Limmud conference, one of the highlights of the UK Jewish cultural calendar, is something between School and an academic Club Med. A cross-section of British Jewry hurries past you on its way to lecture theaters and seminar rooms offering 'food for thought’ to suit every interest, age and taste. Lunch in an improvised canteen is a democratic baked potato dispensed by staff wearing surgical gloves, or a DIY sandwich and a banana. One does not go to Limmud for the gastronomy.
On the day I arrived, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was about to make his much hyped-appearance with a lecture on the weekly Parasha - Shemot.
Along with 24 other presenters scheduled alongside the Rabbi - addressing such eclectic topics as ‘Are monks and nuns human?’ and ‘Lying beggars, magical wives and other rabbinic stories’ - we were vying for the attention of 2,500 Limmudniks.
While people queued up an hour in advance for a seat at the Mirvis talk, I wondered if I would be talking to myself.
Thankfully some 30 people did me the courtesy of turning up.
Whereas Rabbi Mirvis was drawing lessons of the Exodus from Egypt, my talk addressed a modern-day Exodus - Jews from Arab lands. More specifically, my topic was ‘How Jews from Arab lands can reframe the Israel debate.’
The 870,000 Jewish refugees dispossessed and driven out from Arab lands in a single generation have for too long been marginal to a debate fixated with settlements and security guarantees. Yet, I argued, the Jewish refugees are key - not just because they are an unresolved human rights issue, but because they are central to a fair and just peace settlement.
The real stumbling block to peace is not to do with territorial compromise - but the Right of Return, a right that Palestinians cling to like a baby to its mother. A peace agreement would recognize that there was a permanent exchange of populations. The Jewish refugees were successfully absorbed in Israeli society and constitute a model for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a state of Palestine or Arab states. Time for UNWRA, an exclusive agency dedicated to the care of Palestinian refugees, to be wound up.
Next I argued that Israel was a response, not the cause of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Proof positive was a plan by the Arab League drafted in 1947 to persecute their Jewish citizens.
One young man was skeptical. Was this plan not a response to Zionism in general?
I told him that many other examples of anti-Semitism predated the creation of Israel, inspired by the growing influence of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s - the Iraqi Farhud, for instance, which claimed the lives of 180 Iraqi Jews. Rising religious fundamentalism and pan-Arab nationalism impacted not just on Jews, but on Copts, Kurds and Assyrians.
My final point was that the myth that Israel was a ‘white European colonial interloper’ needed to be turned on its head. Like Kurds, Berbers and Copts, Jews were an indigenous people of the Middle East - and themselves the victims of Arab colonization after the 7th century conquest. Along with Christians, they were forced to submit as ‘dhimmis’. In order to escape their inferior and humiliated status, Jews collaborated with European colonialism. The creation of Israel marked the final deliverance of Jews in Arab lands from ‘dhimmi' status.
My audience was curious to find out why the Israeli government had for so long ignored the Jews from Arab lands issue. This question often comes up. The Israeli government was waking up from its long slumber with an awareness-raising campaign at the UN. But it was not enough, as long as chief negotiator Tzipi Livni refused to believe that Jewish refugees had anything to do with Palestinian refugees. Did she know that the Arab League had designated Jews in Arab states as ’the Jewish minority of Palestine’; that the Mufti of Jerusalem had gone from state to state whipping up anti-Jewish hatred?
I had been bracing myself for a question on the discrimination experienced by Mizrahi Jews at the hands of the Ashkenazim. Sure enough it came. Social discrimination was diminishing, with intermarriage rates running at 25 percent, I replied. A more serious form of discrimination is the attitude of many Israeli liberals who privilege Arab rights over those of the 52 percent of Israeli Jews who descend from Arab lands.
One of them is even conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians.