million Israeli Arab citizens, including judges, ministers, parliamentarians, diplomats and military officers. That is hardly the mark of a country bent on expelling Arabs.

And the Arabs could have established the first state of “Palestine” in history next to Israel. They could have made a counter-offer. They could even have flooded young Israel with Arab immigrants. Instead, the Palestinians and allied Arab armies launched a war of genocidal aggression on the Jews. “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades,” declared Azzam Pasha, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, of the War of 1948.

And so, with Europe’s crematoria still smoldering, the Jews — including many refugees from the Holocaust, a genocide they knew had been supported by Palestinian leadership — were forced to fight local Arab militias and five armies for their very existence, alone. And some Palestinians — about 70 000 – 100 000, it is true — were pushed out of their homes in the ensuing melee, homes that had often served as bases for attacks on civilian aid convoys from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What Haboucha doesn’t mention is that thousands of Jewish inhabitants were also expelled by the advancing Arab armies, for instance from the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and from the Gush Etzion bloc of villages south of Jerusalem, both of which were completely destroyed.

In what would amount to gross legal malpractice, Haboucha mentions none of these crucial details. He makes no distinction between, on the one hand, the mass expulsion and dispossession of close to one million Jews from Arab countries based on their religion alone, and, on the other, the displacement of 650,000 Arabs pursuant to their own, war of aggression against genocide survivors. In his account, the Arabs are in no way responsible, despite having started the war that caused the refugee problem and despite keeping those refugees in captivity for generations. It is on Rabin — himself a refugee from Jerusalem who was defending his people from Jordanian aggression — that blame must fall. I wonder if Haboucha will teach this moral evasion to his children.

Jewish refugees en route to Israel
Jewish refugees en route to Israel

Regardless, the responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem lies strictly with the Arab leaders who initiated a war for no other reason than chauvinist folly, a war that brought nothing but suffering to Israelis and Palestinians alike.

The crime of Jewish self-determination

As the article makes clear, Haboucha’s grievance is with Jewish self-determination itself:

Israel’s founders knew long before 1948 that the establishment of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world would spell catastrophe… Zionism transformed Jews in Arab countries from members of a deeply rooted religious minority into “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.

A number of fallacies are trafficked in this passage. First, long before 1948, Naboucha’s “Arab world” was in fact Turkish. And it included areas that are today “Arab” merely by dint of colonialism. Naboucha’s “Arab world” is in reality also Maronite, Assyrian, Coptic, Kurdish, Amazigh, Kabyle, Berber. And Jewish. Those indigenous populations would recoil if told that their lands were Arab, and his use of that term is a legitimization of the ongoing suppression of indigenous Middle-Eastern peoples by Arab states.

Similarly, Haboucha’s use of the trendy if nonsensical term “Arab Jew” is also heavily ideological. Haboucha should know that Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, like Christians, long predate the Arab invasions. Genetic studies have recently shown limited to no mixing with the Arab occupiers throughout the centuries. There were cultural differences as well. To use the term “Arab Jew” in that manner is to suggest that Zionism denatured Jews and turned them from Arabs into the “enemies” of Arabs. By fabricating an idyllic, pre-Zionist Middle East and by accusing Zionism of inventing Jewish peoplehood, Haboucha aligns his article with revisionist PLO pamphlets. And he denies to Jews the very peoplehood that he assumes for Palestinians.

As if on cue, Haboucha then starts to blame the violence that scared many Jews into leaving Arab countries in the 1950s on the Jews themselves.

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. To my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence supporting this claim, yet 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.

This is not wholly different from blaming the Holocaust on Jews. Maybe Mr. Haboucha should be reminded of the Farhoud massacre, or all of the other massacres of Jews that occurred in the Middle East before 1948. In any case, it is risible that an attorney would make a case on less than a handful of anecdotes – some, by his own admission, wholly unsupported – in order to speak for, against and over the testimony of hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Jews from Arab states and their official representatives.

But Haboucha’s argument that the Jewish refugees are victims of Zionism (and not of the Arab states that made them into refugees) becomes even more flimsy as the article goes on. He states:

Compounding their hardships, Arab Jews who settled in Israel were subjected to deep systemic discrimination, economically disenfranchised, and treated as culturally inferior. This phenomenon is still something of a sore wound in Israel, and is documented extensively in an emerging field of literature.

If Jewish refugees from Arab countries continued to suffer in Israel it is all the more reason to seek redress from those who, by expelling them, caused that suffering.  And if Zionism is responsible for alleged discrimination in imperfectly integrating Sephardic refugees into Israel, then it is similarly the Arabs – and not Israel – who must be held to account for the ongoing suffering of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in their midst. I’ll add that to make his point that Sephardic Jews were discriminated against in Israel, Haboucha quotes lyrics from a Moroccan Israeli wedding band. That alone should be enough to discredit his article.  But there is, unfortunately, more.

Victims or compatriots?

Having just told us that Sephardic refugees were treated as second-class citizens in Israel, and were therefore victims of Zionism, Haboucha reverses himself and informs us that, no, Zionism actually treated the Jewish refugees as compatriots, and they are therefore not refugees:

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 Palestinian-Israeli member of parliament Ahmed Tibi to ask glibly, “How many homelands do [Jews] get to have?”

Let us skip over the fact that he is choosing to quote Ahmed Tibi – an elected lawmaker in Israel’s parliament who found it acceptable to also serve as adviser to arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat — on the issue of dual loyalties. Let us also gloss over the fact that people today often have two or even three homelands. Haboucha’s main assertion here is that because the expelled Jews immigrated to Israel rather than to another country, they are not refugees. This is absurd.

A refugee is someone who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. That definition doesn’t change if those fleeing end up in a good place and manage to build a better life for themselves.

To Haboucha, however, refugee status and the concomitant pity that it commands are to be granted not to those who have been forced from their homes but rather to those who have been abused by their adoptive countries. Jews are not refugees to Haboucha, because they chose to go to Israel after being expelled and now are part of the fabric of that state. The Palestinians and their descendants, however, are refugees because they are still being mistreated and excluded from their adoptive countries. This is akin to saying that those who fled Nazi Germany early in the war were not refugees by virtue of the fact that they ended up on American soil where they thrived.

It is to turn the concept of refugee on its head.

The only legally and morally salient point is that up to 900,000 Jews were forced to leave because of persecution, not on their own terms, and not with their possessions. Where they chose to go once expelled and whether that aligned with Zionism or not is of no consequence in determining whether they deserve redress for their trauma and losses. If Israel treated refugees as compatriots because its founding ideology welcomes immigrants, that does not in any way change the fact that these people were refugees. Indeed in the very next paragraph, Haboucha yet again contradicts himself by asserting, plainly, that “most of the Arab Jews who left their home countries did not leave voluntarily.”

A Maabara transit camp for Jewish refugees, 1950 (photo credit: CC BY-SA Jewish Agency for Israel)
A Maabara transit camp for Jewish refugees, 1950 (photo credit: CC BY-SA Jewish Agency for Israel)

Good guys finish last

Haboucha, by using Israel’s compassionate welcoming of Jewish refugees against it, does nothing but reward the Arab states for their ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians. No good deed goes unpunished in the twisted mind of this bien pensant:

Whether they were primarily victims of Zionism, as Ben Gurion wrote, or of Arab governments, as Ayalon now argues, 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.

Had the Arabs also integrated those Palestinians displaced by their own leaders’ madness, they too may have had good lives today; they too would have been settled for decades; they too would not have looked back. But they are not integrated. They are kept angry and trapped in camps because their fury deflects attention from those who rightfully deserve to be its object.

The “collective trauma” of the Palestinians endures not because of some Israeli sin of existence, as Haboucha almost spells out, or because of a self-inflicted “Nakba.” It exists and endures because the Palestinians insist on establishing a state and at the same time rejecting every single offer that would allow them to do so without causing — in Haboucha’s words — the veritable “ongoing, collective trauma of an entire nation being dispossessed of its homeland,” i.e., Israel’s destruction. In light of that, Haboucha’s piece is nothing but an endorsement of the Arab states’ cynical abuse of Palestinians and their descendants as pawns. It not only ignores the Arabs’ guilt in expelling close to one million innocents from Arab states because of the crime of their Judaism; it also absolves them from any guilt in causing the Palestinian refugee problem by choosing war over partition in 1948, and for keeping the Palestinians in suffering for political reasons ever since.

I too am the descendant of Jews forced to flee an Arab country after millennia, with only those possessions that could be smuggled out in the hollows of wooden coat-hangers. Daniel Haboucha does not speak for me.

About the Author
Philippe Assouline is a lawyer and PhD candidate in International Relations and Political science. His research is on the Middle East, and investigating whether positive communication can foster peace between Israelis and Arabs. Philippe believes that dehumanizing propaganda, like BDS, fuels hatred and war. Accordingly, he has written posts criticizing BDS and profiling dissidents and Arab peace activists, to break barriers between Jews and Arabs.