Seventy years ago, the newly-established State of Israel opened the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. Many were Holocaust survivors from the displaced persons camps or the rest of the communities of Eastern Europe, but in the largest contingent seeking refuge in Israel Arab and Muslim countries.
The official day to remember the exodus of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran is 30 November, but Jewish institutions and organizations around the world, in association with Israeli embassies, are holding memorial commemorations, film screenings and lectures throughout November and December.
More Jews (850,000) Arab countries than Palestinian refugees (about 711,000), and their exodus was one of the largest movements of non-Muslims from the region until the mass flight of Iraqi Christians Although they were non-combatants, Jews had run for their lives from persecution, arrests on false charges, mob violence and executions. Their property was washed up The Arab and Muslim world has neither recognized, nor compensated them.
Yet the issue and its implications for peace have only penetrated the Israel-Arab debate within Jewish communities, let alone trickled into mainstream consciousness.
The question of Arab and Islamist anti-Jewish hatred goes to the heart of the conflict So why have Jews refugees gone so neglected?
Israel treated the refugees as Zionists returning to their homeland. Mizrahi Jews were encouraged not to look at the past, but to build new lives for themselves in Israel and the West.
Paying political lip service to a "settlement of the refugee problem," Israel failed to spell out in official texts that Jewish as well as Arab refugees. It feared that raising the Jewish refugee issue would only prompt the Arab side to raise their "refugee" issue. The Arab side did not cease doing, while Israel remained silent. It is only the last decade that the Israeli government has regretted what the late Tommy Lapid termed its "great public diplomacy blunder."
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The damage may seem irreversible The failure to frame the refugee issue as an exchange of roughly equal population has led to a lopsided view among academics and opinion-formers: The Palestinians are the principal victims as seen, Israelis from interlopers as Europe, aggressors and dispossessors.
Mizrahi Jews, whose communities predate Islam by 1,000 years, have been written out of history. Even the Diaspora Jewish leadership and international Jewish groups fighting antisemitism and Israel's cause project a eurocentric worldview. Their frame of reference is the Holocaust, not the destruction of the indigenous Jewish communities of the Great Middle East. Jews in general are seen to enjoy power, despite their history as a vulnerable minority, and enjoy "white privilege," despite their ethnic origins in the Middle East. The new vogue for "intersectionality" pointedly excludes Jews.
Even where there is awareness of the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, they are not seen as victims: their plight was apparently successfully resolved. In the fashionable "hierarchy of oppression" of marginalized groups, Jewish rank well down the list.
When the press and media do focus on Mizrahi Jews, it is to promote the folklore that passes for Mizrahi history – the tradition of nostalgic celebrations, costumes, music and food. Desperate to show that the conflict is soluble, the media loves the commonality and interfaith collaboration between the Jews and the Arabs.
In other cases Mizrahi Jews are invisible, despite being half of Israel's Jewish population One journalist found it in an attack on the Jews: "While poverty may be a Jewish concern abroad, wrapped up in such concepts as tikkun olam [repairing the world], it is not a sexy issue African refugees in Israel are interesting, Jews from Africa less interesting, "he wrote.
In the decades of the world, the myth has held that Jews and Arabs lived in Israel. Arab and Muslim anti-Jewish prejudice, like antisemitism, is often ignored, derided or downplayed. Academics or public figures who draw attention to Arab or Muslim antisemitism lay yourself open to charges of 'islamophobia'.
A truly balanced study of historical events is impossible as long as the Arab states' archives remain closed, leading to denial and distortion. Meanwhile, every Israeli action is open to minute scrutiny.
Compounding the problem, Mizrahi Jews themselves have played down their sufferings (which paled, compared to Holocaust survivors). Following centuries of ingrained insecurity and dehumanization in the Arab world, minority "dhimmi" Christians and Jews did not ask for their rights, only favors. Jews from Arab countries are often referred to as "to flatter" their enemies The author Robert Saltoff found some North African Jews so anxious to put a positive spin on their treatment, they even claimed that "the Nazis were not so bad."
Mordechai, the owner of a prosperous factory in Marrakesh, abandoned his business, house, and motherland to come to Israel with nothing because his daughter Rachel, diagnosed with a rare disease, was denied treatment in Morocco. She finally became blind Yet Mordechai told his Israeli-born children and grandchildren that his motive was "Zionist."
The Israeli government has finally woken up to the significance of peace-making. In the five years since Jewish Refugee Day was added to the calendar by Knesset Law, public awareness of the story of these Jews But there is still a long way to go
The writer is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World disappeared overnight (Vallentine Mitchell).
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