Thursday, December 15, 2011

Middle East refugees

Whenever someone hears the phrase "Middle East refugees" they think of the Palestinians, mainly because the Palestinian refugees have been made into an international cause celebre. But, in fact there were more Jewish refugees in the Middle East than Arabs. However, their narrative has been entirely lost and overlooked in the whole context of the Middle East situation. While there have been ca. 150 resolutions of the UN on the Palestinian refugees, there have been none, zero, on the Jewish refugees. Further, the UN agency specially established to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem rather help them integrate in Arab countries, UNWRA, has spent ca. 3.5 billion dollars on them in the past 60 years, but nothing has ever been spent on the Jewish refugees. In effect there was an exchange of populations (ca.750,000 Palestinian Arabs for ca. 850,000 Arab Jews) between Israel and the Arab countries.

On Tuesday in the AACI lecture series at Netanya College we heard the story of Linda Menuhin, born Linda Abdul Aziz in Iraq, who was one of nearly a million Jewish refugees from Arab countries who came to Israel in the wake of the establishment of the State. It is important to note that they were refugees who were indigenous to the Middle East, hence their organization named Jimena, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Jimena has assumed a hasbara role to introduce the symmetrical tale of the exchange of two populations of refugees.

The Jewish refugees were not only ignored by the international community, but also by successive Israeli Governments, who lumped them in as immigrants with the rest of the population, including many Holocaust survivors from the camps of Europe after WWII. They were granted Israeli citizenship and even though they were initially housed in tents in camps, called ma'abarot, that dotted Israel in the early 1950's, they were never registered as refugees. In effect, by integrating them into the Israeli population their story and their rights were neglected and ignored. The value of the property stolen from these refugees by Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Morocco) estimated at 100 billion dollars, far exceeds the value of the property left by Palestinians when they fled Israel during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.

There is ample documentation of the plight of these Jewish refugees. There is an excellent pamphlet by Martin Gilbert entitled "The Jews of Arab Lands" published in 1976, recently followed by his extensive history "In Ishmael's House, a history of the Jews in Muslim Lands." Although this topic was ignored for many years, several events have recently brought it to the fore, the Knesset recently passed a law requiring the Israeli Government to represent the rights of these refugees in any negotiations with the Arab side. In his latest hasbara video Deputy Israeli FM Danny Ayalon discusses the refugee question and includes the Jews for Arab Lands, Dan Diker Secty. General of the World Jewish Congress, also put the cause of Jews from Arab lands as a priority item on their agenda and the David project released a couple of years ago a video entitled "The Forgotten Refugees," (available on YouTube) which was screened at the lecture.

Linda told us her own moving story. That her ancestors had been in Iraq for 1,000 years before the advent of Islam in the Arab pennisula . How in 1941 with the fall of the Iraqi anti-Semitic Government Nazi style, the mob fomented riots called "the Farhud" in Arabic, meaning "dispossession." Meanwhile the British troops stationed outside Baghdad overlooked the looting and killing. This was a major milestone that pushed out Iraqi Jews from Iraq. How she grew up both in a stable Middle class Jewish home, yet was surrounded by constant fear. Her father became an influential lawyer with many Arab clients, and when after the establishment of Israel the majority of the 130,000 Iraqi Jews left. Her father, a lawyer, was appointed the registrar of their property, so the Iraqi Government had a complete detailed listing of all property confiscated by their decree. Through many ups and downs her father decided to remain and he was discreetly promised a passport by the authorities, as he was adamant not to leave illegally. There was a bloody coup led by the Ba'ath Party in 1968 and things got much worse for the Jews.and their number decreased to ca. 3,500. Linda and her younger brother decided they must leave and so in 1970 they went in disguise to the north dressed as poor Arabs with only small bags. Since Jews were forbidden to travel a distance of more than 80 kms from their home, they sat at the back of buses in order to avoid identification by the guards at checkpoints. They arrived in the Kurdish area where they were met by Pesh Merga, the Kurdish fighters who were armed and trained by Israel and were brought on mules over the border to Iran and from there to Israel. Her mother also escaped with her younger sister, but her father waited until he received his passport. But, then he was the first Jew that was kidnapped to be followed by 21 more who disappeared without a trace.

Ba'ath means "renaissance" in Arabic, and the party was founded in Lebanon by a French-speaking Christian Arab named Michel Aflaq who based it on the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of Germany. The Ba'ath Party took power in a coup in Syria in 1963 and in Iraq in 1968. In effect, both regimes were fascist regimes and were virulently anti-Jewish. The Ba'ath regime of Saddam Hussein lasted until 2004 when he was defeated by the US forces, and that of the Assad family in Syria is currently engaged in a civil war for its survival.

Linda having been Head of the Middle East affairs desk of the Israel Broadcasting Association (IBA) News from 1981-1991 and Foreign Press liason with the Israeli Police from 1995-2000 is a freelance commentator and writer on Arabic and Middle Eastern affairs. In her work she tries to build bridges to Arab-speaking counterparts and has many contacts with Palestinians and Iraqi Arabs. She believes that reconciliation will only be achieved when there is mutual recognition of the suffering of both sides in the Middle East.


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