If you’re looking for an online aggregator of Israel-bashing articles, you could do a great deal worse than visit Open Zion, the website edited by the darling of America’s Jewish far left, Peter Beinart. All the obsessions of today’s anti-Zionists are neatly organized there, in the form of hand-wringing tracts about Rachel Corrie’s death, Israel’s resemblance to apartheid South Africa, and the dangerous refusal of Israel and the United States to acknowledge that Iran’s rulers really are reasonable people.
This week, I spied a new theme. An article by Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, caricatured the legitimate claims for justice of those Jews who were expelled from Arab countries as the latest trick on the part of the Israeli government. (Ibish, it should be added, is regarded by many supporters of Israel as a rare voice of sanity among the chorus of increasingly whacky anti-Zionists. However, as his piece on the Jews of the Arab world demonstrates, Ibish is far better at convincing people that he’s an original thinker than he is at original thinking.)
The source of Ibish’s umbrage was a conference organized in Jerusalem by the World Jewish Congress and the Israeli Foreign Ministry on securing justice for the long-settled Jewish communities of the Arab world, who were uprooted during the latter half of the last century. That collective experience gives the lie to oft-heard claim of Arab propagandists that Jews lived in harmony and equality with their Arab and Muslim neighbors until the Zionist movement started meddling. In truth, while the situation of those communities didn’t plummet to European depths, they never rose to European heights either. For as long as they lived in the Arab world, Jews were a second-class minority whose destinies were determined by capricious Arab rulers.
As a new policy paper by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a prominent Israeli think tank, shows, in 1948, the year of Israel’s creation, there were more than one million Jews living in Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries like Iran. Ten years later, that number had been sliced in half. By the beginning of this century, there were only 30,000 Jews remaining, the vast majority of these in Iran. Anyone walking now through the cities of the Muslim world would never know that they once housed a vibrant Jewish culture of synagogues, markets, cafes, social clubs and libraries.
The idea that there is a parallel between the Palestinians and the expelled Jews of the Arab world, the Mizrahim, is not a new one, despite what Hussein Ibish claims in his article. Indeed, coming from a Mizrahi family myself, I can recall the story of how my own grandfather was manhandled out of the Iraqi Embassy in London in 1969 for protesting against the public hanging of nine Iraqi Jews on the trumped up charge of spying for Israel. In 1975, an organization named WOJAC, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, was created with the aim of building awareness about the plight of the Mizrahim against a background dominated by stories of the Palestinian refugees. And over the last decade or so, Jewish activism around the issue has grown exponentially, thanks to the work of organizations like Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and excellent blogs like “Point of No Return.”
Ibish is apparently unaware of all this, so fixated is he with the notion of an Israeli plot. And that is precisely why his conclusion is bereft of both logic and moral sensibility. The campaign to secure justice for Mizrahim is, he writes, a “sleight-of-hand because the political impact of the dispossession of the Palestinian refugees is precisely the opposite of the ‘ingathering’ of the Arab Jews in Israel. The Palestinian Nakba of 1948 was the destruction of a national society. The migration of Arab Jews to Israel, by contrast, and especially from the Zionist perspective, was the realization of a national agenda.”
Where to begin? To start with, there’s the hoary myth of the “Nakba,” which presents the displacement of parts of mandatory Palestine’s Arab population as an exclusively Zionist undertaking. Then there’s the reference to “Arab Jews,” an identification largely rejected by those same Jewish communities. Finally, there is an absurd contrast between the “destruction” of Palestinian society and the erstwhile redemption of the Jews thanks to their arrival in Israel.
In creating a Jewish national home, Zionism sought to provide an option to those Jews who wished to move there, and a safe haven for those Jews with no choice except to move there. The fact that refugees can sometimes arrive in societies that welcome them doesn’t mean they are no longer, in a legal sense, refugees. Yes, the Jewish communities of the Arab world mainly flourished in the countries they moved to, in Israel, in North America and in Europe. That doesn’t in any way dilute the horror of the ethnic cleansing they were subjected to in the years following Israel’s creation.
If Ibish and other Palestinian advocates really wanted a resolution, they would try a different argument. We’ll give up our refugee status—and remember, Palestinians are the only refugee population in the world who can transfer that status to their children; everyone else is governed by a 1951 convention that does not permit refugee status to be inherited—if you give up yours. But that, of course, won’t happen, because it would require the Palestinians to do what the Jews of the Arab world have done, and that is create new lives in the countries where they have settled, and give up on the “right of return.”
At root, the political campaign around the Jews of the Arab world is about historical recognition. For decades, we have been told that the Palestinian Arabs are the only community who suffered as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That victim status has always been jealously guarded by the Palestinians, because—and herein lies the irony of Ibish’s argument—doing so is a political imperative. If Palestinians in Arab countries have to languish as eternal refugees in the Arab world as a result, with educational and career opportunities accordingly closed off, then so be it.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications