|Hitching a ride on the magic carpet
|By Yehouda Shenhav|
|Any analogy between Palestinian refugees and
Jewish immigrants from Arab lands is folly in historical and
political terms |
An intensive campaign to secure official
political and legal recognition of Jews from Arab lands as refugees
has been going on for the past three years. This campaign has tried
to create an analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi Jews,
whose origins are in Middle Eastern countries - depicting both
groups as victims of the 1948 War of Independence. The campaign's
proponents hope their efforts will prevent conferral of what is
called a "right of return" on Palestinians, and reduce the size of
the compensation Israel is liable to be asked to pay in exchange for
Palestinian property appropriated by the state guardian of "lost"
The idea of
drawing this analogy constitutes a mistaken reading of history,
imprudent politics, and moral injustice.
launched the campaign in July 2000 in an interview with Israel's
Channel One, in which he disclosed that an agreement to recognize
Jews from Arab lands as refugees materialized at the Camp David
summit. Ehud Barak then stepped up and enthusiastically expounded on
his "achievement" in an interview with Dan Margalit.
Israeli governments had refrained from issuing declarations of this
sort. First, there has been concern that any such proclamation will
underscore what Israel has tried to repress and forget: the
Palestinians' demand for return. Second, there has been anxiety that
such a declaration would encourage property claims submitted by Jews
against Arab states and, in response, Palestinian counter-claims to
lost property. Third, such declarations would require Israel to
update its schoolbooks and history, and devise a new narrative by
which the Mizrahi Jews journeyed to the country under duress,
without being fueled by Zionist aspirations. That would be a
At Camp David, Ehud Barak decided
that the right of return issue was not really on the agenda, so he
thought he had the liberty to indulge the Mizrahi analogy
rhetorically. Characteristically, rather than really dealing with
issues as a leader, in a fashion that might lead to mutual
reconciliation, Barak acted like a shopkeeper.
potato was cooked up for Barak and Clinton by Bobby Brown, prime
minister Benjamin Netanyahu's adviser for Diaspora affairs, and his
colleagues, along with delegates from organizations such as the
World Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations.
few months ago Dr. Avi Becker, secretary-general of the World Jewish
Congress, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the
Conference of Presidents, persuaded Prof. Irwin Cotler, a member of
Canada's parliament and an expert on international law, to join
their campaign. An article by Becker published a few weeks ago in
the Hebrew edition of Haaretz (July 20), entitled "Respect for Jews
from Arab lands," constituted one step in this public campaign. The
article said little about respect for Mizrahi Jews. On the contrary
- it trampled their dignity.
The campaign's results thus far
are meager. Its umbrella organization, Justice for Jews From Arab
Countries, has not inspired much enthusiasm in Israel, or among Jews
overseas. It has yet to extract a single noteworthy declaration from
any major Israeli politician. This comes as no surprise: The
campaign has a forlorn history whose details are worth revisiting.
Sometimes recounting history has a very practical effect.
World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) was founded
in the 1970s. Yigal Allon, then foreign minister, worried that WOJAC
would become a hotbed of what he called "ethnic mobilization." But
WOJAC was not formed to assist Mizrahi Jews; it was invented as a
deterrent to block claims harbored by the Palestinian national
movement, particularly claims related to compensation and the right
At first glance, the use of the term "refugees"
for Mizrahi Jews was not unreasonable. After all, the word had
occupied a central place in historical and international legal
discourses after World War II. United Nations Security Council
Resolution 242 from 1967 referred to a just solution to "the problem
of refugees in the Middle East." In the 1970s, Arab countries tried
to fine-tune the resolution's language so that it would refer to
"Arab refugees in the Middle East," but the U.S. government, under
the direction of ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg, opposed this
revision. A working paper prepared in 1977 by Cyrus Vance, then U.S.
secretary of state, ahead of scheduled international meetings in
Geneva, alluded to the search for a solution to the "problem of
refugees," without specifying the identities of those refugees.
Israel lobbied for this formulation. WOJAC, which tried to introduce
use of the concept "Jewish refugees," failed.
The Arabs were
not the only ones to object to the phrase. Many Zionist Jews from
around the world opposed WOJAC's initiative. Organizers of the
current campaign would be wise to study the history of WOJAC, an
organization which transmogrified over its years of activity from a
Zionist to a post-Zionist entity. It is a tale of unexpected results
arising from political activity.
`We are not
The WOJAC figure who came up with the idea of
"Jewish refugees" was Yaakov Meron, head of the Justice Ministry's
Arab legal affairs department. Meron propounded the most radical
thesis ever devised concerning the history of Jews in Arab lands. He
claimed Jews were expelled from Arab countries under policies
enacted in concert with Palestinian leaders - and he termed these
policies "ethnic cleansing." Vehemently opposing the dramatic
Zionist narrative, Meron claimed that Zionism had relied on
romantic, borrowed phrases ("Magic Carpet," "Operation Ezra and
Nehemiah") in the description of Mizrahi immigration waves to
conceal the "fact" that Jewish migration was the result of "Arab
expulsion policy." In a bid to complete the analogy drawn between
Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews, WOJAC publicists claimed that the
Mizrahi immigrants lived in refugee camps in Israel during the 1950s
(i.e., ma'abarot or transit camps), just like the Palestinian
The organization's claims infuriated many Mizrahi
Israelis who defined themselves as Zionists. As early as 1975, at
the time of WOJAC's formation, Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu
declared: "We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country
before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations."
Shlomo Hillel, a government minister and an active Zionist
in Iraq, adamantly opposed the analogy: "I don't regard the
departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came
here because they wanted to, as Zionists."
In a Knesset
hearing, Ran Cohen stated emphatically: "I have this to say: I am
not a refugee." He added: "I came at the behest of Zionism, due to
the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption.
Nobody is going to define me as a refugee."
was so vociferous that Ora Schweitzer, chair of WOJAC's political
department, asked the organization's secretariat to end its
campaign. She reported that members of Strasburg's Jewish community
were so offended that they threatened to boycott organization
meetings should the topic of "Sephardi Jews as refugees" ever come
up again. Such remonstration precisely predicted the failure of the
current organization, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries to
inspire enthusiasm for its efforts.
Also alarmed by WOJAC's
stridency, the Foreign Ministry proposed that the organization bring
its campaign to a halt on the grounds that the description of
Mizrahi Jews as refugees was a double-edged sword. Israel, ministry
officials pointed out, had always adopted a stance of ambiguity on
the complex issue raised by WOJAC. In 1949, Israel even rejected a
British-Iraqi proposal for population exchange - Iraqi Jews for
Palestinian refugees - due to concerns that it would subsequently be
asked to settle "surplus refugees" within its own borders.
The foreign minister deemed WOJAC a Phalangist, zealous
group, and asked that it cease operating as a "state within a
state." In the end, the ministry closed the tap on the modest flow
of funds it had transferred to WOJAC. Then justice minister Yossi
Beilin fired Yaakov Meron from the Arab legal affairs department.
Today, no serious researcher in Israel or overseas embraces WOJAC's
Moreover, WOJAC, which intended to promote
Zionist claims and assist Israel in its conflict with Palestinian
nationalism, accomplished the opposite: It presented a confused
Zionist position regarding the dispute with the Palestinians, and
infuriated many Mizrahi Jews around the world by casting them as
victims bereft of positive motivation to immigrate to Israel. WOJAC
subordinated the interests of Mizrahi Jews (particularly with regard
to Jewish property in Arab lands) to what it erroneously defined as
Israeli national interests. The organization failed to grasp that
defining Mizrahi Jews as refugees opens a Pandora's box and
ultimately harms all parties to the dispute, Jews and Arabs
Lessons not learned
The World Jewish
Congress and other Jewish rganizations learned nothing from this
woeful legacy. Hungry for a magic solution to the refugee question,
they have adopted
the refugee analogy and are lobbying for it
all over the world. It would be interesting to hear the education
minister's reaction to the historical narrative presented nowadays
by these Jewish organizations. Should Limor Livnat establish a
committee of ministry experts to revise school textbooks in
accordance with this new post-Zionist genre?
person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must acknowledge that the analogy
drawn between Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews is unfounded.
Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many
Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some 700,000
Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders of historic
Palestine. Those who left did not do so of their own
In contrast, Jews from Arab lands came to this
country under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish
organizations. Some came of their own free will; others arrived
against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab
lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.
of the "Mizrahi aliyah" (immigration to Israel) is complex, and
cannot be subsumed within a facile explanation. Many of the
newcomers lost considerable property, and there can be no question
that they should be allowed to submit individual property claims
against Arab states (up to the present day, the State of Israel and
WOJAC have blocked the submission of claims on this basis).
unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi
immigrants needlessly embroils members of these two groups in a
dispute, degrades the dignity of many Mizrahi Jews, and harms
prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.
anxieties about discussing the question of 1948 are understandable.
But this question will be addressed in the future, and it is clear
that any peace agreement will
have to contain a solution to the
refugee problem. It's reasonable to assume that as final status
agreements between Israelis and Palestinians are reached, an
international fund will be formed with the aim of compensating
Palestinian refugees for the hardships
caused them by the
establishment of the State of Israel. Israel will surely be asked to
contribute generously to such a fund.
In this connection,
the idea of reducing compensation obligations by designating Mizrahi
immigrants as refugees might become very tempting. But it is wrong
to use scarecrows to chase away politically and morally valid claims
advanced by Palestinians. The "creative accounting" manipulation
concocted by the refugee analogy only adds insult to injury, and
widens the psychological gap between Jews and Palestinians.
Palestinians might abandon hopes of redeeming a right of return (as,
for example, Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikai claims); but
this is not a result to be adduced via creative
Any peace agreement must be validated by Israeli
recognition of past wrongs and suffering, and the forging of a just
solution. The creative accounts proposed by the
turns Israel into a morally and politically spineless
Yehouda Shenhav is a professor at Tel Aviv
University and the editorof Theory Criticism, an Israeli journal in
the area of critical theory and cultural studies.
|Iraqi Jews arrive in Israel, 1949:"We are not
refugees." (Courtesy of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage
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