An Israeli Foreign Ministry campaign launched in September aimed at restoring “rights and justice” for Jewish refugees that fled Arab lands in the previous century elicited harsh criticism from Palestinian leaders like Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, who referred to the initiative as a ploy.
“Jews who came to Israel are not refugees, because they left their homes voluntarily and under pressure from Zionist groups and the Jewish Agency,” she was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying, suggesting that the Foreign Ministry’s move was really meant to distract from the suffering of the Palestinians and block their recent attempts to obtain a non-member-state status at the United Nations (UN).
But not everyone agreed.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with politics. Israel’s past governments didn’t value the educational power of this issue. Now they are changing this stance, primarily following the pressure of various Jewish-refugee organizations inside Israel,” said Dr. Yitschak Ben-Gad, a former Libyan refugee who served as Consul General of Israel in Florida, USA (2005-2007).
Although political motivations could certainly stand behind the ministry’s decision to launch the campaign amid Palestinians’ drive for recognition, Ashrawi’s claims of voluntary Jewish exodus cannot be taken seriously, especially because they contradict basic historical facts.
In the beginning of the previous century, there were about one million Jews residing in what’s now known as the Middle East, Iran and North Africa. Today, their population (outside of Israel) stands at no more than three percent, with experts saying their flight was dictated by reasons of personal safety.
“For Libyan Jewry the problems started in 1945 with the attacks on Jewish quarters in Tripoli and other cities,” said Dr. Haim Saadoun, Dean of Students at the Open University of Israel and Director of the Documentation Center for North African Jewry during World War II at the Ben Zvi Institute. Saadoun referenced atrocities that claimed the lives of 139 Libyan Jews – among them women and children.
Tensions escalated following Libya’s independence in 1951, and more Jewish blood was shed. Recalling those events that pushed him and his family to flee, Ben-Gad said they had to leave everything behind. “The situation was difficult even before the eruption of the pogroms, but Jews didn’t have a choice. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, many decided to leave, taking the bare minimum of their belongings”.
The situation in other Muslim states was also alarming, but Saadoun said the extent of suffering varied from one country to another.
“The circumstances that made Jews leave their homelands were different,” he noted. “Pogroms erupted as a result of the conflicts between the colonial powers and the liberation movements, as well as the efforts of the Arab League [to demonize the Jewish people and pin the blame for the misfortunes on them]. But they were far from being the only reason. Apart from violent attacks, Jews escaped various economic, business and religious limitations”.
Some immigrated to Canada and Europe, others relocated to Israel. In fact, the influx of refugees from Arab lands was so acute that it got some Palestinian leaders worried.
In 1951, Aref Al Aref, a Palestinian historian, journalist and politician, dispatched a telegram to the Arab League imploring the Arab governments not to expel the Jews. This, he wrote, would solve “two problems… that of Palestine generally and that of the refugees in particular.” His pleas, however, were never answered.
Read the continuation:
Israel's Forgotten Jewish Refugees - Part II
Israel's Forgotten Jewish Refugees - Part III