It’s time Arabs recognised the ‘Jewish nakba’

By Lyn Julius, June 27, 2008
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Why have those forced to flee Arab lands been forgotten?

This week, delegates from 10 countries convened in London for the first-ever Justice for Jews from Arab Countries Congress. The delegates, from Brazil and Belgium, Italy and Israel, Australia and America and elsewhere, represent the last generation of Jews uprooted from Arab countries. Their purpose was to spotlight the neglected rights of 850,000 Middle Eastern Jewish refugees.

Sixty years ago, as five Arab armies invaded the fledgling state of Israel, Arab states unleashed a terrible assault on their Jewish communities. Rampaging mobs screaming Ytbah al-Yahud (“Slaughter the Jews”) murdered more than 150. By 1958, following anti-Jewish decrees, bans, extortion, arrests, intimidation, internment and hangings, more than half the Jews had fled or been expelled. Today, 99.5 percent — all but 4,500 — have been driven out. Not even the Jews of 1939 Nazi Germany had been so thoroughly “ethnically cleansed”.

The uprooting of Jews in Arab countries was not just revenge for the creation of Israel and its humiliating victory over the Arabs. Even before the 1948 war, Arab states colluded to persecute their Jews. Nazi-inspired Arab nationalism and Islamism were already victimising minorities, historically despised as inferior dhimmis with few rights. These forces ignited the conflict with Zionism, and drive it to this day.

The Jewish nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — was more than dispossession and expulsion. It tore a gaping hole in the Arab cultural, social and economic fabric. Cities such as Baghdad — one-third Jewish — were emptied overnight. Jews not only lost homes, shops, schools, shrines, hospitals, synagogues and deeded private land five times the size of Israel, but a 2,500 year-old heritage predating Islam by a millennium. 

Most Jewish refugees fled to Israel, where half the Jewish population hails from Arab and Muslim lands. This makes Israel both a necessary haven from Arab antisemitism, and the legitimate political expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people.

Arab regimes have never acknowledged that a mass violation of Jewish rights took place, much less admitted guilt or offered compensation. Over 100 UN resolutions relate to Palestinian refugees; not one to the more numerous Jewish refugees. Israel has been reluctant to politicise the issue, having successfully absorbed Jewish refugees as full and productive citizens. Thus, Arab denial has conspired with Israeli silence to expunge Jewish refugees from the record, distorting and
decontextualising it.

Thanks to groups such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, however, awareness of the “Jewish nakba” has grown. In April, JJAC scored its first significant success. The US House of Representatives adopted its first resolution on Jewish refugees: future resolutions mentioning Palestinian refugees must refer explicitly to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Although Jewish financial losses have been put at twice the Palestinian ones, the resolution is about recognition, not restitution. Such measures could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by leading to mutual recognition of the plight of both sides. Thus, justice for Jews is not just a moral imperative, but the key to reconciliation.

Moreover, if abandoning the Palestinian “right of return” were balanced by the Jewish right not to return to the Arab tyrannies which threw them out — acknowledging a de facto population exchange — a major stumbling block to peace could disappear.

The Jewish refugees are also an object lesson in how Palestinian refugees festering in camps as propaganda pawns could be resettled in host Arab countries or a Palestinian state.

The campaign for Jewish refugees is picking up. In March, the UN Human Rights Council was addressed for the first time by a Libyan Jew who fled in 1967 in fear of her life. A US Senate resolution is in the pipeline, there is activity at the Canadian Parliament and a hearing scheduled at the European Parliament on 2 July. In Britain, aside from a mention at a parliamentary debate, little to date: perhaps this week’s Congress will show us the way.

Lyn Julius co-founded Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, and blogs at
jewishrefugees.blogspot.com. The JJAC website is justiceforjews.com

    Last updated: 8:25am, July 4 2008