Israel on Sunday marked the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries in the years after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin calling for financial reparations.
In a bid to draw attention to the plight of the forced migrants, Israel formally marked their displacement with a ceremony at the president’s house under a new law naming November 30 as the anniversary.
“It is not for nothing that this day is marked on the day after the 29th of November,” Netanyahu said, in reference to the anniversary of the UN adoption of the Palestine partition plan in 1947. “The Arab countries, which never accepted the UN declaration on the establishment of a Jewish state, compelled the Jews living in their territories to leave their homes while leaving their assets behind… We have acted – and will continue to act – so that they and their claims are not forgotten.”
In his address, Rivlin appealed for greater Sephardic representation in Israeli society, as well as for compensation for their suffering. He acknowledged that the troubles of Middle Eastern Jews were not mitigated upon arriving in Israel, where European Jews were firmly entrenched in power.
“Their voices were muted, but the words were in their mouths all along, even if they were said in Hebrew with a Persian or Arabic accent, which in Israel were thought of as enemy languages and viewed as a source of shame,” he said.
“The voice of Jews from Arab countries and Iran must be heard within the education system, in the media, in the arts, and in the country’s official institutions, as it needs to be heard in the international arena as well, in order to mend the historical injustice, and to ensure financial reparations,” Rivlin said.
The president also defended his decision to exclude singer Amir Benayoun from the event. Benayoun was disinvited last Tuesday from performing after he released a song that many criticized as expressing racist sentiment against Arabs.
In his address, Rivlin said he “objected to boycotts and I do not boycott anyone,” but maintained that his position required him to “be sensitive to public trends and opinions, and the atmosphere on the street, especially during such tense and sensitive times as these.
“Of course, an artist needs nobody’s permission to express themselves, within the limits of freedom of expression. However, the President’s Residence, as the home of all the citizens of Israel, must and should be careful to show care and respect to all citizens of Israel,” he said.
Meir Kahlon, chairman of the Central Organization for Jews from Arab Countries and Iran, said that “Nearly 800,000 came here [in the years after the establishment of the state] and the rest (around 56,000) went to the United States, France, Italy and elsewhere.”
Kahlon himself came to Israel as a child from Libya and spent his first years in the Jewish state in one of the tent camps set up to shelter the flood of newcomers.
Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), an international umbrella group of Jewish community organizations, says 856,000 Jews from 10 Arab countries, among them Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria, fled or were expelled in 1948 and after, while violent Arab riots left many Jews dead or injured.
Although many migrants arrived with meager belongings packed in a single suitcase, they did not seek formal refugee status from the international community.
At the time, the newly established Jewish state was struggling to attract migration from the world’s Jews and to project its legitimacy as a sovereign state, able to care for its own people.
Its prime minister, David Ben Gurion, would not have wanted Jews returning to their “historic homeland” classed as refugees, Kahlon said.
In March this year, Canada — whose Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a staunch backer of Israel — formally recognized the refugee status of the Jewish emigres who fled or were expelled from Arab countries after Israel’s founding.
Some of the migrants to Israel say privately that the issue is being promoted to give Israel a bargaining card if stalled negotiations with the Palestinians should resume and the Palestinians submit compensation claims for the property and assets they left behind in what is now Israel.
“The point is to establish symmetry so that the dispute can be closed,” one migrant told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the issue was entirely separate from Palestinian claims for reparations from Israel — and must remain so. “They can discuss this with Arab countries, it’s not our business,” she told AFP. “They are trying to find every possible means of circumventing and sabotaging the Palestinian refugees’ rights.”
JJAC executive director Stanley A. Urman said the campaign to seek restitution for Jews from Arab countries was not meant to negate Palestinian rights.
“History, geography, demography don’t allow any comparison between the plight of Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees,” he told journalists on Sunday, advocating a multilateral approach.
During the latest round of peace talks, which were shepherded by US Secretary of State John Kerry until their collapse in late April, there was talk about the establishment of an international peace fund, he said.
Such a fund would provide physical infrastructure for a Palestinian state, such as roads and sewers, as well as security for Israel in the form of final borders and the funding to allow for the establishment of security perimeters along those borders, he explained.
Thirdly, it would provide compensation “to all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinian and Jewish refugees alike.”