In February 2008, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were discussing “core issues” of the Middle East conflict: the status of Jerusalem, the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. Absent from those discussions, however, was talk of the 900,000 Jews displaced from their ancestral homelands throughout North Africa and the Middle East since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. As Israel’s 60th anniversary approaches, renewed attention must be paid to these “forgotten refugees.” This would recognize the suffering of the Arab Jews who were forced from their homes, and also provide Israel with more leverage at the negotiating table.
Jews from Arab Lands
The Palestinian narrative of “dispossession” is filled with falsified stories of Israeli “atrocities” in which Arabs were forced from their homes at gunpoint during the Israeli War of Independence, or the 1967 Six-Day War. The Palestinians often accuse Israel of having devised a plan to that effect, which essentially amounts to charges of ethnic cleansing. Most of these charges have been proven false by historians, yet the allegations continue, in a sustained effort to vilify Israel on the world stage.
Often referred to as “Jews from Arab Lands,” nearly two-thirds of the 900,000 men, women, and children who were displaced from their homes made their way to Israel from the time of the 1948 war. While the circumstances surrounding the treatment of these Jews varied from country to country, the end result was nearly always the same. For example:
The Jews of Libya, numbering nearly 40,000, left because of mob violence and anti-Jewish riots. There are no Jews left there today.
The Jews of Iraq, perhaps the most historic Jewish community outside of Israel, were subject to government edicts that allowed emigration only after forfeiting their homes and businesses. Iraqi Jews, now numbering in the single digits, were more than 135,000 strong in 1948.
Yemenite Jews, who traced their community back to the time of the First Temple, had for years been subjected to anti-Semitic laws. Once the creation of Israel appeared imminent, the Yemenis burned businesses to the ground, and Jews were subjected to waves of violence. In order to save this community under siege, Israel airlifted nearly the entire Yemenite Jewish community to Israel in 1949 and 1950 in what was known as “Operation Magic Carpet.”
Proof of Arab Plans
Libya, Iraq, and other Arab states that expelled their Jews have attempted to sweep this ignominious period of history under the rug. These governments often claim that the Arab Jews who left did so because they sought to make aliyah, and not because of the policies that forced them to leave. It is also asserted that these ancient Jewish communities were forced to leave for fear of the spontaneous rage of “the Arab street” in response to the creation of Israel.
A new report by the New York-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries provides incontrovertible evidence, for the first time, that these Arab states orchestrated the expulsion and persecution of their Jews. Indeed, documents reveal a well-planned, organized effort on the part of Arab countries to demonize and strip their own Jewish citizens of their wealth as punishment for Israel’s declaration of independence.
A document entitled “Text of Law drafted by Political Committee of Arab League” proposes that Jews be required to “register with the authorities” in their own countries, and that their bank accounts be frozen. Thus, it has become clear that Jews were not the victims of an unplanned rage by the Arab citizenry. Rather, these and other documents demonstrate that stripping the Arab Jews of their rights and belongings was all part of a calculated plan on the part of nearly a dozen Arab states.
In January 1948, the World Jewish Congress brought the Arab League document before the United Nations in an appeal for assistance. However, the president of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Dr. Charles H. Malik, a representative of Lebanon to the U.N., refused to bring it to the floor.
Were it not for the efforts of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and other like-minded organizations, the story of the Arab League’s plans would almost certainly remain unknown to the world.
The International Response
The response from the world community to the Jewish refugee problem in the Arab world was mixed. There was no doubt that these Jews qualified under the 1951 Convention of the United Nations. According to the convention, a refugee is someone “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality,” and who is unable “to avail himself of the protection of that country.” By 1957, the U.N. officially determined that Arab Jews qualified.
Ten years later, following the Six- Day War, when more Jews were displaced from their Arab homes, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees released an official statement based upon “recent discussion concerning Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries in consequence of recent events.” The commissioner determined that they fell “within the mandate of this Office.”
After the 1967 war, the United Nations released the carefully worded Resolution 242, which called for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” It is often noted that the resolution calls for Israel to leave territories, but does not say all territories. Similarly, Resolution 242 calls for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” However, it does not state which refugees. Palestinians typically claim ownership of this clause, claiming that it refers to those Arabs displaced by the 1948 and 1967 wars. Nonetheless, the ambiguity of this statement makes it applicable to the Jewish refugee problem.
However, any potential support from the United Nations about the Jewish refugee problem ended with resolution 242. Over 60 years, there have been no less than 126 United Nations resolutions expressing support for the Palestinian refugees, without even once specifically mentioning their Jewish counterparts. Countless U.N. agencies have doled out untold millions of dollars to Palestinian refugees and their heirs, but no serious discussion has ever taken place about compensating the Jews.
Redressing the Problem
More than 4 million Palestinians today claim refugee status. The status of many of them is questionable, given that many are the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees who have long since passed. These Palestinians have become living symbols of a grievance that remains one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the Palestinian-Israeli peace. Many insist upon nothing less than the “right of return.”
The Jewish refugees, by stark contrast, have integrated into Israeli society or other countries, and have rebuilt their lives. Most of these refugees have invested in the future of their families, rather than dwell in a painful past.
Most of the Jewish refugees take their cue from the Israeli government, which has traditionally downplayed the issue. At different periods throughout Israel’s 60-year history, the government has issued communiqu⁄s expressing their support for the refugees. The closest that Israel ever came to making demands on behalf of the refugees came in 1979. As part of the Camp David Accords with Egypt, Article 8 stated that, “the Parties agree to establish a claims commission for the mutual settlement of all financial claims.” However, no such committee has ever been formed.
Only a handful of Jewish refugees and their families have decided to pursue justice for the wrongs they suffered decades ago. A recent high profile example is a case involving the Bigio family of Egypt. With land and factories just twenty minutes away from Cairo in the town of Heliopolis, the Bigio family enjoyed wealth and prominence in Egypt dating back to the 1930’s. One of their businesses was a bottle-capping factory that they leased to Coca-Cola. After Israel’s independence, the Egyptian regime stripped the Bigios of their citizenship and confiscated their wealth. They eventually left Egypt without any money, and without a home.
Their attempts to find justice through the Egyptian courts have proved futile. The family has since filed suit against Coca-Cola. The family has received death threats since taking their struggle public.
For a variety of reasons, the Jewish refugees seeking justice are typically careful not to demand repatriation to the Arab countries where they lived. For one, Arab countries will more than likely be happy to invite their Jewish compatriots to return. In doing so, they would open the door for Palestinians to expect the same from Israel. To Ahmed Rehab, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group commonly identified as Islamist, the idea of Jews returning to their former Arab countries is welcomed. “That means the Jews should be allowed to go back to the Arab countries, and the Palestinians should be able to go back to their homes in what is now Israel,” Rehab said. Such a move would drastically alter the demographic balance in Israel, and possibly erode the Jewish character of the state.
Moreover, as Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland explained to the U.S. Congress in May 2000, the Palestinians had one country with whom they sought to settle their grievances – Israel. Jews, by contrast, were victimized by at least 10 Arab states, making theirs a multilateral rather than bilateral negotiation.
Finally, and most importantly, few Jews would ever want to return to the Arab countries that ejected them. Living in Yemen, Egypt, or Libya as a Jew would mean a life of hardship. In those three countries, religious freedom is virtually non-existent, and the state-controlled media can be virulently anti-Semitic.
Toward A Settlement
In 2000, President Bill Clinton stated on Israeli television that he sought to explore “a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.”
The concept of an international fund for all the refugees of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to which all parties (including Israel) would contribute, has gained some traction over the years. However, successive Israeli governments have failed to make the solution to the Jewish refugee problem a priority.
The Jewish refugees, for their part, appear to be more interested in having their story told than receiving compensation. But this does not mean that the Israeli government should place less of a priority on the issue. As the Olmert government negotiates with the Palestinians during the final year of the George W. Bush administration, the Israelis are expected to make painful concessions on everything from Jerusalem to borders. Justice for the Jewish refugees should be a crucial point that undercuts the intransigent Palestinian position on the “right of return.”
Robert Ivker , a former journalist at the United Nations, is author of One Town’s Terror: 9/11, Iraq and Burlington, Vermont (2006).