NEW YORK — “It is time the world hears about the greatest untold story in the Middle East,” Minister Silvan Shalom said, his voice booming through the packed room in the heart of New York’s United Nations building.
Hosted by the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, the UN housed a panel for the second year running on Jewish refugees from Arab countries, which “aimed at helping to right the record of history,” explained Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents, an organization that co-hosted the panel.
The event featured esteemed panelists, testimonials of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and the screening of Michael Grynszpan’s short film entitled “The Forgotten Refugees.”
Panelists included permanent representative of Israel to the UN, Ron Prosor, Minister of National infrastructure, Energy, and Water, Silvan Shalom, who himself is a Jewish refugee from the Tunisia, and American philanthropist and president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, a co-cost of the event.
The Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries conference drew UN delegates and others with the desire to learn about this untold element of Jewish history.
‘As we speak today, not one resolution says a single word about the Jewish refugees.’
In his statement, Prosor decried the United Nations’ actions. “Since 1947, there have been 687 resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. Over 100 of those resolutions “deal specifically with the Palestinians refugees. And yet as we speak today, not one resolution says a single word about the Jewish refugees.”
Further, “on two separate occasions the UN High Commission of Refugees acknowledged that Jews fleeing from Arab countries met the definition of refugees,” and yet still no action has been made to right these social injustices.
To understand where the story begins, Prosor noted, “we need to turn the clock back 66 years ago,” to when the UN adopted Resolution 181, the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine.
Arab countries rejected the resolution and vowed to punish the Jewish Diaspora. Within a couple of years, Arab leaders threatened to massacre their own Jewish communities. And then, they did.
Starting in 1950, the Jews in Arab lands became targets of their own governments.
“In Iraq,“ Prosor cited, “Zionism was made a capital crime. In Libya, Jewish businesses were burned to the ground.”
Prosor listed many more countries in the Middle East: In Syria, anti-Jewish riots erupted and the government froze Jewish bank accounts. In Egypt, bombs were detonated.
‘From Algeria to Yemen, thousands of Jews were murdered in violent crimes instigated by the Arab governments themselves.’
“From Algeria to Yemen, thousands of Jews were murdered in violent crimes instigated by the Arab governments themselves,” said Prosor.
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, many fled in the dead of night. Most came to Israel, which was hardly in a position to aid them. But the fledgling state didn’t hesitate to absorb Jewish refugees.
At the UN session, four refugees, Levana Zamir, Linda Menuchin, Tofic Kassap, and Lucette Lagnado, shared their testimonies, urging the spectators to not let their stories continue to be ignored by history.
One of these four witnesses of the atrocities committed to Jews in Arab lands was Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Lagnado. She stated “the Jews have been edited out of the narrative of the Middle East.”
Lagnado left Egypt as a refugee with her family when she was a young child. Having recently published a memoir about her father entitled “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” she has made it a mission to publicize this untold story of the indigenous Jews of the Middle East.
Lagnado noted that she was struck by Hoenlein’s earlier comments about the Iraqi Jewish archives, currently on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, which are representative of cultural artifacts lost in the Middle East.
These Jewish texts and items on display were seized from the Iraqi Jewish community in the 80s.
“We urge our government not to send them back to an uncertain fate in Iraq where hundreds of Torah scrolls remain in disuse and detained. They cannot go back,” said Hoenlein.
Lagnado made a connection between recent news events regarding the Munich trove of looted Nazi art and lost Middle Eastern cultural artifacts.
“I felt myself wondering about the destroyed cultural artifacts of Egypt and all the other Arab countries: the magnificent Torah scrolls and other Judaica items that have never been accounted for, that have never been cared about. And I thought to myself, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we had our own ambassador Lauder [who has spearheaded the recovery of Nazi-looted art] to also begin to track what happened and to begin to reclaim and to begin to request and to begin to demand.’”
The plight of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands is one that has been largely overlooked, Prosor said. “We cannot, and we will not, allow the history of the Jewish refugees to be swept under the Persian rug.”