September 13th 2019
Seeking justice for the Jews borne on wings of eagles
Almost exactly 70 years ago, an extraordinary exodus took place. Some 45,000 Jews left Yemen – a place which had boasted a Jewish community for 3,000 years – for Israel.
It was necessary to airlift the Yemenites because the Suez Canal was blocked. Most walked for miles to the British-controlled port of Aden where planes run by Alaska Airlines were waiting to take them to Israel. The refugees were tired, diseased and emaciated. Robbers en route often stole what few possessions they had.
Air travel was then in its infancy. Most had never seen an airplane before. They were reluctant to board, until they were reminded of the phrase in the Book of Exodus (19:4) “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me.”
The airplanes had to be fitted with extra fuel tanks and stripped of their seats so that they could take more people. The passengers sat on the floor. Many were airsick. They had to be dissuaded from lighting fires in order to boil water for tea. The round trip took 20 hours. It was a miracle that there were no accidents.
These were trying times for Jews in Arab countries. There had been riots, massacres, arrests and even executions. Some 90 percent of the Jewish communities of Libya, Syria and Iraq also left at this time. They had become hostages to the conflict between Israel and the Arab states. Shortly afterwards, the Jews of Egypt were expelled en masse, and fearing that independence for Morocco and Tunisia would bring discrimination and insecurity, Jews left North Africa in their droves for Israel. Thousands also moved to France, Canada and the Americas.
By the 1970s there were only a few thousand Jews left in Arab countries, and in 1979, most of the Jews fled the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today, only 4,000 Jews remain in Arab countries out of a 1948 population of almost a million. Until the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq after 2003, the Jews were the largest contingent of non-Muslim refugees to flee the Middle East.
Why do we barely hear about this catastrophe?
There have been strenuous efforts to deny that Jews ever lived in Arab countries, to blame Israel and ‘the Zionists’, or to attribute the mass departure of these Jews to decolonisation. Israel preferred to call them Zionists returning to their ancestral homeland, and sought to encourage them not to look back to the past but to rebuild their lives as Israeli citizens.
Yet, the Jews from Arab countries are the victims of an injustice. Until they are offered recognition and redress, a Middle East peace settlement fair to all parties will not be possible.
The Israeli government has come late to this realisation. While matters have improved in the last few years, Israel has been obliged to ‘play catch- up’ with the Palestinian cause. And when Jews from Arab countries do appear in the discourse, it is often only to reinforce the myth of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews before Zionism. Israel has become the bogeyman, instead of being the necessary response to Arab/Muslim anti-semitism.
These Jews have been doubly betrayed, firstly by Arab nationalism and secondly, by Europe which – having offered them an escape route from inferior dhimmi status – committed Jewish genocide, the greatest betrayal of the twentieth century. The issue of recognition and redress for the refugees is overshadowed by pseudo-colonial allegations of ‘discrimination’ that Mizrahi Jews suffered on arrival in Israel.
With no outside help, Israel successfully resolved the Jewish refugee problem: no Jew today considers himself a refugee. It failed in two major respects, however. The Palestinian refugee problem was left unsolved, a festering sore. The Palestinians became a cause celèbre, while Israel failed to raise the moral imperative of justice for Jewish refugees from Arab lands in a clear and forthright manner. Israel failed to put forward the case for these Jews in the court of public opinion, let alone brand them as a model for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees by Arab states.
The Jewish refugee issue remains a crucial human rights issue. Hundreds of thousands of people were wronged, and they deserve recognition and redress – the law says there is no statute of limitations – whether they now live in Israel or the West.
In spite of Arab denial, the Nazi project to commit genocide against the Jews is not just a European story; it is an Arab story, with a direct link to the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Nazi-inspired Arab regimes deliberately encouraged the flight of their Jews; they have shown not a shred of remorse for the wholesale destruction of their millennial Jewish communities over a single generation. The Jews have been airbrushed from Middle Eastern history as if they had never existed. Such is anti-Jewish hatred that the word ‘Jew’ is used only to insult or discredit a leader or a politician. Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about Jewish power permeate the Arab and Muslim world.
Despite some evidence of nostalgia among the middle classes for their exiled Jews, Arabs states have never recognised, much less apologised for the mass displacement of loyal citizens and the violation of their human rights. The Jewish refugees have never been compensated for stolen property: the Arab and Muslim quarrel with Israeli ‘imperialism’ becomes absurd when viewed against the claim that Jews lost privately-owned land in Arab states amounting to four or five times the size of Israel, itself just 0.01 percent of the land area occupied by Arab states.
Israel missed a unique opportunity to settle the question of seized Egyptian-Jewish property when it signed the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. There has been no closure for either side. Egypt may seem too poor to offer compensation, but it still trembles at the thought that the Jews will return to claim back their property. Post-Saddam Iraq also failed to settle accounts with its Jewish former citizens. The tug-of-war between Iraq and its displaced Jewish community over the water-stained mementos, religious books, school reports and humdrum communal correspondence which comprise the Iraqi-Jewish archive demonstrates that Iraq is not prepared to make the slightest concession to the Jewish refugees it robbed and drove out.
As long as Palestinians call for a mass return to Israel for its refugees and their descendants, they must be reminded that an irrevocable exchange of roughly equal populations took place. No different from other exchanges – for example, the Greek/Turkish and the Indian/Pakistani exchanges of population – resulting from other post-colonial conflicts, this exchange cannot be reversed. Of all twentieth century conflicts, the Arab-Israeli conflict is the only one in which the population transfer failed as a result of the Arab refusal, except in Jordan, to absorb their refugees.
Even if you have no Sephardi or Mizrahi connections, you can play your part to raise awareness of the Jewish refugees and their need for justice. Theirs is a vital part of the story of the Jewish people.
Lyn Julius is a journalist and blogger and founded Harif, the Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. She is the author of ‘Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish civilization in the Arab world vanished overnight’ (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018)