Israel urges Ban Ki-moon to place plight of post-1948 Jewish refugees on UN agenda

New campaign to highlight Jewish suffering, in part as counter to Palestinian refugee demands, gains momentum at UN HQ meet

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon speaks at a conference about the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries earlier this month in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Oren Nahshon / FLASH90)
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon speaks at a conference about the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries earlier this month in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Oren Nahshon / FLASH90)

Israel’s ambassador to the UN called on the world body on Friday to “establish a center of documentation and research” under its auspices “to tell the 850,000 untold stories of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”

The issue of the plight of Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from Arab lands after 1948 has been ignored for too long, Ambassador Ron Prosor told the Times of Israel on the sidelines of a Friday morning event at UN Headquarters in New York that sought to highlight the history of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees.

“The United Nations has a clear duty to take responsibility for this historic wrong,” Prosor said at the event. “It must take the first step in the right direction today. Open the doors of this institution to the Jewish refugees. Listen to their firsthand accounts. Collect the evidence to preserve their history.”

The global campaign for recognition of the suffering of Jewish refugees from Arab lands was bolstered Friday as diplomats from some two dozen countries, along with Jewish groups and senior Israeli officials gathered at the UN headquarters in New York to call for “justice” after six decades of ignorance.

“We are 64 years late, but we are not too late,” said Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who also urged UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to “place the issue of Jewish refugees on the agenda of the UN and its affiliated forums.”

“For many reasons, This issue was never emphasized enough,” Ayalon noted. “Without too much mea culpa for the government of Israel, this was not brought up enough. We have decided to bring it up, to flush out the truth.”

The campaign entitled “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries,” or JJAC, was founded by the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Its purpose, according to organizers, is to gain recognition and acknowledgement from the international community about the plight and suffering of what it says were over 800,000 Jews who fled Arab states due to riots, pogroms and discrimination in the wake of Israel’s establishment in 1948.

‘Now is the time in the midst of the greatest turbulence in the modern Middle East that the Jewish people can say, “We’re the oldest community in the Middle East, and card-carrying members of the Middle East”‘

The Friday event marks a significant achievement for the campaign. Diplomats from the United States, the European Union, Germany, Canada, Spain, Hungary and about a dozen other countries were in attendance, together with refugees and their families, activists and journalists. Irwin Cotler, a Canadian MP and former justice minister, and a well-known advocate on the issue, spoke at the event, as did Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and others.

Between speeches by diplomats and activists, attendees heard testimonies from refugees and the children of refugees such as Baghdad-born businessman Edwin Shuker, who recalled living in fear in Baghdad as a wave of anti-Semitism and violence swept Arab states in the wake of Israel’s establishment.

“We do not want to go back there. My family members do not have good memories from that place,” said Israeli journalist Shalom Yerushalmi, son of Jewish refugees from Damascus.

“This is not just about politics,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents. “We owe to those who have waited so long and the many who are no longer here, [we owe it] to justice, that we speak for them.”

But the campaign is also about politics, and has a goal more immediate than commemoration, according to Dan Diker, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, one of the organizers of the Friday event.

“This is an argument to create finally the moral and legal backbone for a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said Diker.

By highlighting the largely-forgotten history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, the campaign’s advocates hope to reframe discussions on Palestinian refugees in the context of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“For both Palestinians and Jews, the clock cannot be turned back,” WJC chair and former US ambassador Ron Lauder told the assembled dignitaries. “The right of return is a subject for history books. But there is a right of remedy.”

The campaign urges the establishment of an international fund to compensate refugees from both sides, Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians.

But it is also intended to tell the international community, and particularly Western states eager to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, that peace cannot be achieved through the denial of Jewish rights as refugees or Jewish rights as an indigenous people of the Middle East.

“Now is the time in the midst of the greatest turbulence in the modern Middle East that the Jewish people can say, ‘We’re the oldest community in the Middle East, and card-carrying members of the Middle East,'” said Diker. “It’s time to begin to solve the problem” of Palestinian refugees, “instead of deepening the problem,” as the international community has done in the past, he added.

Would such a campaign convince Palestinians to surrender their demand for returning refugees into Israel?

“Palestinians will be convinced when there is a weight of moral responsibility placed on their shoulders by Western powers and the Arab League,” Diker said.

The campaign is also part of an internal Israeli discourse, some noted. Where Israeli Arabs in recent years have increasingly commemorated Nakba Day and other public displays of commemoration for Palestinian suffering that resulted from Israel’s founding, the campaign seeks to educate about the other side of that experience — the near-total emptying of Arab lands from their millennia-old Jewish communities.

“The first thing we’re doing is bringing it up for our own people. Our children must learn this,” said Ayalon.

To that end, he promised “in a matter of weeks” to pass a resolution in the Israeli government instituting “a day for memorial for our brothers and sisters from Arab countries. On this day schools will teach about it. It will be debated.”

He also promised to initiate an effort to establish “a museum or a house of heritage for Jewish refugees in Jerusalem.”

He called on state parliaments around the world to recognize the suffering of Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries.

“This is not just a one-time event,” Ayalon added at the end of the three-hour gathering. “We will be here year after year. This is our commitment, our sacred oath to ourselves and to the refugees, not to falter and not to tire.”

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