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Danny Ayalon,Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister
photo by Rhonda Spivak

George Baumgarten U.N. Correspondent for the Winnipeg Jewish Review

Forgotten Refugees: Israel Highlights Jews From Arab & Muslim Lands at U.N.

George Baumgarten, U.N. Correspondent for the Winnipeg Jewish Review



They are the refugees the world hardly knows. They have been absorbed and accepted for so long, that even other Israelis hardly know they—and their descendants-- are there, long since accepted as equal citizens of the Jewish state. Even Israel has hardly made an issue of them, in the United Nations or any other international fora. But they are very real—some 856,000 of them, roughly as many as the numbers of Palestinians who fled the new State of Israel. And Israel’s government is now stepping up to tell their story.

They are collectively the heirs to glorious traditions and once-proud communities. There were organized Egyptian communities in Cairo, Alexandria and even Ismailia. The city of Baghdad was once home to over 150,000 Jewish residents, and Tehran perhaps even a larger number (with some 15-20,000 even today, it remains the largest Middle East community, outside Israel.). Even in Iraq’s smaller cities , there were small Jewish communities in Basra, Mosul and even such places as Kut and Tikrit, in addition to Baghdad. Syria had a thriving community in Damascus, and a vibrant one in the northwestern city of Aleppo as well. There was a thriving community in Yemen, with even Jewish schools in the port city of Aden. Beirut, too, had its school system, run by the France-based Alliance Israelite Universelle. Even remote Afghanistan had a serious Jewish community, in Kabul and even in the remote northwestern city of Herat. But they are all gone...or virtually gone, except for Teheran. Synagogues are boarded up, communities have disappeared, cemeteries have been desecrated.

Palestinian Member of Parliament Hanan Ashrawi, anticipating Israel’s coming campaign, wrote an op-ed piece, in which she dared challenge these Jews’ claim to refugee status: If they came to Israel with intent, she argued, they could not be refugees. But Ashrawi missed the most critical point: the Jews from Arab lands had a homeland, Israel, to welcome them. They would never want to return to their countries of origin. Her specious contention validates the very purpose of Israel’s foundation, and shows her argument’s ultimate desperation.

In advance of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual “general debate”, the government of Israel held a program at U.N. Headquarters, hosted by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor. Ayalon, a Knesset member from Foreign Minister Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”) party, told the audience of the magnitude of the problem, and noted that justice would come too late for some. Most left with literally the clothes on their backs, having abandoned furniture, priceless possessions and sometimes even substantial real property. Ayalon also cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, passed in late 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. The Resolution refers simply to “…a just settlement of the refugee problem”, making no distinction between Jewish and Arab refugees. It therefore applies equally to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. In their honor, Israel will propose a “Memorial Day for Refugees”, to give these Jewish refugees a measure of justice. President Clinton, in fact, had proposed a “Refugee Fund”, at the abortive 2000 Camp David negotiations, which unfortunately ended in failure. Ayalon also cited the interesting statistic that “50% of Palestinian refugees would be happy to accept compensation”. The former Canadian M.P. Irwin Cotler also advocated support for such refugees.

Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie is a Syrian-born Jew, who serves as Rabbi of the Edmond Safra Synagogue in New York, endowed by the family of the late Lebanese-born Jewish banker. He noted that while this is the first time this issue is being brought before the U.N., he has long been involved in it. Rabbi Abadie was in fact one of the founders of the organization “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries” (JJAC). Jews had lived in Aleppo, in northwest Syria, for thousands of years. They numbered as many as 18,000 in the 1940’s, but a scant 4,000 a decade later (Today, there are no Jews in Aleppo, and only a handful in Damascus.). Abadie’s family escaped to Lebanon, their passports ominously stamped aller sans retour (“departure without return”). Eventually, they arrived in Mexico in 1971.

Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor at Harvard Law School, has for some years been one of Israel’s most eloquent and forceful advocates. He had worked for Justice Arthur Goldberg at the Supreme Court, and served him again when he was Ambassador to the U.N. In that position, he had something to do with the creation of Resolution 242. He noted that the Resolution requires that Israel withdraw from “…territories occupied in the recent conflict;” (i.e., not all territories). Furthermore, the Resolution makes no specific reference to Palestinian refugees. Therefore, Dershowitz assured his audience, there is “legal, equal status” for all Jewish refugees. Jews lived in Arab lands, he said, for thousands of years, and were instructed by the Bible to always treat refugees in a kindly manner. The U.N., said Dershowitz, was responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem. Noting those who said that Jews should go “back to Germany”, shame on anybody, he said, who advocated such a course of action. In the end, he said, “justice” (tzedek) will prevail.

Edwin Shuker is—despite his Askenazic-sounding name—an Iraqi Jew, born in Baghdad. The Iraqi capital was once home (almost unbelievably, to 21st Century ears) to some 150,000 Jews. Their ancestors had lived in Iraq since the Babylonian exile (586 B.C.E.). He describes Baghdadi Jews as “Jews by religion and identity, Arabs by culture”. But in 1963, they were given special yellow ID cards, reminiscent of the Nazis’ notorious yellow star. Ultimately, they would leave with little but the clothes on their backs.

Shalom Yerushalmi is a Sabra, born in Israel in 1954 to Syrian parents from Damascus. Resident in Syria for 4,000 years, Syrian Jews suffered a blood libel (the accusation of using the blood of gentile children to bake Passover matzot), as recently as 1940 in Damascus. Now only a handful still survive there, and the Syrian capital’s former Jewish quarter is largely inhabited by refugee Palestinians.

Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, was the last major speaker at this event. He noted that the history of Jews in Arab lands is a story of the past, but also of the future. They had enriched their native Arab communities for centuries, but they are there no more. The size of the real property in all these lands confiscated from their Jewish former citizens, he said, amounted to over 40,000 square miles—five times the total area of the State of Israel. But they arrived in Israel, he said, “…without milk, honey or money”.

Finally Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon spoke, as a coda to all the speakers who had gone before. The claims of the Jews of Arab lands, he said, were “unassailable and undeniable”. And our obligation to remember—and honor—them is “our sacred oath”.

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