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The Unbearable Silence about the Jewish Refugees

Today, fewer than 4,500 Jews remain in Arab countries. Israel absorbed and integrated 600,000 of the more than 850,000 who left.

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The Palestinian narrative of victimhood, emphasizing the pitiful condition of Palestinian refugees, and portraying them as the world’s major refugee problem, has convinced many in the international community to accept this version of their unfortunate plight and the injustices done to them.

That narrative, however, essentially one of historical revisionism, denies the truth that the Jews who left, fled, or were expelled from Arab countries can really be regarded as refugees, as well.

The story of these Jewish refugees has been much less well known than that of the Palestinian refugees, about whose fate international resolutions have been passed, and on whose behalf thirteen UN agencies and organizations have provided aid. The issue of the legitimate rights of the Jewish refugees, and the individual and collective loss of their assets, have not yet been seriously addressed; nor have there been any real attempts in international forums at the restitution of their rights and assets.

The contrast is startling. Between 1949 and 2009 there were 163 resolutions passed in the UN General Assembly dealing with Palestinian refugees; there was not one on Jewish refugees. Similarly, since 1968, the UN Human Rights Council (formerly Commission) has adopted 132 resolutions dealing with the plight of the Palestinian refugees, but not one directed to the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

Other specialized agencies of the UN have been specifically established, or charged, to pay attention to the Palestinian refugees. These refugees have benefited from international financial assistance; the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), since 1950, has provided over $13 billion (in 2007 prices). Jewish refugees have received nothing from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international organization dealing with refugees all over the world except Palestinians, who have the UNRWA solely devoted to them.

The status of those Jews as refugees, although challenged, has been found to be in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, which established the definition of “refugee,” and which was adopted in July 1951, and entered into force in April 1954.

Jews had been living in what are today Arab countries for over more than 2,500 years, going back to the Babylonian captivity. In 1948, they still accounted for 3.6 per cent of the population in Libya, 2.8 per cent in Morocco, and 2.6 per cent in Iraq. Their social ranking varied in the different countries. In Iraq and Egypt some Jews were successful in occupations and professions, and played some role in their societies; in Yemen and Morocco they were generally uneducated and poor.

In general, Jews in Arab countries living under Islamic rule, were treated as dhimmis, barely tolerated second class citizens, often obliged to pay a tithe, or tax, called a jizya, to remain in the country. In some places, they were allowed limited religious, educational, and business, opportunities, but in other places, they were denied civil and human rights; suffered legal discrimination; had property taken, and were deprived of citizenship.

In the 20th century, both before and after the creation of Israel, in a number of Arab countries Jews were threatened — physically, economically, and socially. Jews there experienced riots, mass arrests, confiscation of property, economic boycotts, and limits on employment in many occupations. They also endured limits on admission to colleges, and on personal movement, as well as pogroms which occurred in Libya, Syria, Morocco, and especially Iraq, where in the space of two days in June 1941, in Baghdad, a pogrom, known as the Farhud, took place: under the pro-Nazi regime of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, 179 Jews were murdered and 600 injured by rioters.

In Libya, in 1945, rioters in Tripoli killed more than 140 Jews. A number of other Arab countries saw Jews murdered, kidnapped, and in general encounter discrimination, expulsion, and exclusion from citizenship.

The Arab League countries decided to take away the citizenship of their Jews. Iraq deprived its Jews of their citizenship in 1950, and of their property in 1951. Egypt and Libya issued laws that “Zionists” were not nationals. They disregarded Jews having lived in those countries for more than a thousand years before the birth of Muhammad in 570, and the emergence of Islam in the 7th century.

With the creation of Israel in 1948, Jews in Arab and Islamic Middle East countries experienced spoliation, organized discrimination, violence, attacks and pogroms.

Libya in 1961 deprived the less than 10% of the Jews who had remained there of their citizenship, as did Algeria in 1962. Iraq seized the property of Jews. As a result, Jews began leaving, were driven out, or were brought out. By the mid 1970s almost all Jews — more than 850,000 — had left those countries. According to figures and analysis provided by “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries,” and by Stanley Urman, its executive vice president, the largest numbers came from Morocco (265,000); Algeria (140,000); Iraq (135,000), and Tunisia (105,000). Almost all of the 55,000 Jews living in Yemen were taken to Israel by the air operation, “Magic Carpet.” About 130,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq to Israel.

Today, fewer than 4,500 Jews remain in Arab countries. Israel absorbed and integrated 600,000 of the more than 850,000 who left.

It is high time to end the virtual silence and unwillingness to consider the question of Jewish refugees, and to recognize that they should be part of any final resolution of the Middle East refugee problem. The crucial United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22 1967 mentioned that a comprehensive peace settlement should include “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” It was Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. representative to the UN largely responsible for drafting the Resolution, who clarified that the language referred “both to Arab and Jewish refugees, for about an equal number of each abandoned their homes as a result of the several wars.” The implication was that any arrangements made would apply to all — not only Arab — refugees in the Middle East.

This point of view is reflected in both bilateral and multilateral agreements. The Camp David Framework for Peace in the Middle East of 1978, Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979, the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, the Madrid Conference of 1991-92, and the Israel-Palestinian Agreements beginning in 1993, including the Declaration of Principles of September 1993 and the Interim Agreement of September 1995, all articulated similar language.

Similarly, the UNHCR announced on two occasions, in February 1957 and in July 1967, that Jews who had fled from Arab countries “may be considered prima facie within the mandate of this office,” thus regarding them, according to international law, as bona fide refugees.

In any settlement, the property abandoned by Jews would need to be taken into account. Calculation of this, although not easy, has been assessed as some $300 billion; and Jewish-owned real estate — about four times the size of Israel — at about $6 billion.

The international community is long overdue, in dealing with the Palestinian refugees, to see that equity prevails. It should be conscious of the rights of Jewish refugees, who, as a result of Arab and Islamic behavior, have suffered by being deprived of rights and property. The international community should also call for redress for these descendants. Some form of compensation is due the Jewish refugees; and discussion of it should be part of final status talks in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.

About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.


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