A bill to establish an official day for commemorating the fate of Jewish communities who fled Arab lands and Iran passed its first of three readings in the Knesset plenum on Monday, and looks set to become law in the coming weeks.
The Bill to Commemorate the Flight and Expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran, proposed by Morocco-born MK Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beytenu), would designate November 30 — the day after the November 29 commemoration of the 1947 United Nations partition vote that gave formal international recognition to Jewish statehood — as the day for commemorating the former Jewish communities of Muslim lands and the tribulations they endured with their flight and expulsion from those lands in the 1940s and 1950s.
Between 1947 and 1972, some 856,000 Jews fled ancient communities from Iran to Morocco for Israel, according to the explanatory section of the bill. That wave of immigration and its descendants constitute roughly half of Israel’s present-day Jewish population.
Recent efforts at commemorating those ancient Jewish communities, uprooted in the 20th century, are seen by some, including proponents of the commemoration, as a counterweight to Palestinian demands for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Israel. But the efforts also serve another purpose: rekindling interest in the history of nearly half of Israelis in a country that has largely ignored that history.
“This story touches half the residents of Israel, but is almost unknown,” Ohayon said following the Monday vote. “If the story of these communities had been told from the founding of the state, we wouldn’t need this bill today.”
But the bill is also about Arab acknowledgement of the wrong done to Muslim-world Jews, Ohayon has said.
Ohayon sent a letter last year to Arab League Sec. Gen. Nabil Elaraby calling on the League to acknowledge its role in the dissolution of the Arab world’s Jewish communities.
“This is an important element of any future peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East,” Ohayon wrote.
The Arab League, he argued, must “accept historic accountability for the humiliation, the suffering and the losses incurred by innocent Jewish victims of the Arab world’s declared war against the State of Israel. As a matter of law and equity, the Arab League must assume full responsibility for ensuring rights and redress for Jewish refugees,” Ohayon wrote.
The bill first won government backing when it successfully passed a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in July. Monday’s vote was its first test in the Knesset. It passed by a unanimous vote of 16 to 0.
The unanimity, as well as the small number of votes cast, are a sign that the bill enjoys wall-to-wall support. MKs often decline to attend votes whose outcomes are assured.
The bill now goes to the Knesset Education Committee, which will prepare it for the second and third plenum votes it must pass to become law.
If the bill passes, it would empower government agencies to hold commemorations in schools, embassies and other institutions. The bill designates the minister for pensioner affairs responsible for holding a national commemoration ceremony, empowers the education minister to implement educational programming in schools, calls on the foreign minister to initiate commemoration activities at embassies and international forums on the subject of “Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran – and their right to restitution,” and establishes a formal Knesset plenum debate on the issue each year.