The words “Middle East” and “refugees”, when placed together, immediately conjure up a picture of Palestinians fleeing the fighting in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 (known by the Palestinians as “the Nakba”, the Disaster), although lately they also bring to mind more recent pictures of desperate refugees from all the warn-torn countries surrounding us: Syria, Lebanon, Libya, etc.
Furthermore everyone knows how many Palestinian refugees fled Israel in 1948 – anywhere between 400,000-700,000. Those numbers have grown exponentially to around 5 million according to Palestinian activists, though how they managed that scale of population growth without fiddling the numbers is another question altogether.
However at around the same time, another flood of Middle Eastern refugees, roughly the same number as the Palestinians, moved in the opposite direction. Around 800,000-900,000 Jews were kicked out of what had been their homes all around the Middle East as soon as the State of Israel was established. They made their way to Israel, arriving here destitute, having been forced to forfeit almost all their possessions by their former Arab countries.
In effect, what had occurred was a population exchange, one of many that occurred in the post-World War Two period. But the Jewish refugees have been forgotten in international memory.
Now, after decades of neglect, the Israeli government finally declared yesterday, 30th November, as the first official Remembrance Day for the Jewish refugees from the Middle East.
The Israeli government this year designated a new day, 30 November, to remember historic wrongs done to the Jewish people. The wrong in question was the uprooting of 850,000 Jews from ancient communities in Arab and Muslim lands, including Iran, after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Some call it a period of “systematic persecution” or “ethnic cleansing”.
… historian Nathan Weinstock will explain “how a Belgian Ashkenazi Jew wrote the story of the eradication of Jews from Arab lands”.
Weinstock says the story “demands an understanding of the dhimma – Jewish social status under Islam – and an appreciation of the repercussions of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, leading to the great post-World War II Jewish exodus”.
Once-equal Jewish citizens were persecuted, Jewish stores and workshops were looted, Jewish workers were fired and Jews were restricted from entering universities. Expelled from Egypt, displaced in Iraq and held hostage in Syria (on the suspicion that they would “join the Zionist enemy” and attack their country of birth), most left when they could, leaving all possessions behind. The story is one of immense sadness.
But why is the issue only now being recognised? “Successive Israeli governments didn’t really make much of it, contrary to what Arab countries did for Palestinian refugees,” says Baghdad-born Edwin Shuker, who now lives in London. “It was a huge mistake on many levels. There are fewer than 5,000 Jews left in Arab lands. I am part of a dying generation. We want this narrative incorporated into the Jewish people’s story.”
For Shuker, the 30 November commemoration “opens a new chapter” in that story, and Lyn Julius, co-founder of Harif, the UK association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, agrees that it is a “watershed” moment. But she says the refugees themselves partly explain the slow process of recognition. “When they came to Israel in the 1950s, they compared themselves to Europe’s Jewish refugees, to Holocaust survivors.
What happened to them was far worse, so they thought ‘let’s just get on with it, let’s not make a fuss’.” It was early in the state’s creation, and the country needed to build an Israeli identity, she explains. “Forget the past and move on, that was the only way to integrate Jews from 130 countries,” says Julius.
“Politically, it was disastrous, and the Palestinians made all the running, screaming that they were the only refugees, which the world bought.” Some are cynical about the timing of the Knesset law, which came in the middle of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians earlier this year. Arab- Israeli peace process analyst Dr Constanza Musu says Israel “conducted a very systematic campaign to have the issue of refugees addressed in the negotiations”.
Other countries have already said the issue of Jewish refugees should be included in any final agreement. The Canadian government recently said it would recognise Jewish refugees, while in 2008, the US Congress declared it “inappropriate and unjust to recognise rights for Palestinian refugees without recognising equal rights for former Jewish, Christian, and other refugees from Arab countries”.
Bataween of The Point of No Return blog brings us the stories of some Jewish Middle Eastern refugees who made their way to Britain:
Some of the refugees have campaigned for restitution, hoping to regain the property or value of the capital lost at the time of displacement. Others just want to be heard.
Mrs Hyman, now 64, was eight-years-old when she left Egypt for Britain. Along with her parents and five siblings, she lived in one-room in a refugee camp near Leeds. Her father Abraham, grateful for the “haven”, wrote a letter of thanks to the Queen and named his youngest daughter Elizabeth after her.
“I’m quite emotional talking about it now,” Mrs Hyman said. “When Israel was created, it was dangerous for Jewish people to go out at night in Egypt; they would disappear.
“I remember a policeman coming into our house with papers on a Friday night, saying we had to leave. My father’s family had been in Egypt since the 12th century.
“Everything we had was taken away from us – my father’s packing company was taken away. They made roads out of the tombstones in Jewish cemeteries. I can’t even go back and visit my grandfather’s grave.” In 1948, more than 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt – now, there are fewer than 15.
Bataween also has a roundup of the media coverage of yesterday’s Remembrance Day:
Travails of Jews from Arab lands finally recognised after 66 years (Jerusalem Post):
History was made Sunday, when for the first time in the annals of the state, official recognition was given to Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran.
The date was significant in that it commemorates the day after the anniversary of the November 29, 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine, which led to an immediate flare up of anti-Zionist action and policy among Arab states, resulting in the killing, persecution, humiliation, oppression and expulsion of Jews, the sequestration of Jewish property and a war against the nascent State of Israel.
…… This commemorative day could not have been more timely and more necessary. For while it is a long-standing need – indeed imperative – to serve as reminder and remembrance of the pain and plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran – it also dovetails with – and must serve as a reminder for – the UN and the international community.For Jewish Refugees, it’s about recognition, not politics (Times of Israel)Shortly after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Abadie’s parents were forced to flee Aleppo, Syria, where his family had lived for millennia, under government pressure.…“Two thousand five hundred years of Jewish history came to an end in 25 years,” Ohayon told journalists at a press event in Jerusalem. “In Israel, nobody knows this history.”What about the Jewish Nakba? by Ben Dror Yemini (Y-Net News)“If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea.” This statement was made by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, about a month and a half after the declaration of the independence, and with the Egyptian Army already having invaded the territory allotted to the Jewish state.…For decades, the Palestinians have nurtured the ethos of the Nakba. It has become the defining experience of Palestinian identity. Israel, on the other hand, chose to downplay the persecutions, expulsion and dispossession of the Jews of the Arab states.Israel marks first ever national day for remembering Jewish exodus from Muslim lands (Haaretz)
(Meir) Kahlon was born in 1938 in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The city had a Jewish population of 40,000 until 1948. …
Kahlon’s mother was killed in the Holocaust of Libyan Jews in 1942. “They came to take my father to the labor camps. My mother did not want to open the door. The Germans and the Italian fascists hit the door, my mother fell and died a day later,” he recounted.Later the family fled Tripoli with the help of bribes and found refuge in Zuwara. “The Jews already did not feel safe in Libya, but continued to live [their lives], build and work. In 1945 133 of them were murdered in the pogroms in Tripoli, in which synagogues were burnt down and hundreds of Jewish businesses were destroyed,” he added.
… “We were always of secondary importance. In the educational system they never asked me to tell the story of my mother and father. They did not worry about my learning it. It pained me. I was angry when they talked only about the pogroms, the suffering and the Holocaust of European Jewry, and not our Holocaust. True, the number of our Jews who were murdered was smaller than that in Poland – but it cannot be that for the matriculation exams they learned about the Kishinev pogroms and did not mention the pogroms against the Jews of Arab lands. In Libya they took people to the camps too. Libyan Jews also hid and suffered,” said Kahlon.
While I was searching for articles about the Remembrance Day, I came across this article from 2011 in the Daily Telegraph, “the Forgotten Refugees” by Ed West, which is still relevant today: (emphases added):
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict as far as most people know it runs like this: Jews came from Europe, bought up bits of Palestine until they were numerous enough (thanks partly to financial support from Americans) to take on the Arabs. They then beat them in a war and took their land. Yet this is only half the story.
The early to mid-20th century was a period of incredible demographic movement, and most of it was non-voluntary. Across the former Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires the growth in national consciousness and the demands for self-determination led to enormous forced population transfers.
Everywhere where these transfers happened there was great suffering and injustice, and the same goes for the Jews forced out of Arab countries. The story of Iraq’s Jews is especially sad even for the standards of the last century; a 2500-year-old community was destroyed in months, with ancient families who had lived among Baghdad’s plushest districts for generations finding themselves homeless and impoverished in an alien land. Just like the Palestinians forced over the border, in fact. The difference is that the Israelis did not keep Arab Jews in camps for 60 years to prove a point, but helped them to integrate. I guess that’s why third-generation Syrian-Israelis aren’t clamouring at the border for their right to return.
It is an embarrassment and a shame for Israel that not more attention was paid to the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, but at least some attempt, however belated, has now been taken to correct this terrible mistake. It is also gratifying to note that Israel’s Middle Eastern refugees are now fully integrated into Israeli society. In fact there is so much “intermarriage” between Ashkenazim and Sephardim that there soon won’t be any distinction any more. We will all simply be Israeli Jews.
This day of commemoration is not only necessary for the sake of the Jewish refugees themselves, to recognize their sacrifice and their history, but also to counterbalance the pervasive narrative that only the Palestinians, of all the affected people in that period, can possibly be refugees.
Update: Reader “Reality” in the comments mentions a powerful speech by the Israeli Ambassador to Norway, a Palestinian Christian whose family were also affected by the events of 1948. Here is the link. Read it all.
Here is a video of the speech: