Why Jewish Refugee Day matters

By Lyn Julius, February 14, 2014

Did you know 2014 has been proclaimed the Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People? Eyes glaze at yet another demonstration of ingrained UN bias. The UN has passed more than 100 resolutions in support of Palestinian refugees. Not one resolution mentions a greater number of Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries at around the same time.

That’s one good reason why my organisation, Harif, will be marking Jewish Refugee Day, in solidarity with 870,000 refugees driven out of Arab countries.

A bill designating a special Day in the calendar has just passed its first reading in Israel’s Knesset. The Knesset is wavering over the date — will it be February 17, the date in 1948 when the Arab League drafted restrictions on the “Jewish minority of Palestine” — the lives, property and legal status of their Jewish citizens? Or will it be November 30, the date in 1947 when riots began to break out against Jews in Aden, Syria and Bahrain in protest at the UN Partition Plan?

Harif is plumping for February 17. Israel’s celebrity storyteller Yossi Alfi, the voice of a government campaign to document stories and claims from Mizrachi Jews, will be the star at our commemoration of Jewish Refugee Day.

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.

Recently, senior US 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.

After decades of neglect by successive Israeli governments, the Jewish refugee issue is emerging like a mole blinking into the sunlight.

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

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.

Another blow came last week in a damning report by Israel’s state comptroller, Joseph Shapira. It blasts the Israeli government’s half-hearted and under-resourced approach to collecting claims from ageing 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…”

While the Israeli government bumbles, the diaspora is making the running on the Jewish refugee issue. Recognition is more important than compensation – and the UK is blazing the trail with Jewish Refugee Day.

Last updated: 11:45am, February 14 2014