This past week, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, under the initiative of Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, launched the “I Am a Refugee” campaign on Facebook. By inviting Jews from Arab countries to share testimonials about their experiences in the years following Israel’s independence, Ayalon hopes to further push the issue of Arab Jewish refugee recognition onto the international agenda. But why launch the Facebook campaign now?
On the one hand, some believe that its purpose is to deflect attention from the African refugee problem. In response to an estimated 60,000 refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan crossing into Israel, the government intends to build a huge camp in the Negev where it can detain migrants until their status is decided. The idea of a large “concentration camp” has hit a raw nerve among Israeli and American Jews alike. For this reason, one response to Ayalon’s Facebook campaign has been the circulation of photos of African asylum seekers in Israel with the caption “I Am a Refugee.” These photos are apparently intended to clarify what “authentic” refugees look like.
On the other hand, some suggest that the campaign’s purpose is to undermine Palestinian claims in any future round of peace talks. If roughly equal numbers of Palestinians and Arab Jews were displaced following 1948, and the lost assets belonging to both sides were of similar value, then Palestinian and Arab Jewish claims would appear to cancel each other out.
Not surprisingly, this comparison has infuriated the Palestinian leadership. Last weekend, PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi reportedly claimed that “if Israel is their [Arab Jews’] homeland, then they are not ‘refugees’; they are emigrants who return either voluntarily or due to a political decision.”
Ironically, Ashrawi’s sentiment succinctly captures what was once the prevailing view within the Israeli government and among major Zionist advocacy organizations. “I do not regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees,” asserted Iraqi-Israeli former Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel. “They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.” His position was and still is shared by many others. Noteworthy, too, is the Law of Return, which ensures that Jews never arrive in Israel as refugees, but as “olim hadashim” new immigrants.
Nevertheless, both assertions concerning the Facebook campaign have their weaknesses.
Compared to the African refugee issue, the question of compensation for Arab Jews has a longer history: Since the mid-1970s, when the issue was first raised, efforts of Arab Jews to obtain recognition as refugees have persisted. The recent Israeli media efforts, including the Facebook campaign, are merely drawing attention to established and ignored claims.
Compared to the Palestinian issue, Arab Jewish refugee claims are now framed within the context of international historic justice and are promoted by non-Israeli organizations. Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, for example, has maintained a formal distinction between Palestinian and Arab Jewish claims. It regards the two cases as separate and legitimate. Even if Arab Jews and Palestinians are owed roughly the same amount of compensation, their claims do not cancel each other out. In making this distinction, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been influential with both American and Israeli governments. Its mandate does not undermine the claims of Palestinians.
But the fact that the Israeli government is now leading this campaign should give us pause. In the 1970s and 1980s, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries argued that Arab Jewish claims nullified Palestinian ones. This seemed like an effective political antidote to the popularity of the Palestinian national movement, and so the Israeli government began funding the organization.
However, equating Mizrahi or Arab Jewish immigrants with “refugees” offended Zionists and Arab Jews alike. Furthermore, the more WOJAC drew parallels between the treatment of Arab Jewish “immigrants” and Palestinian refugees, the more it felt justified condemning the government for discrimination against Mizrahim. The government became increasingly uncomfortable with the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions that emerged within the domestic arena. Eventually, it accused WOJAC of creating a “state within a state” and cut off the organization’s funding in the 1990s. WOJAC disbanded in 1999.
Given this history, it would be easy to dismiss the testimonies now being solicited from Arab Jews as nothing more than exploitative governmental propaganda. However, neither the African, Palestinian nor Arab Jewish claims exist within a zero-sum sphere of recognition. Despite different historical contexts, it is possible to recognize one group without detracting from the claims of another. And while recognizing a group as refugees can have necessary and immediate material benefits to the lives of individuals, this does not make the claims of older or different refugee groups any less legitimate.
In the case of the Facebook campaign, the most politically salient question is not whether Arab Jews should be legally recognized as refugees or whether the testimonials are authentic. Rather, one has to wonder why Ayalon and the Foreign Ministry have hijacked Arab Jewish recognition efforts when their predecessors stifled them?
And do they have the right to speak for the many Arab Jewish refugees who chose not to come to Israel, but went to other countries instead?
Hopefully, these questions will be clarified in next week’s “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, the Pensioner Affairs Ministry and the World Jewish Congress, in Jerusalem.
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.