Palestinian refugees and the claims made of “right of return” for them have long been a major issue within the debate over a ‘just solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The claimed “right of return'” is still seen as a core obstacle to overcome in any future peace negotiations, as it has been reaffirmed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah “moderates”, not to mention by Hamas and other militant groups. No major Palestinian faction has hinted that they would be willing to give up this “right”, which is aimed at setting the conditions for massive influx of descendants of refugees who fled the 1948 war into Israel (under UN Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) definitions, Palestinians are uniquely permitted to pass on their refugee status from generation to generation). The numbers claimed eligible for this “right” seem likely to lead to an inevitable demographical change – an Arab majority in Israel, and the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Yet the refugees question is even more complex. Palestinian refugees actually represent the smaller of the two refugees groups created by the regional conflict between the Arab countries and Israel – the larger group being Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. Prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948, approximately 900,000 Jews resided in Arab countries. Over the past decades, these Jewish communities have either disappeared entirely or dwindled to a small remnant, mostly in the context of severe persecution or outright expulsion. Today less than 8,000 Jews live in Arabic speaking countries.
The voices of these Jewish refugees, sadly, have hardly ever been heard or are generally too quickly dismissed. Listening to these voices could potentially shed light and new perspectives not only on the refugees question, but also on the nature and history of the regional context of the conflict. It might even promote reconciliation.
In a podcast by Diwaniyya as part of its “Minorities in the Middle East Series,” three scholars from the Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies share their experiences and personal stories of Jewish communities in the Arab world. They describe well-established communities with deep ties with the Muslim and Christian neighbours: Esther Webman was born in Cairo, Egypt. Her family roots originate in Iraq and Syria, as her ancestors only immigrated to Egypt at the early 20th century. She describes the Jewish community in Cairo as an heterogeneous and cosmopolitan mixture of local Jews and “newcomers”, both from the Middle East and from Europe, and as a part of the social fabric, despite the underlying suspicions towards Jews: “I think it was therefore [a] very cosmopolitan community and very heterogeneous, but everything is over now,” she says in a sad, nostalgic tone. Ofra Bengio, who was born in Aleppo, recounts that the Jewish community in Syria was similarly cosmopolitan, with strong Italian and Spanish influences, which in turn seeped into the daily Arabic language, local cloths and cuisine. She also concludes her description of the colourful and lively community life in Aleppo with the same sharp contrast as Esther- there are no Jews left in Aleppo. In Morocco, Jews and Muslims lived side by side, sharing the same neighbourhoods and all the children in Meknes’ Jewish Quarter, whether Jewish or Muslim, used to play together. Many Moroccan Jews used to dress in European-style clothes and speak French in public, and when Muslim youth tried to copy the European style, they were in fact trying to copy the style of their Jewish neighbours, tells Samir Ben-Layashi, who grew up in the Jewish quarter in Meknes.
However, this coexistence was undermined after 1948, as the environment and attitude towards the Jewish communities turned towards hostility. In Aleppo, both a Jewish school and the synagogue were burned. Yet both Esther and Ofra recall that some local Muslim families and individuals helped protect members of the Jewish communities from mob attacks. Esther and her family left Cairo in 1954, two years before the deportation of Egyptian Jews in 1956, after the Sinai war.
In a contrast to the deportation from Egypt, the Syrian authorities would not allow Jews to leave and Ofra’s family was only allowed to leave after her father, a former teacher who could not longer find work given the political and social realities in Syria, agreed to give up his pension and the family’s home. They left via Turkey – the first stop in a long journey to Israel – with little more than the cloths on their backs.
Despite the different backgrounds and circumstances, the stories of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west, share a lot in common. In all of those countries Jewish communities were well-established and prosperous with rich cultures and histories. Most lived, for the most part, in a delicate harmony with their neighbours for centuries, and were well integrated into the local society – though their position was often fragile, and disdain for Jews was quite common (see this post, discussing evidence concerning the situation of Jews in Egypt in the 1830s). Between the late 1940s and the Six Day War (1967), most of the Jewish communities vanished, as their members left their homes and countries. Today, all that is left of those ancient communities are a few thousand Jews in selected cities, largely in Tunisia and Morocco. The immigration of Jews out of Arab countries was, to a large extent, a consequence of both official policies (by Arab countries, promoted by the Arab League, which also initiated the war in 1948) and a generally hostile atmosphere. Persecution included confiscation or nationalisation of Jewish-owned property and assets, freezing of bank accounts, mob attacks, riots and massacres (which often included looting and burning of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses), imprisonment, revoking citizenship and barring Jews from government positions and civil services in a way that severely affected their livelihood.
Instead of the one-sided narrative about the Palestinian refugees, a more accurate portrayal of the historical events suggests that a two-way migration of populations took place, creating two refugee groups, Palestinian and Jewish. There were around 700,000 Palestinian refugees after the 1948 war, compared with approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees in the period after Israel’s establishment (from 1948 until 1968), who were largely expelled or forced out of Arab countries. The proportions of lost property reveal an even bigger distortion, since, according to a study conducted in 2008, the Palestinian refugees’ lost property is estimated at about $450 million dollars ($3.9 billion, when converted to contemporary value) whereas the Jewish refugees’ lost property totals $700 million ($6 billion dollars).
The majority of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees migrated to in Israel, though some moved to various Western countries – France has a particularly large number of Jews from these communities. Today, just under half of Israel’s Jewish population is comprised of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries and their descendants. While public debate revolved around the plight of Palestinian refugees, the injustice done to Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries was, by and large, ignored, as were their property rights and need for recognition of their sufferings. After migrating to Israel and being absorbed into the general population, they rarely received compensation for lost property and citizenship, and their plight remained, for the most part, unrecognised by the international community.
This situation is especially baffling since the UN definition of a refugee encompasses Jewish refugees from Arab countries. For instance, Security Council Resolution 242 (November 1967), makes no differentiation between Palestinian and Jewish refugees. And still, the two refugee groups receive very different treatment – one was forgotten, while the other receives special attention and has a specialised UN agency, UNWRA, to assist them, and their unprecedented status and claims (they are the only refugee group which has its own separate UN agency, and are not looked after by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the only refugee group with a separate definition determining who has refugee status).
Unlike the situation in Israel, where Jewish refugees were integrated by the Jewish state, which made considerable efforts towards their resettlement, rehabilitation and assimilation (some more successful than others) the problems and plight of Palestinian refugees in Arab nations have been perpetuated. Palestinian refugees are generally not allowed to take up citizenship of the Arab countries in which they find themselves, even if born there (Jordan is the only exception) and often face other legal restrictions designed to maintain them permanently as a separate refugee population. The international system also contributed to the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem through international bodies such as UNRWA, which lacks the mandate to resettle Palestinian refugees, while their numbers keep on growing due to the separate definition which allows the refugee status to be passed to all descendants. It seems that as far as the international community is concerned, the Jewish refugee problem has been resolved (primarily by the efforts of the Israeli authorities to absorb and resettle Jewish refugees in the new Jewish state), and therefore their claims are void, unlike the other refugee problem, which must be addressed to achieve lasting peace. The Palestinian refugee problem is seen as a constant human rights violation, since little efforts were made to resettle these refugees and grand them full citizenship in neighbouring Arab countries, and their refugee status is maintained even in areas under Palestinian control. Instead, the hope of a “right of return” to ancestral homes in Israel is perpetuated, even though such a right, as constructed by Palestinian refugee advocates, will not only imply the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state (thus rendering null the right of the Jewish people for self determination), but is also unprecedented in history, and has no basis in international law or norms.
Yet in fact, it makes more sense to view the rights of both refugee groups as constituting an unresolved human rights issue. In February 2010 the Israeli Knesset passed a law, pushed by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, which states that any Israeli government is bound to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in any future peace accord. Some would doubtless view bringing up this issue as simply an additional factor complicating and obstructing the already highly difficult job of negotiating Israeli-Palestinian peace, but there is a good case that the opposite is true. It might be the case that dealing with the issue of Jewish refugees could in fact promote peace and reconciliation.
Lyn Julius, co-founder of Harif, a British organisation of Jews from the Middle East, made the case recently in Haaretz:
The issue of Jewish refugee rights is not a spanner in the works. It remains a key, unresolved human rights issue… The 52 percent of Israel’s Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution will not back a peace deal that ignores their painful history. And there’s another reason why Ayalon’s initiative is encouraging: An appreciation of Jewish suffering is demonstrably more, not less, likely to achieve reconciliation, when Palestinians realize they are not the only wronged party.
Discussing and recognising the historical injustice done to both refugee groups in the early years of the conflict might actually bring the Israeli and Palestinian sides closer, and open a dialogue about some untold truths and marginalised narratives. It might promote better understanding of the other side and could potentially create a more empathetic setting for discussion, based on the realisation that both sides have suffered wrongs and hardships – that they share more similar experiences and injustices than the public debate generally reveals.