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New story: Arab Jews not glad homecomers but forced refugees

This posting has 3 items:
1) Christian Science Monitor: Israel scrambles Palestinian ‘right of return’ with Jewish refugee talk;
2) Times of Israel, Daniel Haboucha: Danny Ayalon and the Jewish refugee fallacy;
3) Jonathan Cook: Israel’s impossible plan for refugees is just a stalling tactic;

Israel scrambles Palestinian ‘right of return’ with Jewish refugee talk

Some 856,000 Middle Eastern Jews fled their home countries after Israel’s founding. If Palestinian refugees are to be considered for compensation, these Jews should be, too, Israel argues.

By Christa Case Bryant, Christian Science Monitor
October 1, 2012

More than 60 years after the founding of Israel precipitated two tides of refugees in the Middle East, the Israeli government has launched a campaign to persuade the world that it’s not just Palestinians who suffered in Israel’s early days.

Facing powerful forces that were reshaping the Middle East – including rising anti-Semitism, nascent Arab nationalism, and a strengthening Zionist movement – some 856,000 Jews from Morocco to Iran were compelled to leave their home countries. Most of them settled in Israel.

Partly because of draconian Arab laws issued after Israel declared independence in 1948, these Arab Jews left behind assets estimated at $700 million (about $6 billion today). According to one accounting, that’s roughly double the value of Palestinian assets lost.

Now, Israel is demanding that those losses be acknowledged and recompensed in some way. In doing so, the campaign touches one of Palestinians’ most sensitive wounds, harbored since Israel’s founding in 1948: their right to return to lands and homes left in 1948-49, when at least 750,000 either fled or were expelled by Israel.

Though many Palestinians recognize at least some Arab Jews as refugees, they are concerned that Israel is trying to cancel its debt to them by putting the suffering of Arab Jews on the same international ledger.

The campaign has also met resistance from some Arab Jews in Israel, who have criticized both the logic and the motives behind it. Palestinian and Israeli critics have two main arguments: that these Jews were not refugees but eager participants in a new Zionist state, and that Israel cannot and should not attempt to settle its account with the Palestinians by deducting the lost assets of its own citizens, thereby preventing individuals on both sides from seeking compensation.

“You cannot create some kind of accounting equation in which one cancels out the other,” says Yehuda Shenhav, an Iraqi Jew and author of “The Arab Jews.” She adds, “You cannot use the Arab Jews that arrived to Israel … as the capital in which you deny the legitimate rights of [Palestinians].”

Refugee status
When the United Nations presented its 1947 proposal for partitioning historical Palestine into two states, an Arab delegate warned that doing so could unleash hatred against the roughly 1 million Jews living in the Middle East – an anti-Semitism perhaps worse, even, than seen in Nazi Germany.

“If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for the massacre of a large number of Jews,” said Heykal Pasha of Egypt.

Days later, the UN voted in favor of the 1947 partition plan, paving the way for Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948. As Arab countries joined Palestinian fighters to protest the new state, they also cracked down on Jews in their own countries.

Iraq made it illegal to propagate Zionist ideology and froze the assets of its Jewish population – the wealthiest in the Middle East – and allowed them to leave only under condition that they leave behind their property and never return.

The Syrian government took property from Jewish residents to make room for Palestinians. Egypt passed a law just before the UN decision, in July 1947, requiring Egyptian companies to maintain quotas of Egyptian directors and employees that caused many Jews to lose their jobs, since most were not Egyptian citizens.

Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan all passed laws in the 1950s and early ’60s preventing Jews from holding citizenship. And Jews were the target of significant violence, particularly in Libya and Iraq, where hundreds were killed.

Israel originally romanticized the exodus of Jews from Arab countries; the transport of 50,000 Jews from Yemen became colloquially known as the “magic carpet” operation, for example. Only more recently has Israel sought to emphasize the suffering endured by such refugees.

Indeed, part of what makes Israel’s campaign controversial now is the timing, which some say is politically motivated.

“You can definitely be a refugee and be fleeing persecution and then end up showing up [in Israel],” says Diana Buttu, an international human rights lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, adding that that’s not the real issue. “I think what’s driving it is: (1) they want to completely eliminate the issue of the right of return, (2) … they want to create this idea of homelands and that the only place you can flee to is your homeland.”

The implication, she says, is that Palestinians in the future could only return to the part of historical Palestine designated as a Palestinian state –and not inside Israel proper, where many of them lived before 1948.

But Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, describes the current push as the maturing of long-term political and social processes – including the gradual willingness of Holocaust survivors to discuss their experiences and seek reparations, thereby awakening Arab Jews’ desire to make similar claims, and the growing political clout of Arab Jews over the years.

He flatly denies that it’s a political ploy.

“It’s not that we’re negotiating Palestinian demands [on refugees] and someone comes up with this idea on how to neutralize Palestinian demands,” he says.

He also notes that Israel has always been highly critical that the UN created a special agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.

According to a 2008 assessment by international economist Sydney Zabludoff, who has spent years working on Jewish reparation issues, UNRWA has spent more than triple the amount the Palestinians originally lost in 1948. To be sure, the Palestinian refugee population has expanded to some 4 million since then as Arab countries have resisted assimilating them and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains stalled.

Settling accounts
But the most controversial aspect to Israel’s campaign is the perceived attempt to equate the suffering of Arab Jews with that of Palestinians and thus cancel out both accounts without individuals on either side receiving compensation.

“It all sort of comes out in the wash, they [Arab Jews] had a lot of property, they were pretty wealthy … it’s far too complicated, let’s just call it a day,” says Ms. Buttu, summarizing her view of what the Israelis will say in negotiations.

In Israel, a group of Iraqi Jews issued a statement recently thanking Israel for recognizing them as refugees but taking issue with the new campaign. They wrote in part, “we will not agree with the option that compensation for our property be offset by compensation for the lost property of others (meaning, Palestinian refugees).”

Zvi Gabai, a former Israeli ambassador whose family came to Israel from Iraq in 1951 with nothing, says the answer lies in a suggestion he attributes to President Bill Clinton: establishing an international fund to compensate Palestinian refugees as well as Jewish refugees.

“I think this would be the best way to solve the question,” he says. “To compensate both groups of refugees.”

Danny Ayalon and the Jewish refugee fallacy

Daniel Haboucha, blog, Times of Israel
October 01, 2012

The Israeli government has recently launched a campaign to win international recognition for the plight of the approximately 700,000 Arab Jews, or Mizrahim, who fled their homes during the 20-odd-year period following Israel’s establishment in 1948. Speaking with much fanfare at a symposium hosted by Israel’s UN delegation in New York last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon stated that there will be no peace (between Israel and the Palestinian Authority) until the Arab League compensates these Jewish refugees. He has indicated that abandoned Palestinian holdings in Israel might be somehow balanced against abandoned Jewish holdings in Arab countries. The Israel lobby in the US and Canada — including all of the usual suspects — has enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. Comparing the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries to the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, Alan Dershowitz proclaimed, “The situation faced by Jews in Arab countries was much worse than that faced by Palestinians in Israel.”

My father and his entire family were forced to leave Egypt in the early 1960s, abandoning their community, their country of birth, and much of their property. Their traumatic uprooting after centuries of life in the Middle East is an egregious example of systemic religious persecution, and one that unquestionably merits redress. Yet, efforts to equate my “plight” today with the plight of a Palestinian of my age who grew up in a refugee camp (mere kilometers from my beautiful Jerusalem apartment) are manifestly absurd.

The first immediately obvious question is, why is this happening now? Why is the government of Israel suddenly seeking to reopen an issue that has been closed for the better part of a century? And why has it consistently refused to pursue such claims in the past, despite decades of lobbying by a group calling itself the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries?

I believe there are two answers to this question, the first pragmatic and the second ideological.

1. Victims of Zionism
Israel, through its entire history, has maintained a position of non-responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. The official Israeli narrative, as stated in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication, is that the Palestinian refugees left Israel voluntarily or at the behest of Arab leaders. When Yitzhak Rabin wrote a description in his memoirs of how he personally oversaw the expulsion of nearly 70,000 Palestinian civilians from Lydda and Ramle during a week of fighting in June 1948, Israeli authorities went so far as to censor the testimony of their former prime minister. Now, however, in drawing a direct parallel between the Jews who were forcibly dispossessed by Arab governments and the Palestinians, the Israeli government finally appears to be acknowledging its role in creating the Palestinian refugee crisis, with all of the political and diplomatic consequences this implies.

Shining a spotlight on the plight of Arab Jews risks raising some uncomfortable questions about Israel’s own role in the creation and perpetuation not only of the Palestinian refugee issue, but also the Jewish one. Israel’s founders knew long before 1948 that the establishment of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world would spell catastrophe for the Jews living in the region. In declaring Judaism to be a nationality, Zionism transformed Jews in Arab countries from members of a deeply rooted religious minority into “enemy nationals.” When made aware of the impending danger faced by the Jews of Iraq in the 1940s due to mounting hostility toward Zionism, David Ben Gurion felt responsible for the harm he suspected would befall them; he referred to these Arab Jews as potential “victims” of the Zionist movement (quoted in Meir-Glitzenstein “Zionism in an Arab Country” p. 140).

The State of Israel in many cases actively precipitated Jewish emigration, sending emissaries to Arab countries in order to persuade Jews to leave. Their methods were not always sanguine. For example, in Egypt, the position of Jews deteriorated markedly in 1954 after a group of local Jews was caught carrying out acts of terrorism and sabotage at the behest of Israel. Israel publicly acknowledged responsibility for this only in 2005. Similarly, Jewish emigration from Iraq accelerated in 1951 after the bombing of a synagogue; this act was blamed at the time (by British consular officials and many Iraqi Jews) on Zionist agents. To my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence supporting this claim, yet it is lent credibility by the recent admission by a former member of the Iraqi Zionist underground that members of his group did employ such tactics. The passage in Ben Gurion’s diary that discusses the report he received on this matter from his intelligence chief remains buried under censors’ ink.

Compounding their hardships, Arab Jews who settled in Israel were subjected to deep systemic discrimination, economically disenfranchised, and treated as culturally inferior. This phenomenon is still something of a sore wound in Israel, and is documented extensively in an emerging field of literature.

You wanted to fit in
You even changed your names
Jojo was no longer worthy
And Farha became notorious
You tasted the Honey;
It wasn’t always sweet
You spilled the Milk,
But didn’t cry over it
– Lehakat Sfatayim, “From Morocco to Zion”

2. How many homelands?
On an ideological level, equating Jewish refugees from Arab countries with Palestinian refugees from Israel fundamentally undermines the Zionist narrative, according to Iraqi-Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav. According to Shenhav, a central element in the Zionist mythos is the idea that the Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries did so not out of compulsion but because of their “Zionist yearnings” for their homeland. Zionism’s foundational tenet is that Jews are a nation, and that their homeland is not in Egypt, or Ethiopia, or Yemen, but rather in Israel. Mizrahim who settled in Israel were treated at the time by the government — at both a legal and a rhetorical level — not as refugees who had been forced from their homeland, but as compatriots returning to their homeland after years in exile. Ayalon’s initiative prompted Palestinian-Israeli member of parliament Ahmed Tibi to ask glibly, “How many homelands do [Jews] get to have?”

Belief in the voluntary and ideologically driven nature of the Mizrahi migration to Israel is not only deeply ingrained in the Zionist narrative, it is also central to the personal narratives of many of those who were displaced, who forcefully reject Ayalon’s take on history:

I have this to say: I am not a refugee. I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.
– Iraqi-Israeli parliamentarian Ran Cohen

We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations”
– Yemeni-Israeli speaker of Knesset Yisrael Yeshayahu

I do not regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.
Iraqi-Israeli Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel

“You, who left your faraway village
You, who ascended from your verdant town
You left your parents, your friends, and your brothers
When you decided to emigrate
Out of your love, for Zion!”
– Lehakat Sfatayim

Profound cynicism
To be sure, most of the Arab Jews who left their home countries did not leave voluntarily. Whether they were primarily victims of Zionism, as Ben Gurion wrote, or of Arab governments, as Ayalon now argues, is largely a moot point, however, given that none of those Jews are refugees today. They have all been settled for decades in their adoptive countries and, for the most part, don’t look back. My father and grandfather traveled to Cairo a decade and a half after they had been forced to leave, once the Israel-Egypt peace treaty had been concluded. When they returned to Canada, the story goes, my grandfather told the rest of the family to be thankful that they had had the opportunity to leave Egypt. This from a man who, by all accounts, had been exceptionally well-integrated into Egyptian society.

Ayalon and his supporters note, correctly, that the Palestinian refugee problem could have been similarly put to rest had there been political will to integrate the refugees into other countries. In advancing this argument, however, Ayalon (himself the son of an Algerian refugee) fundamentally misunderstands — or willfully ignores — the nature of the problem. The Palestinian Nakba, as Shenhav notes, is not a historic individual trauma rooted in personal loss; rather it is the ongoing, collective trauma of an entire nation being dispossessed of its homeland. Proposed solutions that fail to acknowledge and address this cannot hope to resolve the issue. While Jewish refugees have little interest in returning to their former homes (many Arab countries have indeed already invited them to return), Palestinian refugees are seeking collective redress through repatriation or remedial self-determination.

A final issue worth considering is the nature of the logical link Ayalon wishes to establish between the Arab countries’ expulsion of Jews and Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians. Given that the expulsion of the Arab Jews took place after that of the Palestinians, the former can hardly be said to have caused the latter. If anything, it could be argued that the expulsion of the Palestinians precipitated that of the Arab Jews, which would only inculpate Israel further. I do not find this claim particularly compelling. On the contrary, I think that there is little if any empirical connection between the two exoduses, despite both stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Crucial to note here is that neither Israel nor the Palestinian people are party to any dispute between Jewish refugees and the Arab governments that evicted them.

The notion of Israel conditioning reparations to the Palestinian people upon the government of Egypt paying compensation to my family is thoroughly devoid of internal logic. First, because the government of Israel has no moral or legal authority to lodge such a claim on my behalf, and second (and more importantly) because the Palestinians are not agents of the Egyptian government and should not pay for its wrongdoings. (It is interesting to note that Israel has always declined to make such demands of Egypt directly; the 1978 Camp David framework agreement that led to peace between the two states, and ostensibly resolves all outstanding disputes between them, makes reference to the claims of Palestinian refugees, but not Jewish ones.)

In light of Israel’s consistent and longstanding (and as I’ve demonstrated, entirely rational) refusal to address the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, in light of Ayalon’s utter failure to grasp the crux of the Palestinian refugee situation, in light of the logical fallacy of conditioning peace talks with the Palestinians upon the actions of third parties, and in light of the present Israeli government’s demonstrated and widely recognized aversion to peace talks, I am of the opinion that Ayalon’s campaign is driven by profound cynicism. Rather than genuinely seeking justice for dispossessed Arab Jews, Ayalon and the government of Israel are exploiting their suffering in an effort to “cancel out” Palestinian demands and avoid making political concessions. We must recognize this move for what it is, and oppose it. Danny Ayalon does not act in my name.

Israel’s impossible plan for refugees is just a stalling tactic

Jonathan Cook, The National
October 01, 2012

In the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrics at the United Nations last week, armed with his cartoon Iranian bomb, Israeli officials launched a quieter, but equally combative, initiative to extinguish whatever hopes have survived of reviving the peace process.

For the first time in its history, Israel is seeking to equate millions of Palestinians in refugee camps across the Middle East with millions of Israeli citizens descended from Jews who, before Israel’s establishment in 1948, lived in Arab countries.

According to Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, whose parents were originally from Iraq and who has been leading the government campaign, nearly a million Jews fled countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Yemen. That figure exceeds the generally accepted number of 750,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.

Israel’s goal is transparent: it hopes the international community can be persuaded that the suffering of Palestinian refugees is effectively cancelled out by the experiences of “Jewish refugees”. If nothing can be done for Arab Jews all these years later, then Palestinians should expect no restitution either.

Over the past few weeks that has been the message implicit in a social media campaign called “I am a refugee”, which includes YouTube videos in which Jews tell of being terrorised while living in Arab states after 1948. Mr Ayalon has even announced plans for a new day of national commemoration, Jewish Refugee Day.

This month, the Israeli foreign ministry and US Jewish organisations formally launched the initiative, staging a conference in New York a few days before the opening sessions of the General Assembly.

Israel’s choice of arena – the UN – is not accidental. The campaign is chiefly designed to stifle the move announced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his General Assembly speech last week to begin seeking UN status for Palestine as a non-member state.

After opposition from the US forced the Palestinians to abort their bid for statehood at the UN Security Council last year, Mr Abbas is expected to delay making his new request until November, after the US presidential election campaign to avoid embarrassing President Barack Obama.

Mr Abbas’s move has spurred Israel to take the offensive.

Anyone who doubts that the Israeli government’s concern for Arab Jews is entirely cynical only has to trace the campaign’s provenance. It was considered for the first time in 2009, when Mr Netanyahu was forced – under pressure from Mr Obama – to deliver a speech backing Palestinian statehood.

Immediately afterwards, Mr Netanyahu asked the National Security Council, whose role includes assessing strategic threats posed by Palestinians, to weigh the merits of championing Arab Jews’ case in international forums.

The NSC’s advice is that Arab Jews, known in Israel as Mizrahim and comprising a small majority of the total Jewish population, should be made a core issue in the peace process. As Israel knows, that creates a permanent stumbling block to an agreement.

The NSC has proposed impossible demands: contrition from all Arab states before a peace deal with the Palestinians can be reached; a decoupling of refugee status and the right of return; and the right of Arab Jews to greater compensation than Palestinian refugees, based on their superior wealth.

Israel is working on other fronts too to undermine the case for Palestinian refugees. Its US lobbyists are demanding that UNRWA, the UN agency for the refugees, be dismantled. And bipartisan pressure is mounting in the US Congress to count as refugees only Palestinians personally displaced from their homes in 1948, stripping millions of descendants of their status.

The Palestinians are deeply opposed to any linkage between Arab Jews and Palestinian refugees. Not least, they argue, they cannot be held responsible for what took place in other countries. Justice for Palestinian refugees is entirely separate from justice for Arab Jews.

Moreover, many, if not most, Arab Jews left their homelands voluntarily, unlike Palestinians, to begin a new life in Israel. Even where tensions forced Jews to flee, such as in Iraq, it is hard to know who was always behind the ethnic strife. There is strong evidence that Israel’s Mossad spy agency waged false-flag operations in Arab states to fuel the fear and hostility needed to drive Arab Jews towards Israel.

Likewise, Israel’s claim that it has a right to represent Arab Jews collectively and lay claim to compensation on their behalf ignores the reality that Israel was compensated handsomely for absorbing Jews, both through massive post-war reparations from countries such as Germany and through billions of dollars in annual handouts from the United States.

But there is a more fundamental reason to be sceptical of this campaign. Classifying Arab Jews as “refugees” skewers the central justification used by Zionists for Israel’s creation: that it is the natural homeland for all Jews, and the only place where they can be safe. As a former Israeli MP, Ran Hacohen, once observed: “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”

Mr Netanyahu’s government is making a deeply anti-Zionist argument, one it has been forced to adopt because of its own intransigence in the peace process.

Its refusal to countenance a small Palestinian state in the 1967 borders means the global community feels compelled to reassess the events of 1948. For most Arab Jews, that period is now a closed chapter. For most Palestinian refugees, it is still an open wound.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth

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