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      Op-Ed: Campaign for Jewish Refugees Gains Momentum

      Published: Friday, November 22, 2013 6:01 AM
      The facts: It is estimated that Jews lost twice as much property as Palestinian Arabs. Arab states have offered neither apology for expelling their Jews nor compensation for what was abandoned or confiscated.



      After years of neglect the Israeli government has woken up to the need to raise the issue in American and international diplomatic fora.
      A few days ago, a news article appeared in the leading Arabic news medium Al-Sharq al Aswat: "Lieberman calls for rights and property of Jews of Arab descent", screamed the headline. The strap line read: 'Re-raise the Issue of 'Jewish Refugees' Which was Adopted by the Israeli Government.'

      The Sharq al Awsat reporter, based in Ramallah, had been attending a meeting at the Knesset. The meeting’s aim was to set up the first lobby group of its kind to advocate for the rights of the 870,000 Jewish refugees driven from their homes in Arab lands in a single generation.  The meeting was addressed by  Avigdor Lieberman, an indicator of how important the newly re-instated foreign minister rates the issue.

      Lieberman did not mention recovery of seized property, but the Arab reaction has proved typical. Whenever Jewish refugees are discussed, the Arab press and media react with panic, imagining that the Jews will be coming to reclaim their property back. Well they might: It is estimated that Jews lost twice as much property as Palestinian Arabs. Arab states have offered neither apology for expelling their Jews nor compensation for what was abandoned or confiscated.

      The Ramallah reporter had otherwise jumped the gun: the issue of ‘Jewish refugees’ has not been adopted by the Israeli government - not yet, at any rate.The formation of the lobby group is nevertheless essential to getting a key piece of legislation through the Knesset. The bill’s stated purpose is to designate a day in the calendar as a Memorial Day to mark the exodus of 870,000 Jews from Arab lands in a single generation. The date is likely to be 17th February, to recall the date in 1948 when the Arab League drafted a plan to persecute their Jewish citizens.

      Advocacy organisations outside Israel intend to turn the occasion into an International Day. We at Harif are planning an evening of commemoration and celebration, followed by a briefing in the UK Parliament on Jewish refugees.

      But first and foremost, the Memorial Day will be about plugging a gaping hole in the Israeli education system.

      Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beteynu) chairman of the lobby, and a former schoolmaster,  puts it as follows: Every Israeli child learns about the Kishinev pogrom, but has anyone heard about the Farhud in Iraq? Everyone remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,  but hardly anyone knows about the Zionist underground activity in Arab states. The education system teaches about the first exodus from Europe, while the second exodus – the one from Islamic countries – is missing from textbooks. “

      Some 54% of Israeli Arabs polled in 2012 were more likely to link Jewish refugees from Arab countries with Palestinian Aras displaced from Israel, compared to only 48% of Israeli Jews. Even more worrying, 96% of the Jewish population was found to have no knowledge of the issue, compared to 89% of Israeli Arabs. Yet over 50 percent of Isralei Jews descend from Arab and Muslim countries.

      It’s not enough to promote educational and political awareness at home. After years of neglect the Israeli government has woken up to the need to raise the issue in American and international diplomatic fora.

      As I write this, a meeting is taking place at the UN Headquarters in New York titled ” An untold story: Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries”. The UN has a shameful record of neglect when it comes to Jewish refugees. Not a single resolution concerns Jewish refugees, whereas over 170 resolutions deal with Palestinian refugees.

      “The world has long recognized the Palestinian refugee problem, but without recognizing the other side of the story – the 850,000 Jewish refugees of Arab countries,” has declared World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder. “Yet for any Middle East peace process to be credible and enduring, it must ensure that all bona fide refugees receive equal rights and treatment under international law.”

      This is the second time that the Israeli government and the WJC are taking the case of the Jewish refugees to the UN as part of an awareness-raising campaign. This year, the Justice for Jewish Refugees event takes on added significance with the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

      While western public opinion is still only dimly aware of Jewish refugees, the Arab world views the subject with mounting concern. Apart from routine efforts to deny that the Jews were refugees, they are stumped for an answer. News of last year’s UN meeting on Jewish Refugees brought forth what ex-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon has called ‘babbling responses’ from the Palestinian and Arab media.

      Still, the momentum behind the Jewish refugees campaign is coming mostly from outside Israel. It was only after the US congress passed a resolution in 2008 that the Knesset was moved to pass a law in 2010 requiring  Jewish refugees to be on the peace agenda.

      Now Canada, which has the most pro-Israel government in  its history, is blazing a trail in the field of Jewish refugees.

      Last week, a Report was tabled in Canada’s Parliament summarizing a recent study by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee after it heard  the testimony of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. The Report concludes by calling on the Government of Canada to formally recognize Jewish refugees from Arab countries and to encourage Israeli and Arab negotiators to take all refugees into account in any future peace agreement.

      It is to be hoped that other governments will follow the Canadian lead. Only by restoring Jewish refugees to the picture will people get an undistorted idea of the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The truth, in turn, should promote mutual understanding and eventual reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

      The author is a co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.