Danny Ayalon and the Jewish refugee fallacy

By Daniel Haboucha

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

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
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