The Jewish Refugee Equation: An Obnoxious Form of Diplomacy

A new Israeli government campaign emphasizes Jewish refugees from Arab lands as a factor in any future negotiations with the Palestinians, but, asks Rachel Shabi, what on earth has each refugee issue got to do with the other?

Rachel Shabi
Rachel Shabi
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Rachel Shabi
Rachel Shabi

I didn’t want to get into this again, but then the Israeli government did. Again and again. The subject of equating Jewish and Palestinian refugees from 1948 onwards has recurred, periodically, since the 1980s. Then in 2010, the Israeli government gave the issue an oxygen pump, by passing a law that stated that negotiations over Palestinian refugees had also to factor in Jewish ‘refugees’ from Arab lands.

The two groups are supposed to offset each other in a sort of exile spreadsheet, says the Israeli government. Last month, the government convened the first UN conference on the issue. And now, it has told its diplomats to make this equivalence at every “relevant” forum - which is going to be great fun for everyone else present.

There are several, well-aired reasons why this thinking is manipulative, misleading and an obnoxious form of diplomacy. First off, Jews are supposed to have a nation - Israel, while Palestinians are refugees because they fled or were forced to leave the very same homeland. The UN accepts this: towards the end of the 1948 war that created both Israel and 711,000 Palestinian refugees, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to return or compensate those exiled Palestinians.

Second, this victim-twinning of Palestinians and around 800,000 Jews from Arab lands is problematic when the circumstances of departure are examined. For instance, some Jews who left Baghdad or Sana’a are insistent that they did not flee as refugees, but left of their own accord, with the intention of pioneering a Jewish homeland in then-Palestine. Meanwhile, others point to the Zionist emissaries active in the Middle East by the 1940s, setting up a Jewish underground that would agitate for Zionism. This was done at a time when many Jews preferred to engage in home-grown nationalist movements that sought to shake off colonial rulers - the British in Iraq, the French in Morocco. Those Middle Eastern Jews did not appreciate the Zionist meddlers sent from Palestine, nor the turbulent effect this had on their lives. If the Zionist organization’s mission statement was to provoke a Jewish exodus, how then can Arab nations be solely to blame (although it is true that they bear some of it) for the departure of those Jewish populations? Several members of my family stayed in Iraq into the 1970s; how did they manage that if all, as is claimed, were forced to flee several decades earlier?

This whole compensation-equivalence campaign is also annoying because it uses Arab-Jewish heritage solely to score political points against Palestinians - and does this when Israel is otherwise entirely dismissive of all except a few Oriental bauble aspects of Arab-Jewish heritage. There are also grievances to do with representation: if Jewish from Arab countries do have property claims, why should they all - including those residing outside Israel - choose to make those through the Israeli government? All in all, it’s heartening and a welcome development to see the newly formed Committee of Baghdadi Jews in Ramat Gan speak out against the Israeli government’s campaign. Comprising Jews from Arab lands and their descendents, the group has called out this campaign to “offset” refugee claims, calling it “cynical manipulation” and seeking to “expose the fallacy” of such a proposed trade.

But what’s really striking about this campaign is how revealing it is of the Israeli government’s core premises about the Middle East. Palestinians and Iraqi Jews may have claims to compensation over property, for instance, but what on earth has one to do with the other? Why should one claim be offset against the other, unless you see ‘Palestinian’ as interchangeable with ‘any other Arabs’? This is the official Israeli take on this: Jews were absorbed into the Jewish state, but Palestinians - aka ‘some Arabs’ - were cynically and cruelly not absorbed by ‘other Arabs,’ those countries where Palestinians, not being Jordanian, Syrian or Lebanese, live as stateless refugees.

And that’s at the heart of this ill-advised campaign - a wilful category error that causes terrible problems across other elements of this conflict. The Israeli government insists on carving the world up into blocks of ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs.’ But Israel isn’t surrounded by a mass of interchangeable Arabs; it is, simply and obviously, part of a region of other nations. The sooner Israel adjusts to this reality, the better it will be - for everyone, refugees or otherwise.

Rachel Shabi is an award-winning journalist and the author of Not the Enemy, Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands (2009). Follow her on Twitter @rachshabi.

Jewish refugees from Iraq.Credit: Pavel Wolberg / Reproduction



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