Israel’s cynical campaign to pit Arab Jews against Palestinian refugees

By Richard Irvine, The Electronic Intifada, July 1, 2012

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Israel’s new diplomatic campaign to draw attention to the forgotten plight of Jews from Arab countries is an attempt to use historical injustices to justify current injustices. It is also a lost opportunity.

After years of denial and neglect, the Israeli government has rediscovered the issue of the Mizrahi — Jews from Arab countries. Following up on a successful 2008 US Congress resolution, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, has instructed diplomats to request that foreign parliaments recognize the refugee status of Jews forced from Arab countries.

That  many  Jews  were  forced  out  and  that  the  Mizrahi  community  was  almost  entirely  destroyed  is  not  in doubt.  More  than  850,000  Jews  left  or  fled  the  Arab  world  between  1948  and  1990.  Many  because  of persecution  or  fear  of  persecution,  others  in  response  to  the  “call”  of  Zionism  (see  Philip  Mendes,  “The Forgotten Refugees: The causes of the post-1948 Jewish exodus from Arab Countries”).  However,  that the  Arab  states  bear  a  legal  and  moral  responsibility  to  those  who  left  as  refugees  is  indisputable,  yet  this is  scarcely  what  lies  behind  Israel’s  new  diplomatic  initiative.

Behind  the  facade  of  what  Ayalon  claims  is  a  quest  for  the  truth,  the  real  intent  is  simply  to  nullify  the right of return  for  Palestinians  displaced  and  dispossessed  by  Israel.  By  highlighting  the  plight  of  Arab Jews  while  simultaneously  placing  the  blame  on  the  Arab  states  for  the  creation  of  both  exiled communities,  Israel  hopes  to  escape  its  own  legal  and  moral  responsibilities.

As  an  Israeli  foreign  ministry  document  distributed  to  journalists  states:  “A  true  solution  to  the  issues  of refugees  will  only  be  possible  when  the  Arab  League  will  take  responsibility  for  its  role  in  creating  the Jewish  and  Palestinian  refugee  problem”  (“Changing  tack, foreign ministry to bring ‘Jewish refugees’ to fore,”  Times  of  Israel,  3  April  2012).


That  this  is  nonsense  one  scarcely  needs  to  point  out.  Yet  it  illustrates  the  hypocrisy  of  a  government  that legislates  to  suppress  the  memory  of  the  Nakba  —  the  systematic  ethnic  cleansing  of  Palestine  at  the  time of  Israel’s  foundation  in  1948  —  while  disingenuously  appealing  on  behalf  of  Mizrahi  Jews.  The  faux concern  provides  good  cover  for  its  denial  of  its  own  obligations.

Sadly,  much  of  the  same  partisan  and  faux  concern  is  evident  amongst  supposedly  independent organizations  that  campaign  for  Jewish  refugee  rights.  Foremost  amongst  these  is  Justice  for  Jews  from Arab  Countries.  In  a  2007  report,  the  organization  claimed  that  in  raising  the  issue  of  Jewish  refugees,  it is  not  waging  “a  campaign  against  Palestinian  refugees.”  Yet  it  goes  on  to  press  the  unhistorical  lie  that the  Palestinian  leadership  was  responsible  for  the  Palestinians’  expulsion.

Likewise,  while  it  calls  for  the  voices  of  all  refugees  to  be  heard  and  for  human  rights  standards  to  be implemented,  the  organization  ignores  Palestinian  refugees’  wishes  and  makes  no  reference  to  their internationally-guaranteed  right  of  return.  Instead,  it  suggests  Palestinians  would  be  better  served  if UNRWA  —  the  UN  agency  for  Palestine  refugees  —  was  wound  up  (“Jewish  Refugees  from  Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress,”  5  November  2007  [PDF]).

The  same  tack  is  evident  in  recent  articles  by  Lyn  Julius,  a  founder  of  Harif,  a  UK-based  association  for Jews  from  North  Africa  and  the  Middle  East.  Writing  in  the  Israeli  newspaper  Haaretz,  she  recently described  the  expulsion  of  the  Mizrahi  as  an  unresolved  human  rights  issue  that  requires  recognition  and compensation  (“Jewish  refugee rights is an unsolved human rights issue,”  27  April  2012).

On  this  I  can  agree  with  her,  but  then  she  goes  on  to  deny  the  Palestinian  right  of  return  by characterizing  the  two  very  different  expulsions  as  “a  permanent  exchange  of  roughly  equal  numbers  of refugees”  —  in  other  words,  a  population  exchange,  which  from  Israel’s  perspective,  bar  monetary compensation,  is  pretty  much  finalized  as  an  issue.

Nevertheless, lest we doubt her humanity, Julius goes on to decry the non-settlement of Palestinian refugees in their host countries as an abuse of their human rights before commenting that Jordan’s treatment of Palestinian refugees is “cynical and cruel.” For those stateless Palestinians facing dispossession and expulsion by Israeli forces from East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, one can only stand in awe at the chutzpah.

Obscene caricature
Perhaps most worrying of all though is not Julius’ insensitivity and abuse of the human rights discourse to deny rights, but rather the racist terms in which she characterizes the Palestinian right of return: something she refers to as “their ‘right’ to Arabize Israel by flooding it.” The obscenity of this caricature need hardly be pointed out. Either refugees have the right to return to their homeland or they do not; that they be Arab, European, Jewish, Muslim or Christian should not matter. That is the whole point of human rights.

But, of course, with the help of US politicians, this new campaign to delegitimize Palestinian refugee rights is likely to expand. And indeed it is not the only recent tactic being brought into play to nullify and marginalize the Palestinian refugees: Einat Wilf, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and a prominent figure in the new political party Independence, has argued “that the international community should raise its voice every time that a baby born in Gaza is given the status of a refugee.”

Wilf has called for the refugee agency UNRWA to be restructured so new registrations can be halted (“Wilf to ambassadors: UNRWA an obstacle to peace,” The Jerusalem Post, 1 February 2012).

Similarly, US Senator Mark Kirk has successfully proposed an amendment to the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill (2013) requiring UNRWA to draw a distinction between refugees physically displaced in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants (“Is the UN making the Palestinian ‘refugee’ problem worse?”The Washington Post, 23 May 2012).

The obvious intention here is to decouple Palestinians from refugee status. Something that, not incidentally, Einat Wilf is urging foreign parliaments to do. “By all means, keep funding hospitals, schools and welfare programs,” she has said. “But delink it from refugee status.”

In the end there is a deeply saddening aspect of the attempt to delegitimize Palestinian refugees, especially when it is promoted in tandem with calls for recognition and justice for another refugee community. What is being lost is not just historical truth and lived reality, but the possibility of human connection and shared understanding.

Instead of displacing the blame for the plight of Mizrahi Jews onto the Palestinians, or attempting to use their story to nullify Palestinian rights, those who claim to be genuinely concerned for peace, reconciliation and rights should be reaching out to both Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian refugees and inviting them to come and discuss how, as two communities of dispossessed peoples, they can make a new future together.

Depressingly, however, while advocates for Israel call for “truth and recognition,” the reality is they prefer continued separation and dispossession; they prefer, in fact, to pit one group of exiles against the other.

Richard Irvine teaches a course at Queen’s University Belfast entitled “The Battle for Palestine” which explores the entire history of the conflict. Irvine has also worked voluntarily in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and is coordinator of the Ireland-based Palestine Education Initiative.


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