The Forgotten Jewish Refugees From Arab Countries

Where is their “right of return”?

When the talk in the halls of the United Nations (UN) turns to Middle Eastern refugees, it is usually referred to Palestinian, and more recently Syrian refugees. The same is true at the European Union (EU) meetings, when the subject is refugees. In fact, at UN headquarters in New York, one cannot avoid the photographic display of Palestinian refugees in its hallways.  What is not discussed, let alone commemorated or acted upon in the form of resolutions, are the stories of the 900,000 Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries. In response to the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, they were expelled, and subsequent expulsions followed. There is no special day designated by the UN dedicated to the fate of these Jews, their existence, and ultimate disappearance.

Entire Jewish communities from North Africa to the Fertile Crescent, from Yemen to Morocco; Jewish communities that existed in Arab lands throughout the Middle East for millenniums, predating the advent of Mohammad and Islam, were wiped out. In so far as the UN is concerned, there are only Palestinian Arab refugees (the number of the original Palestinian refugees of 1948-1949, is smaller than Jewish refugees from Arab lands). The Jewish refugees have been forgotten and their memory ignored. In 1945, there were about 900,000 Jews living in the Arab world. Between 1948 and 1967, as many as 608,799 Jews fled to Israel with only their shirts on their backs, their properties confiscated. An additional 260,000 Jewish refugees found refuge in Europe.

The status of Jews in Arab lands has been based on the Koran. Arab rulers set up laws based on the Koran that governed both religious and secular life. The two, the religious and secular, were intertwined and are indistinguishable from each other. The Koran categorizes non-Muslims as either pagans or believers. Under Islamic rule, pagans can only choose between converting to Islam or death. People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, are considered to have revealed religions. Therefore, Jews and Christians have an additional choice – submission to Islam or dhimmitude. The Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab produced a Charter (the conqueror of Jerusalem, who followed Abu Bakr, the immediate successor to the Prophet Mohammad) that codified the treatment of Jews and Christians. The Charter included 12 laws under which Jews and Christians could live under Islam as “protected people” or Dhimmis. To merit “protection,” Jews and Christians were required to pay a head tax called jizya, and a special land tax known as kharaj. Dhimmis were forbidden from testifying against Muslims, holding office, bearing arms, or drinking wine in public. Jews were required to wear a yellow patch on their clothes (the Nazis adopted that during WWII). These conditions, namely the Umar laws, endured well into the early part of the 20th Century.

Soon after the November, 1947 UN Partition Plan was passed, the Jews of Palestine established the Jewish state called Israel, resurrected after 2,000 years in exile and statelessness. The Arab states rejected the Partition Plan. Furious, the Arab states set out to throw the “insolent” Jews into the Mediterranean Sea, and demolish the nascent state. Concurrently, they decided to persecute their peaceful and productive Jewish communities. The Arab states liquidated more than 2,000 years of Jewish culture, heritage, and history. There was no international outcry over the gross human rights violations committed by the Arab states. These violations included murder, rape, confiscated properties, and the looting of Jewish owned businesses. Pogroms against the Jews in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Arab world were encouraged by the authorities. 

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s new ambassador to the UN, in a Jerusalem Post opinion piece asserted that, “In the decades since the treacherous expulsion, the UN has worked to only assist so-called Palestinian refugees.  Billions of dollars have been handed over to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which while caring for the welfare of families, simultaneously encourage terrorism and incitement through its school programs, and in the process, perpetuates a false narrative of the Palestinian “right of return.” Erdan added, “I see it as a moral obligation to right the wrong that was done to our brothers and sisters from Arab lands. As Israel’s ambassador to the UN, I am committed to ensuring that their stories will now become part of the international consciousness. I will lead a diplomatic campaign to pass a resolution at the UN General Assembly to recognize their plight.”

Aside from the efforts declared by Ambassador Gilad Erdan to bring the flight of Jewish refugees from the Arab lands and Iran to the international community, there is an organization established in 2002 called Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) whose aim is to educate and mobilize the American public opinion and policy makers, “to protect the confiscated property and basic human rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran, as well as other threatened minorities in the region.” In 2011, JIMENA developed an Arabic language outreach to challenge anti-Semitism in the Arab world and promote normalization between Arabs and global Jewry, including Israel.

In all previous efforts to establish peace between the Palestinians (Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, the issue of the “Right of Return,” became a major stumbling block.  It was an issue of contention at the Camp David Summit II initiated by President Clinton in July, 2000, with Yasser Arafat (PLO Chairman) and PM Ehud Barak, and in the Mahmoud Abbas (PA Chairman) and Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert negotiations in 2008. The “Right of Return” to Israel of Palestinian refugees and their descendents was the pretext not to end the conflict. 

It is apparent that for Yasser Arafat, the ultimate terrorist chief, running a state was too problematic, and lacked the aura and rewards of being a Che Guevara - like Guerilla fighter.  Moreover, the threat of assassination loomed heavily on his mind.  The Palestinian Diaspora, having been taught that they will inherit the properties of the liquidated Jews of Israel, as the PLO Charter had suggested, spurred them on to believe that compromise is for cowards. Thus, the idea that an exchange of population has already occurred, albeit, Israel absorbed its Jewish refugees from Arab lands while the Palestinian refugees were made to be political pawns by the Arab states and the PLO. Mahmoud Abbas, like his predecessor, feared to conclude a peace with Olmert in spite of far reaching Israeli concessions.  He too feared assassination.   

Historically, there was an exchange of populations in the Middle East and the number of displaced Jews exceeded the number of Palestinian Arab refugees. Most of the Jews were expelled as a result of an open policy of anti-Semitic incitement, and even ethnic cleansing. However, unlike the Arab refugees, the Jews who fled are a forgotten case because of a combination of international cynicism and the Israeli government turning the refugees into productive citizens. The Palestinians are the only group of refugees out of more than one hundred million who were displaced after World War II, who have a special UN agency that perpetuates their tragedy. An open debate about the exodus of the Jews is critical for countering the Palestinian demand for the “right of return.” 

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