Opinion | Its time to remember the other refugees: Jews from Arab countries

In 2014, 58 years after he and his family left Morocco, Knesset member Shimon Ohayon proposed a bill to commemorate the massive expulsion of Jews from Arab countries on

Nov. 30. The date was symbolic: On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a partition plan for the Palestinian Mandate that was rejected by Arab countries, which then stepped up persecution against their Jewish residents.

Since 1945, Greeks, Turks, Lebanese, Kurds, Iraqis and Yazidis have been refugees. Most recently, an estimated 4 million Syrians were compelled to leave their homes. Over the years, the best-known group of refugees from the Middle East have been the Palestinians. They are the only refugee group with a U.N. agency — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — devoted entirely to them. UNRWA receives $1.4 billion out of a total of $8 billion given annually to all of the world’s refugees, more than 17 percent of all funds allocated.

However, there is another group of Middle East refugees whose plight and story have been nearly lost to history: the Jews of Arab lands. Ohayon’s bill, now a law, recognizes the hardships they experienced.

Since ancient times, Jewish communities have existed throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Over the centuries, these communities frequently found themselves vulnerable to abuses from their neighbors and local governments.

Before the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine, the Political Committee of the Arab League drafted a law addressing the legal status of Jewish residents, declaring that bank accounts of Jews from Arab League countries were to be frozen and used to finance resistance to “Zionist ambitions in Palestine.” Jews believed to be active Zionists would be interned as political prisoners and their assets confiscated. These and other state-sanctioned acts of repression and violence precipitated a mass departure of the ancient Jewish communities, often in desperate economic circumstances. In total, more than 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab countries, in a process of expulsion and exile that continued through the 1970s.

Following the 1948 War of Independence, Israel faced austerity and struggled to provide housing and jobs for these refugees-turned-immigrants. Despite hardships, Israel welcomed these Jewish refugees unconditionally and provided them with food and shelter. Since their arrival in Israel, Jews from Arab lands have integrated into Israeli society, helped shape its identity and greatly contributed to Israel’s success.

Nov. 30 has deep personal meaning for me. My family is from a small town called Zacho, now located in the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq. The Jewish presence in this region goes back more than 2,700 years. When the State of Israel was established, the Jewish population of the city numbered some 1,400 people; all of them immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s. My family had to give up their citizenship and leave behind all of their possessions, arriving in Israel with only the clothes on their backs.

The struggle for survival in the newborn State of Israel, the hope to integrate successfully in its melting pot and the deep connection to the Holy Land and the Jewish people pushed many people, including my family, to repress the trauma of expulsion from the countries where they lived for thousands of years.

The definition of refugee under international law clearly applies to those in my family as well as other Jews who left Arab lands because they all had “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race or religion.” The U.N. High Commissioners for Refugees have confirmed on several occasions that Jews fleeing persecution in Arab countries are refugees who fall under the UNHCR mandate. In all of the relevant international multilateral and bilateral agreements, “refugees” are referred to generically, and recognize all Middle East refugees, Jews and Arabs alike.

But because of Israel’s success in absorbing these refugees, their story has gone largely untold. Unlike Palestinians, whose refugee status has been transmitted from generation to generation, the Jewish refugees and their descendants chose not to be victims. They have built lives for themselves in Israel and are entirely Israeli. However, this does not compensate for their huge financial losses or for the pain and cruel treatment they suffered.

If “right of return” and compensation are being considered for one group of refugees, then these topics need to be addressed for all other groups. Misery and suffering cannot be quantified. Whether the refugee is Arab, Jew, Kurd or Yazidi, the same horrors and indignities are visited upon them all.

If one group is to be singled out for compensation, and another group delegitimized and dismissed, then we are joining hands with the oppressors and tormentors of this world and compounding the injustice felt by all those who have been forced out of their homes and made to risk their lives in hopes of finding an Israel of their own.

Ravit Baer is Israel’s deputy consul to San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest. She will be one of several speakers at a Dec. 6 event at Magain David Sephardim Congregation in San Francisco

(see Calendar, 31).