The media in disarray over Jewish refugees

Whatever else you might say about Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s campaign for recognition of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, he has certainly put the cat among the pigeons. The Arab press and media are in disarray; the campaign has brought forth what Ayalon has termed “extreme and babbling responses” from the Palestinian leadership.

Last week’s Justice for Jews from Arab Countries conference in Jerusalem, staged by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in association with the World Jewish Congress (WJC), made history: it was the first official attempt in 64 years to introduce the plight of 850,000 Jewish refugees into mainstream public discourse. On September 21, the scene shifts to New York, when Danny Ayalon, WJC President Ron Lauder and leading lawyer Alan Dershowitz will call for UN recognition of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

Reactions so far in the mainstream media range from bewilderment to hysteria. The campaign is a “cynical manipulation.” It’s about talking points, political point-scoring, “hasbara.”

In other words, the involvement of the Israeli MFA has raised the media’s worst suspicions. Haaretz and The Daily Telegraph report that the Israeli government is obeying a recommendation of the Israeli National Security Council. It’s a premeditated strategy. It’s a stumbling block to peace, proof of the Israeli government’s ‘insincerity’, an excuse to avoid a peace settlement even when peace talks are not going on. (Naturally, perpetuating Palestinian refugee status down through the generations is not political. And the Palestinian insistence on their “right of return” to Israel is not a stumbling block to peace. )

The Jewish refugees campaign has been referred to as a tactic intended to deflect attention from Israel’s African refugees crisis, according to Shayna Zamkanei, or divert public opinion from Israeli “discrimination” against Sephardim, according to Sigal Samuel. (You know, discrimination is that thing which makes every Sephardi girl reach for her hair-straightening tongs in order to look like her Ashkenazi friends.)

Much Arab criticism has claimed that Jews from Arab countries were not refugees at all. If they were, they would assert a “right of return” of their own to their countries of birth. Since they are now in their homeland of Israel, their aspirations have been fulfilled (Radical Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy has now jumped on this bandwagon). Blogger Petra Marquardt-Bigman calls this vain attempt to “dezionize” Israel an own goal: Ironically, Hanan Ashrawi’s logic is a ringing endorsement of Zionism for the 650,000 Jews who did resettle in Israel.

A ringing endorsement for Zionism. Hanan Ashrawi (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A ringing endorsement for Zionism. Hanan Ashrawi (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For Hussein Ibish (ably challenged by Ben Cohen), the very fact that the Jews are not asking for a “right of return” makes their campaign for justice “hollow.” They have no substantive claims, he alleges – barring a desire to delegitimise the Palestinian “right of return.”

According to Canadian refugee rights lawyer David Matas, however, you can’t both claim to be a refugee and assert a “right of return.” “The very assertion of a ‘right of return’ is an acknowledgement that the conditions which led to refugee status no longer hold sway,” he told last week’s conference. Needless to say, the conditions in almost all Arab countries remain as hostile and unsafe for Jews – if not more so — as on the day they fled.

What the Jewish refugee issue does is to remove a stumbling block to peace by pricking the bubble of Palestinian exceptionalism. If one set of refugees from the conflict has been shown to have been absorbed without fuss, what does it say about the other?

Others on the Israeli left have objected to the linkage of the two sets of refugees. One Almog Behar, a young Israeli-born poet, has popped up on Facebook to speak on behalf of an unheard-of committee of Iraqi and Kurdish Jews in Ramat Gan against “renewed Israeli government propaganda efforts to counter Palestinian refugee rights by using the claims of Jews who left Arab countries in the 1950s.” Clutching at Behar’s straw, an Iraqi newspaper is now reporting that Iraqi Jews refuse to be associated with the “file on Palestinian refugees.”

For leftist Larry Derfner, the Israeli campaign is not content with seeking parity — it is going for superiority. Derfner contends that the Israeli government’s “splashy new victimhood campaign” engenders a tawdry suffering contest.

Leftist blogger Kung Fu Jew charges:

I would think that Jews of Arab origin would be outraged that their dispossession is again raised only as a talking point against Palestinian refugees.

Well actually, Jews from Arab countries are thrilled that their issue is finally being pushed to the fore. In much of the sniping at Ayalon’s campaign, there is sneering contempt; not compassion for Jewish refugees, nor appreciation for their human rights, from people who only seem to care about Palestinian rights. Under human rights law, Jewish refugees do have substantive claims for which there is no statute of limitations – to remembrance, recognition and redress, a notion that includes compensation.

The biggest obstacle to this campaign seems not the foreign or leftist press but mind-numbing ignorance among Israeli Jews. According to a poll released by the WJC to coincide with the international conference, 54% of Israeli Arabs are more likely to link Jewish refugees from Arab countries with Palestinians displaced from Israel, compared to only 48% of Israeli Jews. Even more worrying, 96% of the Jewish population was found to have no knowledge of the issue, compare to 89% of Israeli Arabs.

Danny Ayalon, you have an uphill struggle ahead – to educate your own.

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)