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