Steve Weizman
Last updated: 30 November, 2014

Israel remembers plight of Jews who fled Arab world

Israel on Sunday marked the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel on Sunday marked the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In a bid to draw attention to their plight, Israel formally marked the event with a state ceremony under a new law naming November 30 as the anniversary.

“Nearly 800,000 came here and the rest (around 56,000) went to the United States, France, Italy and elsewhere,” said Meir Kahlon, chairman of the Central Organisation for Jews from Arab Countries and Iran.

Kahlon himself came to Israel as a child from Libya and spent his first years in the Jewish state in one of the tent camps set up to shelter the flood of newcomers.

At the state ceremony, President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that for Jews from the Middle East, their troubles were not over when they reached Israel, where European Jews had a chokehold on power.

“Their voices were muted, but the words were in their mouths all along, even if they were said in Hebrew with a Persian or Arabic accent, which in Israel were thought of as enemy languages and viewed as a source of shame.”

According to Palestinian and United Nations figures, more than 760,000 Palestinians — estimated today to number 4.8 million with their descendants — fled or were driven from their homes in 1948.

Finding a “just solution” for the Palestinians who fled during the 1948 war is a key item on the Palestinian agenda and one of the most sensitive issues in final negotiations with Israel.

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), an international umbrella group of Jewish community organisations, says 856,000 Jews from 10 Arab countries, among them Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria, fled or were expelled in 1948 and after, while violent Arab riots left many Jews dead or injured.

Arab historians say Zionist agents encouraged Jews to abandon their Arab homelands to populate the new state.

Although many migrants arrived with meagre belongings packed in a single suitcase, they did not seek formal refugee status from the international community.

At the time, newly-established Israel was struggling to attract migration from the world’s Jews and to project its legitimacy as a sovereign state, able to care for its own people.

Its prime minister, David Ben Gurion, would not have wanted Jews returning to their “historic homeland” classed as refugees, Kahlon said.

Balancing the picture?

In March this year, Canada — whose Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a staunch backer of Israel — formally recognised the refugee status of the Jewish emigrees from Arab countries.

Some of the migrants to Israel say privately that the issue is being promoted to give Israel a bargaining card if stalled negotiations with the Palestinians should resume and the Palestinians submit compensation claims for the property and assets they left behind in what is now Israel.

“The point is to establish symmetry so that the dispute can be closed,” one migrant told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the issue was entirely separate from Palestinian claims for reparations from Israel – and must remain so.

“They can discuss this with Arab countries, it’s not our business,” she told AFP.

“They are trying to find every possible means of circumventing and sabotaging the Palestinian refugees’ rights.”

Peace fund for compensation

JJAC executive director Stanley A. Urman said the campaign to seek restitution for Jews from Arab countries was not meant to negate Palestinian rights.

“History, geography, demography don’t allow any comparison between the plight of Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees,” he told journalists on Sunday, advocating a multilateral approach.

During the latest round of peace talks, which were shepherded by US Secretary of State John Kerry until their collapse in late April, there was talk about the establishment of an international peace fund, he said.

Such a fund would provide physical infrastructure for a Palestinian state, such as roads and sewers, as well as security for Israel in the form of final borders and the funding to allow for the establishment of security perimeters along those borders, he explained.

Thirdly, it would provide compensation “to all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinian and Jewish refugees alike.”