Another side to
the Jewish story
Many Jews left Arab countries because they wanted to live in Israel, not because their lives back home were miserable
· Friday June 27, 2008
· Article history
·Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) thinks that Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinian refugees should somehow be offset against each other – the rights of one side counterbalancing the rights of the other. It's a neat argument: Jews were forced to abandon material assets and leave Arab countries; Palestinians similarly fled or were expelled from their homes. Ergo, the region witnessed an exchange of populations and if Palestinian refugees are to be compensated by Israel, so too must the Jewish "refugees" from the Middle East, by the Arab nations that expelled them.
Nice try, but there are many reasons why this formula is all wrong. First off (as David Cesarani points out), it's tasteless. There is no need for the fate of these two peoples, Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, to be so fused materialistically. Middle Eastern Jews may indeed have a claim to lost assets, but those genuinely seeking peace between Israel and its neighbours should know that this is not the way to pursue it.
Second, defining Jews from Arab lands as "refugees" is problematic – and many Middle Eastern Jews would be angered by it. Countless Israelis recount leaving former homes in Arab countries and illegally, dangerously migrating prior to 1948. Such experiences do not include a component of expulsion: they left because they wanted to.
could say that any Middle Eastern Jew ("Oriental" or "Mizrahi"
Jew) who defines their migration to Israel as "Zionist" cannot also
be a refugee: the former label has agency and involves a desire to live in the
Jewish state; the second suggests passivity and a lack of choice. Demanding the
refugee label to bloc-define this group denies every other scenario: such as
that Jews weren't all driven out of the Arab world; that they didn't all want
to leave; or that many actually chose to do so.
Middle Eastern Jews recall that Jewish Agency officials dazzled them with
stories of a better life in Israel. Many of them felt betrayed when they set
foot in the new Jewish state – and continue to feel that way today.
Middle Eastern Jews were stuck between two opposing currents, Zionism and Arab nationalist anti-colonialism – and squeezed out in a pincer manoeuvre.
situation at national level did not always sour relations on the ground.
Talking to Middle Eastern Jews now in Israel, there are many positive tales
about former days in Arab countries: good lives; full rights; friendly Muslim
neighbours. These recollections jar with the picture JJAC paints, of a rampant
Arab antisemitism during this period.
About this article
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Friday June 27 2008. It was last updated at 12:30 on June 27 2008.
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