The Foreign Ministry’s campaign to recognize early Jewish immigrants to Israel from Arab countries as refugees has faced a fair amount of criticism in Haaretz’s pages. Haaretz writer Gideon Levy sees it as a new level of Israeli chutzpah and asks how it’s possible that after being told for generations that immigration from Arab countries was motivated by Zionism, it suddenly turns out to have been nothing but a wave of refugees (“How many homelands do the Israelis get to have?” September 20, 2012).
Daniel Zirlin sees the campaign as “a bad move from a Zionist perspective” that does more harm than good. He writes that if the Jews of Arab countries arrived as immigrants, thus fulfilling the Zionist dream, they cannot simultaneously be considered refugees. He says the most damaging part of this assertion is that it weakens Zionism and gives ammunition to its opponents (Letters to the Editor, September 13).
Israeli civil rights activist Yifat Bitton sees the campaign as just another way to exploit the Mizrahim and take away their rights. She claims many Jews from Arab countries came to Israel because of religious-messianic convictions (like Yemeni Jews) or Zionism (like Iraqi Jews). So, she says, they cannot be seen as refugees. On the other hand, she criticizes the idea of equating the financial claims of Jewish and Palestinian refugees, arguing it belittles the Jewish refugee’s claim (“Another way to discriminate against Mizrahim,” September 20).
These statements show an ignorance of or lack of interest in the history of the Jews of Arab countries. Jews did not leave Yemen based on a religious-messianic vision, nor did the Jews of Iraq immigrate to Israel because of Zionist agitation. In general, the Jews of Arab countries acted based on rational considerations, just like other Jews around the world.
Then there’s the idea that the State of Israel must decide why and how the Jews of Arab countries came to Israel and, based on that decision, determine whether they’re immigrants or refugees. “The Jews immigrated, willingly or unwillingly – Israel has yet to decide on that one,” writes Levy. He gives the right to decide to MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta’al), quoting his question, “How many homelands do you have?” Tibi ignores the fact that all the immigrants, expellees and refugees have or had more than one homeland at various times in their lives.
But the biggest and most important players, the Jew of Arab countries themselves, are not part of the discussion. When they arrived in Israel, they were forced to erase their language and culture, as well as their ancient and recent pasts, and adopt the Zionist ideology that portrayed them as immigrants. During the 1950s, the State of Israel was unwilling to recognize that the proposed solution to the Jewish question in Europe had caused a terrible conflict that endangered the existence of the ancient Jewish communities in Arab countries. It still doesn’t recognize this today. It puts the blame for the situation on the Arab countries, which began attacks against the Jewish state and against the Jews of Arab countries at the same time.
But beyond this political debate, the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947 was indeed a watershed, which forced the Jews of Arab countries into the conflict over the Land of Israel and made them into hostages in their native lands. The pogrom against the Jews of Aden, Yemen, which broke out at the beginning of December 1947, resulted not only in dozens of Jewish deaths, but also in economic destruction. In its wake, most of the Jews of Aden, who were not Zionists, were forced to immigrate to Israel. Libyan Jews also endured pogroms in 1945 and in 1948, which killed and wounded Jews and destroyed their community’s economic infrastructure. When, in January 1949, the British authorities announced they would allow the Jews to leave, 30,000 of Libya’s Jews chose to go to Italy and from there to Israel, the only place that would accept them.
Fifty thousand Yemenite Jews left in May 1949, as a result of cooperation between the imam and British rulers of Yemen, social and economic oppression, inferior legal status, forced conversion of orphans to Islam and humiliations rooted in laws and customs combined with attacks related to political upheavals and fears of the fallout of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In complete contradiction of the Israeli myth that they arrived by “Magic Carpet,” the price of their immigration was heavy in the extreme, in terms of both human life and property. Many of them died on the way out of Yemen. Hundreds more died at Yemen’s border, in the long weeks when it was closed to Jews, and yet hundreds more died in refugee camps in Aden. Those who got out left most of their property behind, and the little they had managed to take with them was stolen from them during the journey.
The largest group – 125,000 Jews – arrived from Iraq. What led them to Israel was neither Zionist propaganda nor Zionist agitation but rather their transformation into hostages whose fate was made conditional on the fate of the Palestinian refugees. The Jews of Iraq feared becoming the victims of a second round of the war between Israel and the Arab states. The law that permitted their departure from Iraq was no ordinary immigration law. It created a short one-year window to leave, required renouncing the right to return to Iraq, failed to mention that the government would seize the property of many departing Jews and did not allow registrants to change their minds about leaving. Many Jews saw Iraq as their homeland, but even anti-Zionist Jewish communists, who were jailed in Iraqi prisons, were forced onto airplanes bound for Israel. Their property was taken only after they had registered for departure and renounced their Iraqi citizenship.
The Jews of Egypt suffered an expulsion in 1956, while the Jews who remained in Iraq faced persecutions and executions after 1967 and fled via Kurdistan and Iran. The small Jewish community of Syria also suffered terrible persecution for decades until its members were allowed to leave in the 1990s.
Of course, this is not the whole story of the Jews of Arab countries. The story is far more expansive, complex and varied. It certainly also invovled Zionism and religious yearning, but even those Jews who started out as immigrants, whether out of Zionist motives or not, were transformed into refugees along the way. They arrived in Israel impoverished and destitute.
The story of the immigration of Jews of Arab countries has never been seriously studied. Even as it was happening, Israel used it to strengthen the Zionist ethos, forcing the new arrivals into silence. The desire to belong motivated many of the immigrants to eagerly adopt the Zionist myth, helping to mute the real story of their uprooting. Now Israeli officials have decided to put the story to a new, completely different use. It seems that even now, they are not doing so for the benefit the Jews of Arab countries. Maybe the time has come for the story to be studied seriously, its events examined outside of any campaign, and the voices of the Jews most affected to be considered.
Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein teaches at Ben-Gurion University. Her book, "The Exodus of the Yemenite Jews A Failed Operation and a Formative Myth," was published by Resling.