Justice for Jews is within reach

They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.

It’s a fitting description of the event my organisation, Harif, held this week to marked the first ever ‘Jewish Refugee Day’.

Over 300 guests, many dressed in tarbush hats and kaftans, came to enjoy the food and entertainment. They also came, not just to remember the forced exodus of 870,000 Jews from 10 Arab countries, but to celebrate their freedom from oppression, persecution and violence.

The celebrated storyteller Yossi Alfi told how his grandmother had smuggled him as a three-year old from Iraq into Israel under her skirts. As the Jewish underground did not allow children under ten, Alfi’s grandmother pretended Yossi was a midget!

Accompanied by oud, violin and tabla players, Yossi’s daughter Sari Alfi sang what has become the anthem for refugees from Arab lands: Fog-An-Nahal.

Inspired by Harif’s example, we hope that people will start marking Jewish Refugee Day around the world. Like Holocaust Memorial Day, Jewish Refugee Day will provide a focus, and a corrective. Jewish children learn about the Kishinev pogrom, but how many have heard of the Farhud in Iraq? Official ceremonies, school projects, TV programmes and events in Israel and worldwide would spread awareness not just of Oriental Jewry’s history and exodus but their rich, pre-Islamic culture and heritage.

After decades of neglect by successive Israeli governments, the Jewish refugee issue is emerging like a mole blinking into the sunlight. Advocates for Jews from Arab Countries are finally seeing the work of decades come to fruition.

If Jewish Refugee Day is a means of achieving recognition, a recent development brings within reach the prospect of compensation: American senior envoy Martin Indyk has told US Jewish leaders that Secretary of State John Kerry is considering including in his framework peace agreement compensation for the thousands of Jews forced to abandon Arab lands.

For the first time in living memory, the influential Economist magazine published an article on Jewish refugees and their losses.

Critics say that the US is trying to “buy off” the most recalcitrant sector of the Israeli electorate, the right-leaning Mizrahim, in return for far-reaching territorial concessions, but MK Shimon Ohayon, who proposed the Knesset bill for a Jewish Refugee Day in the Israeli calendar, has welcomed the prospective compensation clause as “a step in the right direction”.

It is high time that a peace settlement took into account the rights of both sets of refugees – Jewish as well as Arab. An appreciation of the tragedy that occurred on both sides would help foster reconciliation and peace.

However, there is a large fly in the ointment — Israel’s own chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni. Despite a 2010 Knesset law requiring Jewish refugees to be on the peace agenda, Livni has opposed raising the very question, claiming there is “no connection” between Jewish and Palestinian refugees.

History has shown otherwise. The Palestinian leadership incited anti-Jewish hatred in the Arab world well before Israel’s creation, and dragged the Arab League into war against the newborn state.

But a damning report by Israel’s state comptroller, Joseph Shapira, blasts the Israeli government’s half-hearted and under-resourced approach to collecting claims from aging Jewish refugees before they die, and its failure to computerise 14,000 old claims. Haaretz reported: “Even if peace were to break out tomorrow, Israel would be hard-pressed to present a solid claim…”

The possible reasons for this, Haaretz continued, are ‘many and absurd’: Some of the records are still in the ministry’s archive, waiting to be scanned digitally, but some have deteriorated so badly as to be worthless. The retirement of a single clerk who was in charge of the material at one point but did not train her successor is thought to have led to the disappearance of still more relevant documents.

With the Jewish refugee issue, it is two steps forward and one step back. If the Kerry proposals do indeed include compensation for Jewish refugees, the Israeli government must not stumble so close to the finishing line – and squander the precious opportunity to achieve justice for Jewish refugees that now presents itself.

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)