Hitching a ride on
the magic carpet
By Professor Yehouda Shenhav
Any analogy between Palestinian refugees and Jewish immigrants
from Arab lands is folly in historical and political terms.
An intensive campaign to secure official political and
legal recognition of Jews from Arab lands as refugees has
been going on for the past three years. This campaign has
tried to create an analogy between Palestinian refugees
and Mizrahi Jews, whose origins are in Middle Eastern countries
- depicting both groups as victims of the 1948 War of Independence.
The campaign's proponents hope their efforts will prevent
conferral of what is called a ''right of return'' on Palestinians,
and reduce the size of the compensation Israel is liable
to be asked to pay in exchange for Palestinian property
appropriated by the state guardian of ''lost'' assets.
The idea of drawing this analogy constitutes a mistaken
reading of history, imprudent politics, and moral injustice.
Bill Clinton launched the campaign in July 2000 in an interview
with Israel's Channel One, in which he disclosed that an
agreement to recognize Jews from Arab lands as refugees
materialized at the Camp David summit. Ehud Barak then stepped
up and enthusiastically expounded on his ''achievement''
in an interview with Dan Margalit.
Past Israeli governments had refrained from issuing declarations
of this sort. First, there has been concern that any such
proclamation will underscore what Israel has tried to repress
and forget: the Palestinians' demand for return. Second,
there has been anxiety that such a declaration would encourage
property claims submitted by Jews against Arab states and,
in response, Palestinian counter-claims to lost property.
Third, such declarations would require Israel to update
its schoolbooks and history, and devise a new narrative
by which the Mizrahi Jews journeyed to the country under
duress, without being fueled by Zionist aspirations. That
would be a post-Zionist narrative.
At Camp David, Ehud Barak decided that the right of return
issue was not really on the agenda, so he thought he had
the liberty to indulge the Mizrahi analogy rhetorically.
Characteristically, rather than really dealing with issues
as a leader, in a fashion that might lead to mutual reconciliation,
Barak acted like a shopkeeper.
This hot potato was cooked up for Barak and Clinton by Bobby
Brown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's adviser for Diaspora
affairs, and his colleagues, along with delegates from organizations
such as the World Jewish Congress and the Conference of
Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
A few months ago Dr. Avi Becker, secretary-general of the
World Jewish Congress, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice
chairman of the Conference of Presidents, persuaded Prof.
Irwin Cotler, a member of Canada's parliament and an expert
on international law, to join their campaign. An article
by Becker published a few weeks ago in the Hebrew edition
of Haaretz (July 20), entitled ''Respect for Jews from Arab
lands", constituted one step in this public campaign.
The article said little about respect for Mizrahi Jews.
On the contrary - it trampled their dignity.
The campaign's results thus far are meager. Its umbrella
organization, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, has
not inspired much enthusiasm in Israel, or among Jews overseas.
It has yet to extract a single noteworthy declaration from
any major Israeli politician. This comes as no surprise:
The campaign has a forlorn history whose details are worth
revisiting. Sometimes recounting history has a very practical
The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC)
was founded in the 1970s. Yigal Allon, then foreign minister,
worried that WOJAC would become a hotbed of what he called
''ethnic mobilization". But WOJAC was not formed to
assist Mizrahi Jews; it was invented as a deterrent to block
claims harbored by the Palestinian national movement, particularly
claims related to compensation and the right of return.
At first glance, the use of the term ''refugees'' for Mizrahi
Jews was not unreasonable. After all, the word had occupied
a central place in historical and international legal discourses
after World War II. United Nations Security Council Resolution
242 from 1967 referred to a just solution to ''the problem
of refugees in the Middle East''. In the 1970s, Arab countries
tried to fine-tune the resolution's language so that it
would refer to ''Arab refugees in the Middle East'', but
the U.S. government, under the direction of ambassador to
the UN, Arthur Goldberg, opposed this revision. A working
paper prepared in 1977 by Cyrus Vance, then U.S. secretary
of state, ahead of scheduled international meetings in Geneva,
alluded to the search for a solution to the ''problem of
refugee's without specifying the identities of those refugees.
Israel lobbied for this formulation. WOJAC, which tried
to introduce use of the concept ''Jewish refugees",
The Arabs were not the only ones to object to the phrase.
Many Zionist Jews from around the world opposed WOJAC'S
initiative. Organizers of the current campaign would be
wise to study the history of WOJAC, an organization which
transmogrified over its years of activity from a Zionist
to a post-Zionist entity. It is a tale of unexpected results
arising from political activity.
'We are not refugees'
The WOJAC figure who came up with the idea of ''Jewish refugees''
was Yaakov Meron, head of the Justice Ministry's Arab legal
affairs department. Meron propounded the most radical thesis
ever devised concerning the history of Jews in Arab lands.
He claimed Jews were expelled from Arab countries under
policies enacted in concert with Palestinian leaders - and
he termed these policies ''ethnic cleansing". Vehemently
opposing the dramatic Zionist narrative, Meron claimed that
Zionism had relied on romantic, borrowed phrases ("Magic
Carpet'' ''Operation Ezra and Nehemiah'') in the description
of Mizrahi immigration waves to conceal the ''fact'' that
Jewish migration was the result of ''Arab expulsion policy".
In a bid to complete the analogy drawn between Palestinians
and Mizrahi Jews, WOJAC publicists claimed that the Mizrahi
immigrants lived in refugee camps in Israel during the 1950s
(i.e., ma'abarot or transit camps), just like the Palestinian
The organization's claims infuriated many Mizrahi Israelis
who defined themselves as Zionists. As early as 1975, at
the time of WOJAC'S formation, Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu
declared: ''We are not refugees. (Some of us) came to this
country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations".
Shlomo Hillel a government minister and an active Zionist
In Iraq, adamantly opposed the analogy: ''1 don't regard
the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees.
They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists".
In a Knesset hearing, Ran Cohen stated emphatically: "I
have this to say: I am not a refugee" He added: ''I
came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this
land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is
going to define me as a refugee".
The opposition was so vociferous that Ora Schweitzer, chair
of WOJAC'S political department, asked the organization's
secretariat to end its campaign. She reported that members
of Strasbourg's Jewish community were so offended that they
threatened to boycott organization meetings should the topic
of ''Sephardi Jews as refugees'' ever come up again. Such
remonstration precisely predicted the failure of the current
organization, justice for Jews from Arab Countries to inspire
enthusiasm for its efforts.
Also alarmed by WOJAC'S stridency, the Foreign Ministry
proposed that the organization bring its campaign to a halt
on the grounds that the description of Mizrahi Jews as refugees
was a double-edged sword. Israel, ministry officials pointed
out, had always adopted a stance of ambiguity on the complex
issue raised by WOJAC.
In 1949, Israel even rejected a British-Iraqi proposal for
population exchange - Iraqi Jews for Palestinian refugees
- due to concerns that it would subsequently be asked to
settle ''surplus refugees'' within its own borders.
The foreign minister deemed WOJAC a Phalangist, zealous
group, and asked that it cease operating as a ''state within
a state". In the end, the ministry closed the tap on
the modest flow of funds it had transferred to WOJAC. Then
justice minister Yossi Beilin fired Yaakov Meron from the
Arab legal affairs department. Today, no serious researcher
in Israel or overseas embraces WOJAC'S extreme claims.
Moreover, WOJAC, which intended to promote Zionist claims
and assist Israel in its conflict with Palestinian nationalism,
accomplished the opposite: It presented a confused Zionist
position regarding the dispute with the Palestinians, and
infuriated many Mizrahi Jews around the world by casting
them as victims bereft of positive motivation to immigrate
to Israel. WOJAC subordinated the interests of Mizrahi Jews
(particularly with regard to Jewish property in Arab lands)
to what it erroneously defined as Israeli national interests.
The organization failed to grasp that defining Mizrahi Jews
as refugees opens a Pandora's box and ultimately harms all
parties to the dispute, Jews and Arabs alike.
Lessons not learned
The World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations
learned nothing from this woeful legacy. Hungry for a magic
solution to the refugee question, they have adopted the
refugee analogy and are lobbying for it all over the world.
It would be interesting to hear the education minister's
reaction to the historical narrative presented nowadays
by these Jewish organizations. Should Limor Livnat establish
a committee of ministry experts to revise school textbooks
in accordance with this new post-Zionist genre?
Any reasonable person, Zionist or non-Zionist must acknowledge
that the analogy drawn between Palestinians and Mizrahi
Jews is unfounded.
Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many
Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some
700,000 Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders
of historic Palestine. Those who left did not do so by their
In contrast, Jews from Arab lands came to this country
under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations.
Some came of their own free will; others arrived against
their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab
lands, others suffered from fear and oppression.
The history of the ''Mizrahi aliyah'' (immigration to Israel)
is complex, and cannot be subsumed within a facile explanation.
Many of the newcomers lost considerable property, and there
can be no question that they should be allowed to submit
individual property claims against Arab states (up to the
present day, the State of Israel and WOJAC have blocked
the submission of claims on this basis).
The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees
and Mizrahi immigrants needlessly embroils members of these
two groups in a dispute, degrades the dignity of many Mizrahi
Jews, and harms prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.
Jewish anxieties about discussing the question of 1948
are understandable. But this question will be addressed
in the future, and it is clear that any peace agreement
will have to contain a solution to the refugee problem.
It's reasonable to assume that as final status agreements
between Israelis and Palestinians are reached, an international
fund will be formed with the aim of compensating Palestinian
refugees for the hardships caused them by the establishment
of the State of Israel. Israel will surely be asked to contribute
generously to such a fund.
In this connection, the idea of reducing compensation obligations
by designating Mizrahi immigrants as refugees might become
very tempting. But it is wrong to use scarecrows to chase
away politically and morally valid claims advanced by Palestinians.
The ''creative accounting'' manipulation concocted by the
refugee analogy only adds insult to injury, and widens the
psychological gap between Jews and Palestinians. Palestinians
might abandon hopes of redeeming a right of return (as,
for example, Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikai claims);
but this is not a result to be adduced via creative accounting.
Any peace agreement must be validated by Israeli recognition
of past wrongs and suffering and the forging of a just solution.
The creative accounts proposed by the refugee analogy turns
Israel into a morally and politically spineless bookkeeper.
Dear professor Yehuda Shenhav,
Thank you for sending me your article mentioned in your
1- I found no mention of my name in your article as you
have previously indicated.
2- I find your approach is confused.
3- Granted that the Palestinian refugees of 1948 had run
away against their will but that was mainly due to Arab
Governments asking them to get out of the way and to be
returned to their homes when Israel was defeated.
4- Two forces acted on the Jews of Iraq and other Arab countries
namely a push and a pull- the push of discrimination and
prosecution and the pull of Alia.
5- I take the view that the Jews left as refugees but arrived
to Israel as Olim.
6- Although they hopefully arrived as Olim they were treated
as refugees and suffered greatly in transition camps for
7- There is no problem therefore in regarding the Palestinian
refugees and the Jewish refugees on the same plan in any
plan of exchange of populations.
8- Any post was program of exchange of population does not
take place with the agreement of the refugees concerned.
The exchange takes place against their wish and against
9- The question of compensation can only be solved by the
creation of an international fund as suggested by President
10- When the first return of the exile took place under
king Cyrus the Great some 2,500 years ago, of the 140,000
Jews in Babylon at that time only 40,000 decided to return
and 100,000 decided to stay behind and prosper in the land
of the rivers. This is ample proof that the emigration of
the 5o's was not entirely a desire to go. It was estimated
at the time that again only 40,000 would leave and 100,000
would stay on.
11- A new twist in my theory of population exchange, is
that the exchange should not only cover the people but also
their territory so that the Jews who had lost their position
of the territory of Iraq would be compensated by the territory
of the Palestinians in the other part of the equation.
12- I hope you will digest these ideas of mine which might
help you to come up with a useful doctrine and get rid of
your crazy analysis.
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