Conference to focus on Jewish refugees from Arab lands

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At Israel’s founding, more than 800,000 Jews lived in the Arab and Muslim world. In the face of mob violence and government-sanctioned tyranny, virtually all of them fled. Many lost their lives.

Once-thriving ancient Jewish communities in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia drastically shrunk and, in most cases, disappeared.

In an effort to recognize the plight of those Jews, and to demand compensation for their lost property, the World Jewish Congress will host a conference in Jerusalem next week focused on justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

The Sept. 9-10 event will feature two speakers from the S.F.-based nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).

The remains of the Dar Bishi Synagogue in Tripoli, Libya photo/jta-courtesy of meir kahaolon

“This is an opportunity for various organizations and Jews working on the subject to learn from each other,” said JIMENA director Sarah Levin, who will join the organization’s co-founder, Libyan-born Gina Waldman, at the conference.

Levin will participate in a workshop about online and student activism on behalf of Jewish refugees. Waldman will share her personal story of escaping Libya in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

JIMENA is “one of the only organizations working on this issue,” Levin added. “[The topic] is now getting recognition from the U.S. and Israeli governments. It’s time for a coalition to strategize together.”

Other scheduled speakers include Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and legislators from around the world.

“It’s important that the world accept and recognize that most [Jewish refugees] were forcibly exiled and subjected to the worst kind of anti-Semitic assault,” said WJC Secretary-General Dan Diker. “This issue has been largely ignored by Jewish leaders over the past number of years.”

In addition to WJC efforts, the Knesset is slated to vote on a resolution to establish a day commemorating the history of Jews from Arab lands and to found a museum focused on that history. The U.S.-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries also advocates for refugee rights.

While the campaign for the Jewish refugees ostensibly is aimed at winning recompense for Jews from Arab countries and their descendants — known in Israel as Mizrachim, Hebrew for “those from the East” — it’s also part of a political effort to create a Jewish parallel to Palestinian refugee claims from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Advocates want the Jewish refugee issue to serve as a counterbalance to the Palestinian refugee issue in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and want recognition and compensation for Jewish refugees to be a part of any final-status deal.

“It restores parity to Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” Diker said. “That narrative has become distorted in advancing the narrative that the Palestinian Arabs are the sole aggrieved party in this conflict.”

The issue of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not new, but Diker said it has risen in prominence because of a parallel effort by Knesset members to celebrate Mizrachi history and culture in Israel.

Ayalon introduced a resolution in the Knesset two months ago to memorialize Mizrachi communities. “The fact that they were harassed, that they were killed, that they were robbed of their dignity as human beings is something that has never been recognized,” he said.

Most Mizrachi Jews who moved to Israel did so because they faced persecution in their home countries, according to Maurice Roumani, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and an expert on Libyan Jewry. While Jews had lived under Muslim rule for centuries, albeit with restricted rights, their situation became increasingly precarious during the years leading up to Israel’s founding. When Israel declared independence in 1947, Jews in the Arab world lost rights and in many cases citizenship. Expulsions followed.

“The claim that Jews left on their own is not reflecting the truth of history because the true history shows that Jews could no longer continue living there without having their lives threatened,” Roumani said.

While the Palestinian refugee community places its refugee status at the center of its identity, Mizrachi Jews made no formal effort to preserve the memory of their former homes or commemorate their exodus from Middle Eastern countries beyond telling stories or performing Mizrachi Jewish rituals during holidays.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority haven’t negotiated directly since 2010, but Diker said that creating parity between refugees could allow the parties to resolve their respective refugee claims separate from negotiations on borders and security.

“You don’t need a final status agreement in order to solve the refugee problem,” he said. “We’re not adding a claim. We’re recognizing a claim.”

J. staff writer Dan Pine contributed to this report.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.