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July 2, 2018 1:56 pm

Why Have Jewish Refugees From the Arab World Been Forgotten?

avatar by Jacob Sivak

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Jewish refugees at an Israeli transit camp in 1950. Photo: Jewish Agency for Israel via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently watched a television reporter interviewing participants in an Al-Quds Day rally held in Toronto on June 9, 2018. (This is an Iranian-initiated event to support the Palestinians and oppose Israel and Zionism.) One participant stated that Israelis (he meant Jewish Israelis) are European colonists who should go back to Europe.

Whatever one’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fact that the story involves an exchange of populations — one Jewish and one Palestinian — can not be simply ignored.

Historically, such population exchanges are not uncommon. In 1947, the splitting of India caused the displacement of 15 million individuals (Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan), and the deaths of one million people in the accompanying violence. In 1923, a large scale population exchange between Greeks and Turks — involving approximately two million individuals — took place following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Another population exchange involving Greeks and Turks took place in 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern third of the island of Cyprus.

The November 1947 decision by the United Nations to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, led to the establishment of the state of Israel — and the 1948-49 war that followed. The numerous accounts of this war between the nascent Jewish state and the Palestinian Arabs, along with the armies of five surrounding Arab countries, have focussed on the Palestinian refugees.

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But Avi Shavit’s 2013 book, My Promised Land, also refers to the exodus of Jews from Arab countries and their immigration to Israel. He notes that they and their descendants now make up more than 50% of the Jewish population of Israel. Nevertheless, the focus is on Palestinian refugees.

An autobiographical book by Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), also mentions the influx to Israel of large numbers of Jews from Arab lands.

In fact, the number of Jews forced to leave their homes in the Arab world is somewhat greater than the number of Palestinian refugees created by the 1948-49 war.

The New York Times reported in May 1948 that 900,000 Jewish residents of the Arab world were in peril. Approximately 700,000 immigrated to Israel, while the rest migrated to Europe, the United States, and Canada. Today, the Arab world (and the Muslim world) is essentially devoid of Jews.

The term “ethnic cleansing” as it pertains to forced population transfer would certainly be appropriate here.

In a 1967 letter to the editors of The New York Review of Books, James A. Michener pointed out, “Arab refugees left Israel in the heat of war, while the Jewish refugees from Arab lands were thrown out callously in cold blood in times of peace.”

And yet this refugee tragedy stands out for the fact that it is virtually unknown beyond the Jewish world. My non-Jewish friends and acquaintances, and even some Jewish ones, are not aware of this history. Yet they are universally aware of the tragedy experienced by the Palestinians, and more recently by the Syrians.

Why have these refugees been forgotten?

Part of the answer has to be related to the numbers and public relations strengths of the Arab-Muslim community, which accounts for more than 25% of the countries represented in the United Nations. Moreover, as Chaim Genizi writes in The Holocaust, Israel, and Canadian Protestant Churches (2002), the establishment of the State of Israel “…contradicted the old Christian theological myth of Jewish national demise,” and while the Palestinian refugees are a suitable Christian concern, the same does not apply to Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Yet another factor likely resides with the refugees themselves. In a Huffington Post oped titled “Letter from a Forgotten Jew,” David Harris writes, “Perhaps we Jews from Arab countries accepted our fate too passively. Perhaps we failed to seize the opportunity to tell our story.”

Finally, in an insightful book titled The Siege, Conor Cruise O’Brien writes, “The attitude of the Israeli establishment toward the Oriental Jews, in the fifties and sixties, and even later, might be defined as benevolent but pessimistic paternalism, strongly affected by negative racial attitudes and stereotypes, mitigated by the sense of a common Jewish bond. … They were Jews, but not quite the right Jews.”

The Middle East today is a cauldron of sectarian warfare, brutality, and population upheaval — particularly with respect to ethnic and religious minorities such as Kurds, Yazidis, Coptic Christians, and smaller Muslim groups such as the Sufis. Imagine for a moment that Israel was never created. How secure would the lives of a Jewish minority living in the Arab world be today? If forced to flee where would they go?

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