Arab Jews, Palestinian Refugees and Israel's Folly Politics

By: Yehouda Shenhav
October 2006
Distributed by email by David Shasha

In an article in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz from 22.10.06, the Reuters Agency reported that World Jewish groups began a global campaign calling for recognition of Jews from Arab countries (i.e. Arab Jews) as refugees in the Middle East conflict. Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) was quoted saying that:
The world sees the plight of Palestinian refugees, and not withstanding their plight, there must be recognition that Jews from Arab countries are also victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), a U.S.-based coalition of Jewish organizations, is one of the groups coordinating the campaign which aims to record testimonies of Jews from Arab countries, list asset losses and lobby foreign governments on their behalf. Reuters also reported that JJAC is working in tandem with Israel's Ministry of Justice, which is collecting and registering testimonials, affidavits and property claims. The daily internet paper Y-NET (October 24 2006 under the title: "Jews of Arab Countries prepare yourself to claim compensation") also reported that the new minister of justice Meir Shitrit is behind this "new effort."

However this effort is all but novel. It started 6 years ago in a folly attempt to use the Arab Jews and their histories to counter-balance the Palestinian claim for the so called "right of return". The campaign has tried to create an analogy between Palestinian refugees and Arab Jews, whose origins are in Middle Eastern countries - depicting both groups as victims of the 1948 War of Independence. The campaign's Jewish 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" assets. Whereas in the past, the State of Israel and Jewish organizations have denied any linkage between the two groups and argued that the campaign was launched in the interest of the Arab Jews (see Chapter 3 in my book The Arab Jews, Stanford University Press, 2006), today all parties involved acknowledge that the main objective of the campaign is not to secure the interest of the Arab Jews, but rather to counter-balance the Palestinian political demands. I would like to argue that the idea of drawing this analogy constitutes a mistaken reading of history, imprudent politics, and moral injustice; and that any analogy between Palestinian refugees and Jewish immigrants from Arab lands is folly in historical and political terms

Bill Clinton 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, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, stepped up and enthusiastically expounded on his "achievement" in an interview with Dan Margalit. It should be noted, that past Israeli governments had refrained from issuing declarations of this sort. There were at least three reasons for that. 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 school textbooks and history, and devise a new narrative by which the Arab Jews journeyed to the country under duress, without being fueled by Zionist aspirations. 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 analogy between the Palestinian refugees and the Arab Jews, only rhetorically.

Characteristically, rather than really dealing with issues as a leader, in a fashion that might lead to mutual reconciliation, Barak and later prime ministers Ariel Sharom and Ehud Oulmert acted like shopkeepers. Furthermore, whereas the article in Ha'aretz mentioned above reports that the Ministry of Justice has already received thousands of claims to date, in actuality the campaign's results thus far are meager. The Jewish organizations involved have 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.

The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) who initiated this linkage 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 the Arab Jews; it was invented as a deterrent to block claims harbored by the Palestinian national movement, particularly claims related to compensation and the right of return. At first glance, the use of the term "refugees" for the Arab 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. 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 Arab Jewish immigrants lived in refugee camps in Israel during the 1950s (i.e., ma'abarot or transit camps), just like the Palestinian refugees.

The organization's claims infuriated many Arab Jews in Israel 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." The opposition 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 Arab 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 extreme claims.

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 alike.

The State of Israel, 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 Yael Tamir establish a committee of ministry experts to revise school textbooks in accordance with this new post-Zionist genre?

Any reasonable person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must acknowledge that the analogy drawn between Palestinians and Arab 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 volition. In contrast, Arab Jews arrived to Israel under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some arrived of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.

The history of this immigration 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). The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi immigrants needlessly embroils members of these two groups in a dispute, degrades the dignity of many Arab Jews, and harms prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.

Jewish 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 Arab Jews 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 accounting.

Any peace agreement (which seems now far then ever) must be validated by Israeli recognition of past wrongs and suffering, and the forging of a just solution. The creative accounts proposed by the refugee analogy by the Israeli Ministry of Justice and Jewish organizations turns Israel into a morally and politically spineless bookkeeper.



Yehouda Shenhav is a professor at Tel Aviv University and the editor of Theory Criticism, an Israeli journal in the area of critical theory and cultural studies. He is the author of The Arab Jews, Stanford University Press, 2006.