|Some years ago, a daughter of the wealthy Jewish Castro family from Egypt heard Anwar Sadat’s widow Jehan deliver a talk in New York. Congratulating her afterwards, the Egyptian Jewess exchanged pleasantries with Mrs. Sadat. “But you must come back to visit [Egypt] and to show it to your children,” Mrs. Sadat said, adding the traditional Egyptian courtesy, beti betak – “my house is your house.”|
Little did she appreciate the irony, but Jehan Sadat’s presidential villa had literally belonged to the Castro family, which was expelled by Nasser in 1956. Observers of the Middle East conflict frequently talk of trampled Palestinian rights, but suffer from a blind spot when it comes to the mass dispossession of a greater number of Jews across 10 Arab countries.
Few Jews lived as opulently as the Castros, but all over the Middle East and North Africa, Jewish homes, shops and businesses were seized or sold for well under market value as fearful Jews fled or were forced out. Communities predating the Islamic conquest by 1,000 years have been driven to extinction.
Economist Sidney Zabludoff estimates that there were 50 percent more Jewish refugees than Palestinian Arab refugees, and that they almost certainly lost 50% more in assets and property. While the world is fixated by Israeli building in a (Jewish-owned) Jerusalem suburb, nobody reproaches Arab states for seizing Jewish land and property in Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli and Damascus, estimated by the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries at five times the size of Israel itself.
Two years ago this month the Knesset quietly passed a bill stipulating that the Israeli government must include Jewish refugee rights, notably compensation, in all future peace talks.
MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) proposed the law, inspired by a 2008 US Congress resolution.
When the time comes to discuss “final status” issues, the Israeli government will be committed to upholding the rights of 850,000 Jews scapegoated as Zionists after 1948 and driven from their homes. In the meantime, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is spearheading a campaign to raise the public profile of Jewish refugees. His team is preparing a report on the issue. And on the second anniversary of the passing of the Knesset law on 21 February, we can expect to hear a lot more about Jewish refugees.
Before any talk of compensation, however, Arab League states must recognize their culpability for creating the Jewish refugee problem.
All too often, the issue is met with disbelief or denial. If it is acknowledged, wild counterclaims for compensation are made. Arabs blame the exodus on the Zionists, or rationalize it as a justifiable backlash to the creation of Israel. The myths are peddled that Jews and Muslims lived together harmoniously before Zionism, or that Jews were better treated in the Muslim world than in the Christian.
Arab propaganda and Israeli silence have conspired to make the world believe that the Palestinians are the victims of an Israeli injustice.
By restoring Jewish refugees to the picture – they and their descendants make up 52% of the Jewish population of Israel – it becomes clear that two sets of refugees, in roughly equal numbers, exchanged places in the Middle East.
Although no Jew would today consider himself a refugee, justice for the Jewish refugees, for which there is no statute of limitations, is a moral imperative. It is not simply a matter of compensation for stolen assets and property.
Jews hundreds of miles away from the battlefield suffered state-sanctioned discrimination, violence and abuse simply for being Jews.
Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, were caught up in a local war launched by their own leadership.
Jewish refugees could help achieve peace by acting as a counterweight to the Palestinian “right of return.” Even the “moderates” of the Fatah camp cling to their demand for the Arab refugees of 1948 (their numbers have ballooned to more than four million because, uniquely, refugee status is passed on to their descendants ) to return to what is now Israel.
The Palestinian “right of return” amounts to the destruction of Israel by demographic means and the de facto creation of two Palestinian states, one in the West Bank, and one in place of Israel.
In contrast, Jewish refugees were successfully resettled in Israel and the West. The Palestinian refugee problem, perpetuated by UNWRA, the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, could be resolved at a a stroke if the Jewish model of resettlement were followed. Palestinian non-absorption in Arab host countries is an abuse of human rights. It is not only counter-intuitive, it is inhumane.
Contrary to recent misleading press reports, no Jew seeks a “right of return” to Arab states.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman categorically denied that the Israeli government supported such a demand. Firstly, there is no precedent for a return. The seven million Hindus and Muslims who swapped places in the Indian- Pakistani war of 1947 constituted a permanent exchange. So did the Greeks expelled from Turkey and Turks driven from Greece after the end of the First World War.
Secondly, apart from the upheaval generated by a further mass migration, a Jewish “right of return” to countries poisoned by anti-Jewish hatred is unthinkable. Wild horses would not drag three generations of Jews, permanently integrated in Israel and the West, back to lands that are neither hospitable nor safe. The Arab Spring has only made anti-Semitism worse.
And if one set of refugees can’t return, neither should the other.
The Jewish refugees are the key to understanding the bigotry against non-Muslim minorities which drives the conflict with Israel as long as fascism holds sway over the Arab world, its grip strengthened by the Arab Spring.
As the plight of Copts and Assyrians shows, the native Jews would have been victimized even if Israel had not existed. They were the first to suffer ethnic cleansing, but they will not be the last.
Israel’s failure to fight for the rights of Jewish refugees has been a catastrophe of public diplomacy – one that the government is at last trying to remedy after 60 years of neglect. Danny Ayalon’s ministry is expected to make recommendations for recognition and redress for Jewish refugees. He is launching an official PR campaign and will be instructing Israeli embassies around the world to bring up the issue with their counterparts. Watch this space.
The writer is a co-founder of Harif, a UK association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.