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Mizrahi Jews as political cannon fodder —again

Seemingly in response to Mahmoud Abbas's initiative to revive a statehood bid for Palestine at the UN, Israel has launched an initiative to demand restitution for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. This is explicitly portrayed as a means to head off moves towards a reckoning with the question of Palestinian refugees. The campaign was kicked off on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on Sept. 21, with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon serving a pointman. Ayalon presided at the opening gig along with Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor. Also on hand were World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations vice chair Malcolm Hoenlein, and the indefatigable Alan Dershowitz. Ayalon wasted no time in cutting to the chase: "We won't achieve peace without solving the problem of refugees, including Jewish refugees. Justice isn't a term for just one side. The same criteria must apply to both sides." (Globes, Sept. 23)

According to Ayalon—whose parents were originally from Iraq—nearly a million Jews fled Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and other Arab lands in 1948 and the following years. That figure exceeds the generally accepted number of 750,000 Palestinian refugees uprooted during the Nakba, with another 280,000 added to their ranks in 1967. It should be noted that the million figure also exceeds Israel's official estimate of  860,000  Jews who fled Arab countries between 1948 and 1972.

Israel's initiative includes a social media campaign called "I am a Refugee," with YouTube videos in which Jews tell of being terrorized from Arab states after 1948. Ayalon stars in his own YouTube vid, entitled "The Truth About Refugees." The Facebook page includes a video speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying "it's about time that the Jewish refugee issue be put back on the map" and decrying that the refugee issue in the peace process is "only about the Palestinians."

Ayalon is also pushing for a national commemoration, to be called Jewish Refugee Day—sometime in the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, recalling the 1941 Farhud massacre in Iraq at that time, in which some 180 Jews were killed. On behalf of the Israeli government, he is asking the international community to recognize Mizrahi or Arab Jews as refugees, as it does other populations displaced across international borders. A Jerusalem conference will be held later this year to promote the cause, called "Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries."

Palestinian leaders have of course condemned the effort as a propaganda ploy. "The two issues are totally separate—Israel is just trying to undermine the problem of the Palestinian refugees and their rights," said Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian peace negotiator.

"Opening up this can of worms is not a joke," added Hanan Ashrawi. "If you want to go down that path, we’ll go down that path with you all the way. They want restitution? We want restitution. We want all our property back. This guy is opening up Pandora’s Box. If you give the Palestinians their rights, the right to return, restitution and compensation, there will be no more Israel."

In the past, Israel has actually blocked efforts by Middle Eastern Jews to seek compensation from Arab countries; the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty explicitly prevents Egyptian-born Jews from seeking restitution. Yehouda Shenhav, a professor at Tel Aviv University, told Public Radio International's The World that Israel wanted to keep restitution as a bargaining chip. "The State of Israel did block such claims," he said, "because it wanted to save those assets, or property, to use it against the claims of the Palestinians in future negotiation over their property and assets." (USA TodayThe World, Oct. 11; Electronic Intifada, Oct. 5; The National, UAE, Sept. 17; Point of No Return blog, June 25)

Electronic Intifada adds:

Moreover, many, if not most, Arab Jews left their homelands voluntarily, unlike Palestinians, to begin a new life in Israel. Even where tensions forced Jews to flee, such as in Iraq, it is hard to know who was always behind the ethnic strife. There is strong evidence that Israel's Mossad spy agency waged false-flag operations in Arab states to fuel the fear and hostility needed to drive Arab Jews towards Israel.

The conspiracy-theorizing may weaken their case. We noted the evidence for such "false flag" ops a few years back, when the Western media started reporting on Israeli exploitation of the Jewish refugee question, and frankly it is pretty sketchy. We also noted new pogroms against Yemeni Jews as recently as 2009—with nothing to suggest they were the work of Mossad. This theorizing is also beside the point: The Yemeni and Iraqi and Moroccan Jews who fled to nascent Israel in 1948 and subsequently, and  their children and grandchildren, are not clamoring to return to Yemen and Iraq and Morocco. They are not stateless, they are not still living in refugee camps. They are (ironically) second class citizens within Israel (with the Arabs third-class), but they are citizens. And not all those who left the Arab lands can be legitimately considered refugees. The exodus of Jews from Arab countries since 1948 has had at least as much to do with Israeli efforts to promote emigration as with their being pushed out by their Arab neighbors. It certainly is not analogous to what the Zionists did to the Palestinians in '48—not in most cases, anyway. 

Haaretz informs us that the above-quoted Yehouda Shenhav (who shares Mizrahi background with Ayalon) is an advocate of a one-state solution—a single "binational state." The obstacles to this, as to any other proposed solution, are obvious. Counterintuitively, Shenhav sees a point of unity between Mizrahi Israelis and Palestinians in their shared history of displacement—"this connection between two types of Arab refugees." And he posits that this could form the basis for an alliance against the traditional domination of Israeli society by Ashkenazim.

Food for thought.

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