An advertisement has recently been broadcast on television in which entertainer Yossi Alfi encourages Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) to tell their stories for the sake of the historical record. But beneath the welcoming title, “And you shall tell your son,” hides a program with historic implications that are hidden from the public eye.
Those who view the ad are invited to visit the website of the Pensioner Affairs Ministry and tell their stories. At first glance, this seems moving and justified: Just as it is important to document the heritage of the Jews of Europe, it is proper to document the history of those who came from Muslim countries.
Yet people who enter this site and seek to document their stories encounter a surprise: a bureaucratic form that instructs them how to file a claim for property in their countries of origin that was stolen from them when they emigrated to Israel. This week, apparently due to complaints, the section of the form that deals with documentation was given more prominence. Yet still, the bulk of the form deals with property claims.
The project “And you shall tell your son” stems from a 2009 government decision to change Israel’s long-standing policy on the narrative of Jewish immigrants from the Middle East. Until then, the state had objected to labeling them as refugees who were expelled from their countries and dispossessed of their property, for two reasons.
One was that, according to the Zionist ethos of David Ben-Gurion’s era, Israel didn’t absorb refugees who came to it against their will, but immigrants who arrived after 2,000 years of longing.
The second reason was fear of creating an equation that acknowledged the fact that the War of Independence created two kinds of refugees: Jews expelled from Arab lands, and Palestinians expelled from Israel. Even their numbers are similar: Some 800,000 Jews arrived from Arab lands (until 1967), and some 700,000 Palestinians were counted as refugees by the United Nations.
The change in the government’s approach toward this narrative of immigration stemmed from recognition of the fact that from an international standpoint, Israel would have trouble evading pressure to recognize its responsibility, at least to some degree, for the Palestinian refugee problem. Because the Palestinians’ demand for a right of return is taboo, it’s reasonable to assume that the state will be forced to contend, at the least, with their claims for compensation.
Defining these Jews as refugees could thus accomplish two goals: overshadowing the Palestinians’ narrative of the Nakba (“catastrophe”) with a greater Jewish catastrophe, and offsetting their financial claims against Israel. According to researchers’ calculations, Jews in Arab countries owned property whose value exceeded that of Palestinians in Israel.
Nevertheless, this equation also raises questions from the field of international law. For instance, Israel unofficially cooperated with the Iraqi parliament’s decision to confiscate Iraqi Jews’ assets in exchange for its decision to allow these Jews to move to Israel. Does this mean that Israel waived their property claims?
Either way, the irony is that a right-wing government is the one that is undermining the Zionist narrative by treating Jewish immigrants from Arab lands as refugees. Judging by the personal history of my own family, which immigrated from Baghdad, the “refugee” definition is debatable. Granted, most of them weren’t engaged in Zionist activity and decided to immigrate because of the hostility that erupted against them after Israel’s establishment. But the Jewish consciousness they had preserved for hundreds of years is what caused the genuine excitement that accompanied their immigration, despite the difficulties and the loss of their property.
If the government truly intends to try to reach an agreement, and not just to pose a counter to the Nakba, the equation between Palestinian and Jewish refugees has some value. It’s just a pity that along the way the state is misleading its elderly citizens twice over. Once is by enticing them to file a claim under the pretext of documenting their heritage. The other is by encouraging them to believe that filling out this form will help them recoup the value of their property, when the real purpose is to obtain a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
In this matter, at least, all Jews are brothers: The Mizrahim can ask Holocaust survivors about how much generosity the Israeli authorities have displayed toward them.