Several years ago I was asked to participate in a panel about the movie “Farewell Baghdad” in Berlin. The Jewish Museum in Berlin who organized the event also invited the Israeli Embassy. In front of the cinema representatives of the Embassy were distributing pamphlets titled “Remembering the ‘Forgotten’ Jewish Refugees”. I was stunned. Since when did the Israeli establishment care about Arab-Jews?
I spent 12 years in the Israeli school system and never heard the Arab Jewish narrative. It wasn’t until university that I learned that Ben-Gurion’s government made a deal with Nuri al-Said’s Iraqi government where Iraqi Jews would immigrate to the new Israeli state so that the Zionist regime could bolster its Jewish population, and in turn they would be forced to leave their property to the Iraqi state. I learned about the 1950–51 Baghdad bombings that were possibily connected to the Mossad. Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav says there was a direct connection between the bombings in Baghdad and the Jewish registration rate to leave the country from March 1950 to June 1951. It’s clear we cannot rule out the possibility that the Zionist emissaries used the incidents to frighten hesitant Jews and prod them to leave the country.
Just before the panel started the organizers asked me not to talk about the history of Iraqi Jews from a perspective critical of Zionism. They asked me to speak in a “personal” way about my experience as an Iraqi Jew. I went up on stage and tried my best not to talk about the deal or the story of the bombs. But when the Embassy representatives talked about the lost property of the Arab Jews, I couldn’t hold back. I said they were using the property of the Iraqi Jews in the rather cynical way, simply to silence the Palestinian demand for their own lost property. And then, as if on cue, the Israeli ambassador who sat in the first row like a communist commissar got to his feet and left the discussion with dozens of his staff and security guards. I am for the return of the property of the Arab-Jews but not in relation to the property of the Palestinians. One injustice shouldn’t be on the back of another one. It isn’t only a demand for the money but of an acceptance in the Jewish life of the Arab states.
Now, earlier this month, the The Times of Israel reported that Danny Danon, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.N., told the UN General Assembly that he plans to propose a resolution about what he called “the ‘forgotten’ Jewish refugees” to counter what Israel sees as a one-sided focus on Palestinian refugees. Danon himself has Arab roots, as his father was born in Egypt. “We don’t hear the international community speak of them when they discuss the refugees of the conflict, perhaps because it doesn’t serve the Palestinian narrative,” Danon said. A week later it was reported in Israel Hayom that lost Jewish property in Arab countries is estimated at $150 billion, and the paper offered an exclusive glimpse into a classified government project seeking to assess the scope of property left behind by Jews who were expelled or fled Arab nations and Iran. “We may be able to right a historical wrong,” the minister said. So now this cynical use of Arab Jewish property has become an official governmental policy.
Danny Danon, and the white Ashkenazi establishment in Israel, is manipulating the Arab-Jewish narrative for several purposes.
First, they aim to silence the demands of the Palestinian refugees. They want my community to block the way of compensation, or any kind of historic justice, for the Palestinians (I have already lived on their land for far too many years). Danon and his partners know well: No Arab country will pay $150 billion to the Jews of North African and Middle Eastern states.
Secondly, Israel is using the issue to win the support of its oppressed masses of Arab-Jews. The community, which has historically been ignored by the Israeli elite, suddenly feels cared about, and Danon and his party hope this will translate into votes in the next election.
But lastly, and even worse, this cynical strategy puts me and my community in a new position of conflict with the Palestinians. Danon and his people know that re-writing our Arab-Jewish history as one of being denied refugees will create a new wall, and war, between us and the Arab world. The Arab-Jews will say to themselves, “ohh we were betrayed by the Arabs countries so we must keep on fighting the Arab world.”
But before I go on about the vicious cycle this rhetoric leads us into, I first want to explain what is wrong at the heart of this erroneous analogy between Arab-Jews and Palestinian refugees.
The definition of Jewish “refugees” from Arab countries that Danon introduced at the UN seeks to create an analogy between Palestinian refugees and Arab-Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, and to present both populations as victims of the 1948 war. The strategy Danon is using began as a government policy in 2010 when the Israeli parliament passed a law that requires every Israeli government that negotiates with Palestinian representatives to demand the return of lost Jewish property in Arab countries before dealing with compensation to the 750,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants for their own property that has been taken by the Israeli state. So, this distorted analogy wherein Arab Jews are refugees just like the Palestinian refugees, is really just a cudgel being used to sabotage negotiations with the Palestinians. Suddenly there are around 850,000 Arab Jews that Israel now represents to counteract, in their minds, the demands of 750,000 Palestinians who lost their property during the Nakba.
Maybe one can compare the Palestinian refugees’ camps in the Arab states after 1948 to the Arab-Jewish “Ma’abarot” tent camps in Israel. But the historical analogy is still all wrong.
First, Arab-Jews were never a collective in the same way Palestinians who were rooted to the same land are. Israel created them as such only in order to subordinate them, erase their Arab roots, and re-construct them as subjects of the Zionist regime.
Secondly, the Arab-Jews were never refugees, as is often claimed. In the case of Turkey or Morocco they even could go back and forth to the Arab states (this was also the case of Iran until the Islamic revolution). This is the definition of refugees in the UNHCR:
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
Another difference between the Arab-Jews that emigrated to Israel and Palestinian refugees is that they were coming to a country that embraced them as full citizens. This is not the case with the Palestinians, who have never received full citizen rights in any Arab states. More than that, Arab-Jews always enjoyed a privileged life inside of Israel, even compared to the Palestinians of 1948 who were not forced off their land during the Nakba and eventually became citizens of Israel.
Politicians like Danon even know that the term “refugee” is not quite correct for Arab-Jews. Therefore, they try to stress the idea that they fled because of a deeply antisemitic history in the Arab countries. Israel uses the European experience of antisemitism and projects it on the Arab Jewish experience, which is not accurate. Historians Lior Sternfeld and Menashe Anzi contradicted that idea in Haaretz:
“The Jews in the Muslim world, so the narrative goes, lived humiliated lives as second-class dhimmis, just waiting for Zionist redemption. This narrative is misleading in many ways. It ignores more than a thousand years of Jewish existence in the Muslim world, a reality that was neither good nor bad exclusively, but one that included both aspects, and was characterized by complicated relationships with the majority population, with other minorities, and with the local and imperial political structures.”
As you can see, the twisted analogy behind the apparent Arab-Jewish refugees and Palestinian refugees just becomes more cynical layer after layer.
The truth is most Iraqi Jews in the 1950s and 60s weren’t Zionist. They lived well in a modern city. Actually, Baghdad was much more progressive than Tel Aviv back then. Iraqi Jews had already read about the Nakba, and the hard life of Jewish immigrants that were forced to live in tent encampments in Israel. The majority of them didn’t want to leave and immigrate. But Ben-Gurion needed the people because after the Holocaust there weren’t enough Jews for his Zionist dream. So through some very dubious Mossad activism, he struck a deal with the Iraqi government. Iraq got the money and property, and the Israel got poor Jews who immigrated as a subordinate group to Israel. So the question remains — where were the Arab-Jews more oppressed? And how does the term “refugee” apply to a people who were – maybe unwillingly – forced into an Israeli citizenship by their own ethnic group?