Are Jews Who Fled Arab Lands to Israel Refugees, Too?
The New York Times, Oct. 11, 2003
by Samuel G. Freedman

While the events of this exodus are decades old, the advocacy on behalf of Jewish refugees has grown markedly in the last several years. These efforts, ranging from briefings for members of Congress to diplomatic maneuvers in the United Nations, seek to bring both historical attention and financial compensation to the Jewish refugees. Yet to critics, these endeavors are nothing more than cynical attempts to undercut the claims of Palestinians who fled Israel at its establishment.

"This is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees," said Stanley A. Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, a coalition of 27 groups that includes the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. "On the contrary, we believe the legitimate rights of the Palestinian refugees must be addressed in any peace process." He added, "We've got to make sure Palestinian refugees receive rights and redress, and Jewish refugees receive rights and redress."

Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, disagrees. "This is a bait-and-switch tactic that does not serve either Palestinians or Oriental Jews or a just peace," he said, using the umbrella term for Jews from Arab countries. "Leaving both of these groups aggrieved guarantees that whatever quote, unquote settlement results would be unstable. There are just claims here. They should be addressed by the Arab states. But it shouldn't be a bait-and-switch that will make Oriental Jews pay the price for Israel's confiscation of a very large amount of Palestinian property."

Jews first settled in Arab lands more than 2,500 years ago, after Babylon conquered ancient Judea. The problem of refugees, both Jewish and Palestinian, goes back to the formation of Israel. During United Nations debates in 1947 over the partition of Palestine, Arab delegates warned that the formation of a Jewish state might lead to violent retaliation against Jews in their countries. "The masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained," an Iraqi diplomat said at the time.

The immediate outcomes ranged from anti-Jewish riots in Yemen and Syria to the revocation of citizenship for Jews in Libya to the confiscation of their property in Iraq. After the overthrow of King Farouk of Egypt in a military coup in 1952 and Israel's invasion of Sinai in 1956, Egypt declared Jews enemies of the state.

For its part, Israel mounted operations to transport tens of thousands of Jews from Iraq and Yemen. While 856,000 Jews lived in Arab nations in 1948, only 7,800 were there in 2001, the American Sephardi Federation reports. About 600,000 went to Israel, the remainder to the United States and Western Europe.

Still, as both Jewish refugees and Israeli scholars acknowledge, Israel at the time did not press for compensation. The nation's identity rested on seeing itself as the chosen refuge of the world's Jews. Heskel Haddad, a New York physician and Jew who fled Iraq in 1950 and later wrote a memoir, recalled being greeted in Israel as a Zionist pioneer who had come to the motherland, not pitied as a refugee whose family's business had been confiscated. (Still, he supports the drive for restitution now.)

There were also geopolitical considerations. In the early years of statehood, Israeli leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett viewed the flight of Palestinians and the influx of Oriental Jews as simply a "population exchange," akin to those between Greece and Turkey in the 1920's or India and Pakistan in 1947, said Benny Morris, a historian and author who has written extensively on Palestinian refugees.

Signing the Camp David treaty with Egypt, Israel did not seek restitution for Jewish refugees, said Martin Kramer, a professor of Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University. "Israel had a strategic interest in peace with Arab states," Mr. Kramer wrote in an e-mail message, "and if an Arab state was ready, Israel was prepared to cut a deal without compensation."

Palestinian refugees, however, never accepted the idea of a population exchange. Hundreds of thousands left by force or by choice during the 1948 war, and the United Nations reports that the number of those refugees and their descendants living stateless in the occupied territories and Arab countries has risen to 4.1 million in 2003 from 860,000 in 1951. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as Unrwa, was created in 1950 to give them humanitarian assistance.

When the Camp David talks in July 2000 failed to deliver a final agreement on these refugees, and the peace process gave way to the intifada, Mr. Urman saw the collapse as further proof of the centrality of the refugee issue. For Palestinians, the right of return was seen as essential justice; for Israelis, it was seen as the end of a Jewish state. From either perspective, the Palestinian refugees were being labeled, incorrectly, as the only refugees relevant to resolving the conflict, he said.

Mr. Urman helped form Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, which has united grass-roots groups active on the issue, like the World Organization of Jews From Arab Countries, with pillars of the Jewish establishment, like the Presidents' Conference. The new organization's honorary chairmen include Richard C. Holbrooke, former American ambassador to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, over the last four years, the World Jewish Congress has also organized around the cause of Jewish refugees. But the congress has linked its campaign for compensation with criticism of Arab countries and the relief and works agency for perpetuating the statelessness of Palestinian refugees as a political and military weapon.

"The Jewish refugee problem was solved, though not without difficulty," said Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, referring to the citizenship granted to fleeing Jews by Israel and Western nations. "At the same time, the other side has kept its refugees in camps in order to use their misery as an instrument of war against Israel. So the situation of the Palestinian refugees should not be left to the end of the conflict. They should be resettled in their host countries. If that happens, we can go back to the road map and the formula for a two-state solution."

The World Jewish Congress has taken its allegations against the relief agency to members of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives and to the United Nations' own Commission on Human Rights. Last June the House International Relations Committee adopted a sense-of-the-Congress resolution assailing the agency for having "made no effort to permanently resettle Palestinian refugees." The Israeli news media have focused increasingly on the Jewish refugees, and the Israeli parliament has passed a major resolution endorsing their cause.

In response to criticism, the relief agency's Web site,, contains a section entitled "Setting the Record Straight," which maintains that the agency's sole role is to "cater to the humanitarian needs" of refugees until the achievement of "a political settlement among the parties involved."

To Professor Khalidi, the very notion of making Palestinians citizens of Arab countries ignores significant distinctions between the Jewish and the Palestinian refugee experiences. "The idea of comparing them to Palestinians isn't valid," he said of Jewish refugees. "In a Zionist narrative, they should've wanted to go to Israel in the first place. The Palestinians didn't want to leave and weren't going back to their homeland. But some people have tried to tell Arabs what their nationalism should be and have tried to tutor the Palestinians in the proper understanding of their own national identity."

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland at College Park, said it was legitimate to consider the claims of both sets of refugees simultaneously in the peace process. But for Israel, he warned, the strategy might lead to unintended consequences.

"Putting the issue of Jews in the Arab world on the table helps in the compensation arena, but not the resettlement arena," he said. "In that arena, exposing the issues of Jewish refugees could be a kind of drawback. It can give the Arab countries a political edge, a rhetorical edge over Israel. They can say, instead of compensation, you're welcome to come back. Jews will always be a minority in those countries. And Jewish refugees won't want to come back to them. So it can be a negative by highlighting the fact that Israel will not accept Palestinian refugees."

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