I was invited recently to participate in a discussion by the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on International Relations on the Jewish exodus from the Arab states in 1948. Together with reports from experts and the testimonies of refugees, we presented the exodus of some 900,000 Jews as part of an anti-Semitic policy that included anti-Jewish legislation and incitement, the seizure of assets and pogroms.
From a legal point of view, as portrayed by jurist Carol Bazri, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Iraq, the process was one of blatant "ethnic cleansing."
After the documents were submitted and the testimonies were heard, a congressman said to us: "The things I have read in the material submitted to me and the things I have heard in the testimonies are astounding. The systematic persecution and discrimination against the Jews is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s; and the physical persecution, including merciless killing by hanging, is similar to the extermination of the Jews in the 1940s. Why haven't we heard about this? Why doesn't the government of Israel tell the world the story of the Jewish refugees from the Arab states?"
The awakening of public interest in the exodus of Jews from the Arab states stems from a number of factors - developments in the political arena, changes in the Jewish refugees' perception of collective and individual memory, and a fresh look at the Zionist myth and ethos.
The 10 conferences held by the World Jewish Congress around the world have seen a repeat of the phenomenon we have also witnessed among the Holocaust survivors - the need of the refugees to recount and share their memories after many years of repression.
Many of the Jews from the Arab states who had lived in homogeneous communities, with traditions and cultures dating back thousands of years, suffered greatly from the sudden move to refugee status. The testimonies we heard from Jews who left Iraq, Lybia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere were emotional and sometimes accompanied by tears. Family members who were present said they were hearing the stories in full for the first time.
While one can explain the repression of painful personal memory, it is more difficult to understand the silence of Israel's governments and society on an issue that touches the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and demonstrates, in fact, that the Middle East saw a process of population exchanges. The number of Jews who left the Arab states and were absorbed, for the most part, by Israel is far greater than the number of Palestinians who left during a long war (18 months), mostly in response to the calls and incitement of Arab leaders.
Drawing an analogy between the stories of the Jewish and Palestinian refugees gives rise to a moral and just argument against the Palestinian demand for "the right of return"; and it is difficult to understand why no consistent use is made of this argument.
What is the meaning of the Israeli silence?
The Israeli left finds it difficult to cultivate an explanatory argument that appears to emphasize moral supremacy for the Jewish side, which absorbed and rehabilitated the Jewish refugees, over the Arabs, who worked to perpetuate the suffering and nurture it as an anti-Israeli tool. Among the left, the Zionist ethos was learned with much guilt feelings about us being the cause of the refugee problem; while the radical left voices sweeping (false) accusations that the Israel Defense Forces, the Haganah, the Palmach and the Irgun were involved in the systematic massacre and deportation of the Palestinians.
According to the New Historians and post-Zionists, the State of Israel was born in sin. These arguments have found their way into the public discourse and have been adopted by academe and among the tone-setters in the Israeli culture and media.
The Israeli right has seen the development of inhibitions of a different kind. Right-wingers and government representatives, too, believed that we shouldn't use the term "Jewish refugees," because it is antagonist and doesn't reflect the Zionist revival. As far as they are concerned, we should emphasize that most of the Jews from the Arab states were drawn to Israel by Zionist ideals and did not come here as refugees. Many of Israel's Jews from the Arab states chose to adopt the Zionist interpretation.
The Zionist ethos doesn't accept the fact that the vast majority of Israeli residents, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, came to the Promised Land as persecuted or deported refugees. There was, of course, an active Zionist elite in Europe or the Arab states; but as is the case with a pioneering leadership, it was limited. The masses arrived by means of a far less heroic process. This does not detract from the historical justification for the Zionist revolution.
When, in the summer of 2000, Yasser Arafat and his representatives raised the demand for "the right of return" for 4 million Palestinians, the Israeli representatives were surprised. After the facts were presented to former U.S. president Bill Clinton, he explicitly determined that there are two refugee problems in the Middle East that require justice and compensation - a Jewish and an Arab one.
Postmodernism rejects claims of ideological righteousness and views them as one-sided interpretations of history. But we don't have a choice. The battle against "the right of return" rages on, and it requires us to adopt a realistic and see-right approach to the Zionist ethos and the Zionist justice.
The writer is the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.