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Spineless bookkeeping: The use of Mizrahi Jews as pawns against Palestinian refugees

Calls to define Jews from Arab countries as refugees were silenced in the past by Israeli governments. The change of policy has to do with the relatively new recognition that Israel will not be able to escape its responsibility for the Nakba. But leaders of the new campaign should first learn the history of their unfounded idea.

By Yehouda Shenhav

In the last three years, we have witnessed an intensive campaign aimed at winning political and legal recognition of Arab Jews as “refugees.” The aim of this campaign is to create symmetry in public opinion between the Palestinian refugees and the “Oriental” Jews who arrived to Israeli in the 50s and 60s, presenting both populations as victims of the 1948 war. The Foreign Ministry, under the leadership of Deputy Minister Danny Ayalon, is intensively collecting evidence which would offset – as if it were an algebra equation – the testimonies of Palestinians regarding expulsion, looting and killings.

A couple of years ago, the Knesset passed a law ordering every Israeli government that deals with Arab representatives (i.e. Palestinians) to treat the Jews of Arab origin as refugees. Several weeks ago, the National Security Council published a paper recommending the government “create a linkage between the Palestinian refugees and the Jews of Arab origin.” Former head of the NSC Uzi Arad decided upon his appointment to lead a special team that would come up with the official Israeli policy on “the Jewish refugees of Arab counties.”

Arad has received Prime Minister Netanyahu’s blessing for his initiative. He set up a special body inside the NSC and had representatives from the Ministry of Justice, the Finance Ministry and the Foreign Ministry join the discussions. Historians, economists and representatives of Jewish organizations such as WOJAC (World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries) and JJAC (Justice for Jews from Arab Countries) were invited as well. The council recommended that the prime minister make the “Jewish refugees” and their compensations claims an inseparable part of the negotiations over the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Yemeni immigrants at a Rosh Ha’ayin transit camp. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / public domain)

Calls to define Jews from Arab countries as refugees were made in the past, but back then, they were silenced by Israeli governments. Why the change of policy? Partly due to a relatively new recognition that Israel will no longer be able to hide its responsibility for the Nakba.

The Foreign Ministry’s bookkeeper’s trick betrays the fear of the Palestinian claim of compensation and return – a central tenet of Palestinian demands. It proves that Israeli recognizes that the ’67 paradigm will not bring an end to the conflict, due to its denial of the Nakba. As a result of this recognition, the leaders of the new campaign hope to use the Mizrahi Jews to block the Palestinians from carrying out their “right of return,” and offset the compensation claims might be forced to pay for the Palestinian property that was expropriated by the Custodian of Absentee Property (the Israeli authority that confiscates and manages Palestinian property, most notably real estate). It is an idea that is historically twisted, unwise from a policy perspective and unjust from a moral point of view – as its history demonstrates.

A miserable history worth reciting

The campaign for the recognition of Jews from Arab countries as refugees was launched by no other than President Bill Clinton, during an interview he gave to Israeli Channel 1 in July, 2000. Ehud Barak, then the prime minister, declared this “achievement” in an interview to Israeli journalist Dan Margalit a month later.

Until then, Israeli governments had avoided recognizing Jews from Arab countries as refugees. They did so because (a) of the fear that such a declaration would reawaken what Israel had tried to erase and forget – the right of return; (b) a concern that Jews might submit compensation claims to Arab countries, and as a result – bring about lawsuits by Palestinians against Israel; and (c) because such a decision would have forced the state to update all of its history books, forming a new narrative according to which Mizrahi Jews didn’t come to Israel due to Zionism, but against their will. Any historian raising such a claim would have been labeled a “post-Zionist.”

The idea to equate Mizrahi Jews with Palestinian refugees was first cooked up by Bobby Brown, government advisor for diaspora affairs, and members of his office, along with representatives of organizations like the World Jewish Congress, the World Sephardi Federation, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Avi Beker, the secretary general of the Jewish Congress, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, convinced Professor Ervin Cotler, a Canadian member of parliament and expert in international law, to join the campaign. An umbrella organization was established, called “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.” However, it did not manage to garner much excitement for the campaign, including from among the Jewish world. The campaign failed to enlist a notable declaration from central Israeli politicians until recently. That’s not surprising. This campaign has a miserable history that should be internatlized, because history can come in very handy.

In the 1980s, the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries – WOJAC – was established. Yigal Alon, then foreign minister, feared that WOJAC would serve as a greenhouse for what he called “sectorial organizing.” Again, WOJAC wasn’t established in order to help Mizrahi Jews but rather to create a deterrent to block demands from the national Palestinian movement – primarily the demand to compensate refugees, and the right of return. The use of the term “refugees” wasn’t unreasonable, as the term had become central in the historical discourse and in international law, following World War II. UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in 1967, referred to a “just settlement of the refugee problem” in the Middle East. In the 1970s, Arab states asked to specifically refer to “Arab refugees in the Middle East,” but the U.S. government, through Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg, opposed it.

In a working paper prepared in 1977 by Cyrus Vance, then the secretary of state, ahead of a possible Geneva Conference meeting, he wrote about the pressure to find a solution to the “refugee problem,” without mentioning which refugees he was referring to. WOJAC, which had tried to put into use the term “Jewish refugees,” had failed. In addition to Arabs, many Zionist Jews all over the world were opposed to the initiative. I recommend that the organizers of the current campaign examine the anatomy of the organization that went from Zionist to post-Zionist in the course of its activities, and to take a page from the laws of political action’s unintended consequences.

The thinker behind the idea of “Jewish refugees” in WOJAC was Ya’akov Meron, the head of the department for Arab legal affairs in the Justice Ministry. Meron formulated the link in the most extreme thesis regarding the history of the Jews of the Arab world. He claimed that the Jews were expelled from the Arab countries in an act coordinated with Palestinian leaders, and called it “ethnic cleansing.” Meron sharply diverged from the Zionist epos, which he said produced romantic terms like “Magic Carpet” [the operation that brought Yemeni Jews to Israel] or “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah” [the airlift that brought Iraqi Jews], suppressing the “fact” that the departure of the Jews was the fruit of an “Arab policy of expulsion.” In order to complete the analogy between Palestinians and Mizrahis, WOJAC’s people even claimed that the Mizrahis lived in refugee camps during the 1950s (referring to transit camps for Jewish immigrants), just like the Palestinian refugees. This claim sparked angry complaints on the part of figures in the state’s founding institutions, which termed it “treason.”

Refugees and free will

The Foreign Ministry, which became alarmed by WOJAC’s tenacity, proposed to put an end to the campaign, claiming that classifying the Mizrahi Jews as refugees was a double-edged sword. At the time, Israel insisted upon maintaining a policy of ambiguity regarding this complex issue. In 1949, the state rejected a joint proposal by Britain and Iraq for a population swap (Iraqi Jews for Palestinian refugees), out of fear that it would have to be responsible for settling “surplus refugees” in Israel. The Foreign Ministry called WOJAC divisive and separatist, asking the organization to cease acting independently in opposition to state interests. In the end, the Foreign Ministry cut off funding to the organization. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin even fired Ya’akov Meron from the Justice Ministry’s department for Arab legal affairs.

It must be stated that there is no serious researcher in Israel or outside it that adopted the organization’s extreme rhetoric. Moreover, in its attempt to strengthen the Zionist thesis and assist the state in its war against Palestinian nationalists, WOJAC achieved the exact opposite. It presented a confused Zionist stance vis-a-vis the conflict, angered many Mizrahi Jews across the world – as it presented them as lacking motivation to move to Israel – and enslaved the interests of the Mizrahi Jews (especially over the issue of Jewish property in Arab countries) to what he accidentally termed “national interests.” He failed to understand that categorizing Mizrahi Jews as refugees opens a Pandora’s box that hurts both Jews and Arab.

Out of a desire to find a magic solution to the question of the refugees, the state readopted the formula, and is now promoting it with great enthusiasm all over the world. It will be interesting to hear the position of the Minister of Education regarding the narrative that the Jewish organizations present as part of the campaign. Will he immediately establish a ministerial committee to change the history textbooks so that they match the new post-Zionist genre? Every honest person, whether Zionist or not, must admit that the analogy between the Palestinians and the Mizrahi Jews is baseless. The Palestinian refugees did not ask to leave Palestine. In 1948, many Palestinian villages were destroyed, and nearly 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from the borders of historic Palestine. Those who fled did not leave out of their own free will.

The depopulated Palestinian village of Suba, west of Jerusalem. (photo: flickr / gnuckx CC BY)

On the other hand, Jews from Arab countries arrived here through the initiative of the State of Israel, as well as Jewish organizations. Some of them arrived out of free will, some against their will. Some of them lived comfortably in Arab countries, and some lived in fear and under oppression. The history of the Mizrahi immigration is complex and cannot be resigned to one simplistic explanation. Many lost a great deal of property, and there is no doubt that they should be allowed to submit individual property claims against Arab countries, something Israel and WOJAC have rejected until today. For instance, the peace agreement with Egypt does not allow individual property claims against the Egyptian government. Jewish property is seen as the property of the State of Israel, and as important leverage to offset the future claims of Palestinian refugees.

Another example: During the Gulf War, the property of a Jewish-Iraqi family in Ramat Gan suffered damages. In their compensation claim, a seasoned attorney advised the family to include a house that had been confiscated by the Iraqi government in 1952. Israel’s Foreign Ministry forbade the move, due to the state’s policy of holding onto such property as leverage for future negotiations with the Palestinians.

The analogy between the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish Mizrahis is thus baseless, not to mention offensive and immoral. It serves to cause friction between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians, it is an insult to a great number of Mizrahim and harms chances for real reconciliation. More than that: the analogy points to a clear lack of understanding regarding the meaning of the Nakba. The Nakba does not only refer to the events of the war. The Nakba is, at its core, the prevention of those who were expelled from returning to their homes, lands and families after the establishment of the State of Israel. The Nakba is an active and clear policy of the State of Israel – not just the chaos of war.

The temptation to use this concept of offsetting claims is understandable, but we cannot use scarecrows in order to refute the moral and political demands of the Palestinians. Such manipulation only worsens the crime and increases the psychological gap between Jews and Palestinians. Even if some of the Palestinians give up on realizing the right of return (as, for example, Dr. Khalil Shikaki claims), such tricks are not the way to achieve this end. Every peace agreement must be based on Israeli acknowledgement of past injustices and finding a fair solution. These accounting tricks turn Israel into a morally and politically spineless bookkeeper.

Prof. Yehouda Shenhav teaches sociology at Tel Aviv University. He was the editor of Theory & Criticism for 10 years, and is currently the senior editor for Organization Studies. Shenhav was a co-founder of The Mizrahi Rainbow Coalition in 1996. This post was originally published in Hebrew in Haoketz.

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    1. Palestinian

      The Arab countries should allow and encourage the return of their Jewish citizens.

      Reply to Comment
      • JDC

        The Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan should also e encouraged to welcome back their Arab brethren. It makes perfect sense.

        Reply to Comment
      • Dr.M.Otero

        Jews in Muslim lands were generally treated as second class citizens, dhimini, except in the briefest of periods. Details are available in works of Andrew Bostum . My family has been here in Israel since 1905 and, other than an occasional and rare person only Morocco has been mentioned. We would like to enjoy our Arab neighbors but not as dhiminis.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      1. This should not be published on Yom Kippur as it causes strife against Jews and does not bring us together.
      2. I have actually studied Shenhav a good deal and read “Arab Jews” which is an important read and did a MA thesis on Mizrahim which generally supports the thesis of Shenhav and others like him (Shohat, Yiftachel, Chetrit, etc.)
      3. I think these academics/activists really downplay the fact Jews were oppressed in these states and while in some cases Ashkenazim encouraged (sometimes cynically) emigration, most Jews I would argue were willing to leave their downtrodden lives in the region. This is not true for many wealthy and secular-minded like in Baghdad, Tunis, Cairo, or Marrakesh but it is true in Yemen, and Libya, and Algeria, and other places.
      4. The Arabs have no room/desire for Jews in their midst and to even remotely imply that is preposterous and it has been 2-3 generations anyway and no Jew in their right mind would move (from anywhere) to an Arab state.
      5. What is left out of all this analysis time and again is the generally positive relations Jews had in Kurdistan, and for the most part in Turkey, and the complex situation in Iran (most left in 1979).
      6. The Nakba and the exodus of Mizrahim are not the same thing, and we cannot conflate the sufferings of either side. Both situations may be defined as ethnic cleansing.

      Gmar Hatima tovah/tzom kal.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jew

      @Palestinian: perhaps your family is from the Arabian peninsula or your family converted from Christianity or Judaism a long time ago (or recently). Perhaps you came with the Moroccans and established the now non-existent Moroccan quarter. Maybe you’re from Syria or Mt. Lebanon, or even from Sudanese slaves of the Ottomans. Whatever the case may be, you have no room to talk because you are implying Jews “return” to the Arab states where they can once again be oppressed, persecuted, or forced to convert, or even die. You are supporting genocide.

      Reply to Comment
      • Palestinian

        And perhaps my family is from Can’an ,perhaps your family is from Russia or Ukraine .Jewish Arabs werent persecuted as you claim ,the thriving Jewish community in Iraq contradicts your hasbara .You have no room in this region,an urgent dental extraction is needed .Remember Israel was established over a continuous genocide .

        Reply to Comment
        • Carl

          ‘Palestinian’, though I don’t agree with much of ‘Jews’s’ points, the idea that Iraq has a ‘thriving’ Jewish population is factually wrong. Off the top of my head I think there’s about seven Jews remaining in Iraq (though more ethnic Jews who can’t reveal or don’t know their identity may exist) with one having to leave due to Wikileaks revealing their identity.

          Still, nice to see a Jew and a Palestinian civilly debating, though a change of username for you both would aid clarity out here in the Interweb.

          Reply to Comment
          • Palestinian

            There is no Jewish community in Iraq today,few individuals only .I was talking about the Jewish Iraqi community pre-Zionism.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      when nations apologize for the past wrongs they did (eg, the Americans with the Japanese-Americans who were put into camps in WWII), that is a total sign that no one with a life thinks there’s anything to be gained by talking about it anymore. It becomes purely a fodder for PhD theses and academicians rants. It is a symbol of the perfected victory of the stronger party.

      Shenhav will become the talk of the town amongst the chattering classes who have zero potential to liberate a centimeter of “Palestine”.

      Once again, 972mag is in “reactive” mode; complaining about our initiatives. This is their downward spiral that will end up with 972’ers attending the same seminars & the same rallies as the Socialist Workers Party in New York State: 80 years of trying; never once exceed a poll-count of 5000 votes out of the entire NY State electorate.

      Some day, Shenhav will fly back into Ben-Gurion from his latest BSD escapade in Oslo, only to find that we have given his house and his job to some Cherkassi Magav retiree.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Pawns and Palestinian refugees being used in the same sentence? How appropriate. Israel should have kept the Mizrahim in refugee camps for 65 years rather than integrating them to avoid the accusation of ‘spineless bookkeeping’. In any case, yes, Shenhav is completely right in suggesting that the current Israeli government no longer hold the delusional position that the core of the problem is the 1967 war. That was the perspective of some previous Labor administrations, but it has been clearly proven incapable of explaining the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, and of predicting the actions and responses of various actors. In other words, it has been proven to be a convenient fiction promoted by some Israeli politicians for the purpose of confusing the Israeli Jewish public into embracing delusional proposals for the resolution of the conflict. This approach has also never been the position of the Israeli right, so it is hardly surprising that the current government has abandoned the pretense.

      The part that Shenhav is missing is that the recent willingness to use the Mizrahim as pawns, so to speak, derives from the realization that there is no longer any danger in sectorial organizing because the Mizrahim have been completely integrated into Israeli society. Outside of the ultra-Orthodox the distinction doesn’t makes any sense any more and even there for all practical purposes the distinction is on its last 92 year old legs.

      It is always fascinating to read obsolete political activists whose causes have become irrelevant and whose population has forgotten them. It is only appropriate that Shenhav found a place to publish his essay on 972mag.

      Reply to Comment
    6. “when nations apologize for the past wrongs they did (eg, the Americans with the Japanese-Americans who were put into camps in WWII), that is a total sign that no one with a life thinks there’s anything to be gained by talking about it anymore”–No, Picker, the Germans still speak of the Shoah. But you imply one should never consider wrong, only the interest of race. You are a back fromation to Racial Darwinism.

      There are too many histories in your land. Human particularism, harm in the now, can trump history used as harm. I know why our posted author presents this case, but it is my belief one must be ready to stand before the juggernaut words of histories used to trample lives today.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Barry Rosen

      For people who dont know who Yehouda Shenhav is, i advise you to read this article.
      Plaut destroys the lies of Shenhav.

      Tel Aviv U’s Red ProfessorBy: Steven Plaut
      March 28, 2006

      Reply to Comment
    8. Barry Rosen

      Palestinian says,
      The Arab countries should allow and encourage the return of their Jewish citizens.

      LOL. 100,000 Jews are going back to Iraq. Where in Iraq? To live with the Sunnis and Shiites.
      If you think the killings are bad now in Iraq, wait till the Muslims find out there’s a 100,000 Jews in Iraq. I give the Jews a year to survive there.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Mitchell Cohen

      @Barry Rosen, I don’t think Palestinian is overly concerned about the survival of Jews. He/she is just concerned that we are no longer here.

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      Well, this is a good way to kick off a new year.
      Something that Shenhav does not mention is the Jews who chose to live in diaspora countries when they were obliged to flee Arab countries in the mid-20th century, some of whom reject as abhorrent the idea of making claims against their (often still beloved) countries of origin.

      I love the suggestion that a Plaut can destroy the lies of a Shahrabani.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Gil Franco

      “Some of them arrived out of free will, some against their will. Some of them lived comfortably in Arab countries, and some lived in fear and under oppression. The history of the Mizrahi immigration is complex and cannot be resigned to one simplistic explanation”

      And some Arabs stayed in Palestine, and some left Haifa despite being encouraged to stay by Jewish authorities, and some fled the fighting and some were expelled. Does that mean there aren’t Arab refugees from Palestine?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      >>> Does that mean there aren’t Arab refugees from Palestine?

      Gil: if a euro-american sneaks into the Lakota reservation, but then gets thrown out after some time of successfully squatting there…. he’s not a refugee. He’s a trespasser who got transferred out.

      Get this into your head, Gil: this is a Hebrew-indigenous land. Arabic is the language of colonialist squatters. The Arabic speakers can only stay when it’s convenient for us. They can be made to go away just like the Turkish speakers were made to go away. Just like the French colonialists were made to go away from Vietnam.

      The Arabic-speakers have zero national rights here. This is a Hebrew country, controlled by a Hebrew Army and Hebrew Police. Everyone else needs our permission, if they want to be here.

      And we will enforce that at gunpoint. Just like the Lakota Police on the Lakota Reservation.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Barry Rosen

      Mitchell Cohen, your totally right and Palmediawatch has documented this for years.

      Reply to Comment