The Forgotten RefugeesBy Leo Rennert
They are aptly called the "Forgotten Refugees." While the world is fully aware of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs displaced in the wake of the war launched by multiple Arab armies against the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the world -- including many Jews -- is singularly unaware of or uninterested in the greater number of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries, where they had roots dating back more than 2,500 years.
WHAT HAPPENED AROUND 1948?
The best available sources, including official U.N. reports, place the number of Palestinian refugees as a result of the 1948 war at 726,000. The number of Jews expelled from Arab countries during this period totaled 856,000.
The breakdown (Jews in 1948 to today):
ADEN -- 8,000 in 1948 to 0 today. ALGERIA -- From 140,000 to 0. EGYPT -- From 75,000 to 100.
Behind these statistics are hundreds of thousands of individual stories of Arabic-speaking Jews with a rich cultural heritage, who were persecuted, were subjected to pogroms, had their properties confiscated, and felt lucky just to escape alive.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE JEWS EXPELLED FROM ARAB COUNTRIES?
Two thirds of them -- about 600,000 -- resettled in Israel, where they have made great contributions to the development of Israeli society. Today, counting their descendants, they make up half the Jewish population -- about 3 million. The other third built new lives in Europe, Australia, Latin America, Canada, and the United States. Their history, a vital element of Jewish history, has faded away. They never were compensated for their losses. There was no restitution or preservation of communal properties like synagogues or cemeteries. In the intervening years, the United Nations focused entirely on Palestinian refugees, creating a U.N. agency exclusively assigned to meet their needs. The U.N. General Assembly passed more than 100 resolutions about Palestinian refugees. It did not pass a single resolution about what happened to the Jewish refugees or their right to official recognition of their status and their losses.
WHY DID THE JEWISH REFUGEES DISAPPEAR FROM THE WORLD'S RADAR?
As opposed to Arab world's denial of absorption and integration to the Palestinian refugees, Israel opened its doors to the bulk of Jewish refugees, and Western countries absorbed the rest. They built new lives in new places. But that's not the entire explanation. The Israeli government for too long failed to press their case and illuminate their history. Many of the refugees were too busy rebuilding their lives in often difficult circumstances, so they also were slow to make the world aware of what happened.
IS THIS CHANGING?
Yes. Israel's government has called for an international registry of Jewish refugee families displaced from Arab lands to document their status and losses. A younger and more assertive generation of refugee children and grandchildren is speaking out. Jewish organizations in North America are lending a hand.
A NEW CAMPAIGN FOR JUSTICE FOR JEWISH REFUGEES FROM ARAB COUNTRIES
Short-term, a massive volunteer effort, with registration forms, has been organized to document individual histories. These will be sent to Israel's Ministry of Justice to provide as complete evidence as possible of the full extent of individual and communal losses. Whenever there is a final peace conference to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sets of refugees -- Palestinian and Jewish -- must be part of the equation. At this stage, Palestinians claim they have complete documentations of all their refugees' losses. So far, less than 10 percent of Jewish refugee losses have been fully documented.
Short-term, there is also a campaign under way to raise the international profile of the refugees. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress that would require American diplomats to raise the issue of Jewish refugees whenever Palestinian refugees are on the agenda.
There is no immediate objective to file compensation claims, although this issue may be revisited when there are negotiations on a final-status settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor do Jewish refugees seek a "right of return." As one of them remarked: since anti-Semitism is as virulent today, and even more so than it was at the time of our expulsion, why would we want to go back?
WHAT YOU CAN DO.
Jewish civic, community, and religious organizations are being asked to organize an informational meeting for their members to bring them up to date on this issue. Ample resources, including a film, entitled The Forgotten Refugees, are available. In the Washington area, contact the Jewish Community Relations Council. Or get in touch with Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. Another resource is Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).
Also, contact members of Congress and urge them to join as sponsors of legislation to assert the history and rights of these Jewish refugees. Original Senate sponsors include Norm Coleman, Richard Durbin, and Frank Lautenberg; in the House, the late Tom Lantos, and also Jerrold Nadler, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Michael Ferguson.
WHY IS A HIGHER PROFILE FOR JEWISH REFUGEES FROM ARAB LANDS IMPORTANT?
The media, like the U.N., are focusing only on Palestinian refugees. Elementary justice requires raising the profile of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. In comparing the situation of both the Jewish and Palestinian Arab refugees, a dramatic contrast can be drawn between the Jewish refugees who rebuilt their lives in Israel (and elsewhere) and made important contributions to improve society and the sad lot of Palestinian refugees who have been denied absorption and integration into Arab societies.
A higher profile for Jewish refugees from Arab countries also helps give the lie to Iranian President Ahmadinejad's propaganda that Israel is a European colonial implant in the Middle East. The fact that there are three million non-European Jews from Arab lands in the Jewish state, with Middle East roots going back more than 2,500 years, helps to demolish his fraudulent claim.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers.
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