Last week in Jerusalem, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Ministry for Pensioner Affairs and the World Jewish Congress sponsored the "Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries" conference. Its purpose was to raise awareness of the refugee issue before the international community, shortly before it is presented by Israel before the United Nations General Assembly later this month. Both sides in the Israeli-Arab conflict agree that approximately 850,000 Jews have left the Arab world since the creation of the State of Israel. Yet advocates for Arab Jewish refugees have not yet managed to reach a consensus on whether Jews left under coercive conditions, or on which proper bureaucratic body should make claims on their behalf.
Proponents of Arab Jewish refugee claims all agree that this is a case of historic justice. They rightly point to instances where the UN recognized Arab Jews as refugees. In 1957, for example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recognized the Egyptian Jewish refugees who were "not able, or not willing to avail themselves of the protection of the government of their nationality." In 1967, the UNHCR reference to "Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries in consequence of recent events," meant that Jews persecuted in the region following the 1967 Six-Day War would fall under the UNHCR's mandate.
Arab Jewish refugee organizations have relied on the UNHCR's criteria for recognition in these two instances to justify claims on behalf of Arab Jews who sought refuge in Israel following the War of Independence. Between 1948 and 1952, more than 90 percent of the Jewish communities in Libya, Iraq and Yemen were coerced into leaving through measures that included stripping Jews of their rights and citizenship, and the freezing and confiscation of property and assets.
Despite the strength of these claims, last week's conference also revealed several of the refugee campaign's weaknesses. First, not all Arab Jewish claims are credible as refugee cases. The majority of Algerian Jews left not after the creation of the State of Israel, but after Algeria gained independence, in 1962. And France, not Israel, was their primary destination. Similarly, in the Moroccan and Tunisian cases, decolonization and the end of French rule, in 1956, played a significant role in encouraging Jews to leave. In the case of Iran, which Israel also includes as a target in its campaign for compensation, most of the Jewish community fled after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. To assert that Maghrebian or Iranian Jews became refugees as a result of Israel's creation and should thus be included within the refugee context is historically tenuous.
Second, conference speakers were equivocal about the nature of the injustice perpetrated, and devoted much attention to the issue of Palestinian exceptionalism within international law. No speaker at the conference, including U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (Dem., NY ), was able to clearly distinguish whether the primary injustice was the lack of recognition for Arab Jews, or the legal exception that was subsequently made for Palestinians.
The difference between these two categories - meaning lack of recognition vs. Palestinian exceptionalism - is subtle, but critical. If the refugee issue is a matter of rectifying a historic injustice, then Arab Jews must address it in very explicit terms, on a country-by-country basis, specifying how Jews were wronged. Recognition and compensation must then be sought from the international community or from individual perpetrating states.
For this reason, making Palestinian recognition of Arab Jewish refugees a requirement for Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations, as Canadian Member of Parliament and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler recommends, is likely to be perceived as both cynical and exploitative by the international community. If the Palestinians did not cause the Jews of Syria to flee to the United States as refugees, for example, there is no reason why the question of recognition - which, legally speaking, entails accountability - should be addressed in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Third, the conference failed to clarify whether Israel has the right to represent the many Arab Jews who emigrated to countries other than Israel. Raising this question to Danny Ayalon, I was told that this was something to be "negotiated" between Israel and the Diaspora. Yet if the ongoing disputes over Holocaust reparations - between the Diaspora and Israel, and between Israeli survivors and the Israeli government - are any indication, the issue could be extremely divisive for the non-Israeli and Israeli communities.
Currently, although Justice for Jews from Arab Countries is striving for international recognition, a final reading of bill before the Israeli Knesset emphasizes instead "the right to compensation" for Arab and Iranian Jews. Behind the Israeli campaign lies a real, unrecognized and legitimate grievance by Arab Jews. Nevertheless, the grievance is more nuanced than the claim that nearly one million Jews left the Arab world because of Israel's creation - or the counter-claim that there were never any Arab Jewish refugees, if by "refugee," we mean stateless persons. Failing to appreciate the specific histories of each country involved will ensure that justice is never reached.
Shayna Zamkanei is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago, who has worked for think tanks in North America and the Middle East. Her dissertation explores the question of Arab Jewish refugee recognition.
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