Don't Forget the Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands
One cannot grasp the complicated reality of the Middle East by ignoring half the suffering.
October 23, 2008 - by Reut Cohen
In May 2007, Jimmy Carter went on a speaking tour and made a stop at the University of California, Irvine. During his talk, the former president made an offer to assist in funding a trip between Jewish and Muslim students to Israel and the Palestinian territories with the intention of bringing awareness to the plight of the Palestinians.
In August 2008 a group of students, primarily composed of Jewish students and students who are involved with the Middle Eastern Studies Student Initiative (MESSI) or the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, participated in a program to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Jimmy Carter did not subsidize the trip according to the students and departments involved, but Carter's suggestion in 2007 definitely helped to inspire this trip. Now that students have returned to the United States they will be sharing their experiences and the perspectives they heard at a series of events sponsored by university departments throughout the year.
My outlook regarding this trip is neither optimistic nor reassured just because the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding endorsed this program and UC Irvine's vice chancellor briefly met with students during the trip. After all, I am very familiar with the vice chancellor at my alma mater. He is the same vice chancellor who made a rather asinine remark that he would not seek to curtail hate speech against Jews because "one person's hate speech is another's education."
Another concern is that students, who probably had good if not extremely misguided intentions, were only afforded the ability to see two parts of the Middle East — developed Israel and the underdeveloped Palestinian Authority. Certainly students, especially students who went into the trip knowing little about the conflict, will only have a prospering, developed nation to compare the Palestinian territories to. In order for a well-rounded, honest approach to understanding the Middle East, students should have seen how Jordanians and Egyptians live. Anyone who has visited the Middle East will recognize that there are distinct similarities of impoverishment, lack of sanitation, and infrastructure in villages.
Conversely, Israel is not much different than Western nations. Innovation, advancement, proper health, and infrastructure are obvious components of Israeli society.
During this trip words like "refugees" and "oppressed" likely came up in discussion about the situation of the Palestinians. I sincerely doubt that there will be a mention that the infant mortality rate in the Palestinian Authority is actually lower than in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and many other Islamic nations. Israel has continuously provided medical assistance to Palestinians in need, which has very likely made the infant mortality rate lower in the Palestinian Authority. I also cannot help but wonder if the fact that Palestinians cannot become citizens of any Islamic nation or that there are Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon was discussed during this trip.
Furthermore, it is a concern that while the refugee status of the Palestinians is often up for discussion, there is little or no mention of the Jewish Middle Eastern refugees. Certainly, judging from what I have heard and seen about this trip, there wasn't a mention of Middle Eastern Jewry even though these Jews make up more than half of Israel.
I would like to share my own unique perspective on the refugee issue, one that is rarely heard by our media.
I am Jewish, but I am also Middle Eastern. I come from a traditional Sephardic/Mizrahi household. The food we eat, the way we pray, the music we listen to are all Middle Eastern in their style and origins. While I am very familiar with the situation of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees, it has always astounded, and even offended, me that the situation of my relatives who suffered and endured in refugee camps is rarely addressed.
Up to one million Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa in 1945. These Middle Eastern Jews lived in communities dating back more than three millennia. Yet today these communities have been virtually wiped out by Islamic governments and only a few thousand Jews remain.
Israel was a very poor country with a finite amount of resources, making life very difficult for diverse Jews who were breaking free of repressive regimes. While Israel absorbed the survivors of the Holocaust, it also absorbed an equal number of Jews from the Middle East who faced intense persecution under Islamic regimes that became very Nazi-like in their treatment of Jews.
My paternal grandfather vividly recalls his experiences living as a Jew in Baghdad and the Farhud pogrom, which was a Nazi pogrom coordinated by Haj Amin al-Husseini. In a two-day period Arab mobs went on a rampage in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq. Nearly 300 Jews were killed and more than 2,000 injured; some 900 Jewish homes were destroyed and looted, and hundreds of Jewish-owned shops were robbed and destroyed. My older family members recall witnessing how Iraqi soldiers pulled small children away from their parents and ripped the arms off young girls to steal their bracelets; pregnant women were raped and their stomachs cut open. My grandfather hid his baby brother underneath his t-shirt when the violence began and ran home. My great-grandfather saved his entire family during the riots that broke out in Baghdad by claiming to be a Muslim when Iraqi troops came into their home with the intent of looting, raping, and killing. Eventually, when being a Jew was practically criminalized, my father's family escaped to Israel with only the clothes on their backs — their belongings were confiscated — leaving behind everything that they knew. Their experience was not a unique one and was shared by several thousand Baghdadi Jews.
Other Islamic countries treated their Jewish populations similarly. My maternal grandmother escaped from Syria during the mid-1940s. Her parents had died and she was forced to live with an older sister. As a 16-year-old girl, she decided to pay a Druze man with the gold her mother left to her and made the long, tedious journey to modern-day Israel. Because Syrian officials would incarcerate any Jew fleeing in the direction of Israel, my grandmother and other individuals making their way from Syria to what eventually became Israel would only be able to walk at night. Several Syrian Jews found it nearly impossible to flee. The last few Jews from Syria made their escape in the early 1990s. Our male relatives who arrived in Israel in the 1990s shared their stories with us. They were taken by Syrian authorities and tortured for unspecified amounts of time, experiencing unspeakable cruelty at the hands of Syrian officials.
We rarely hear of the atrocities committed against Middle Eastern Jewry and only hear about the poor Palestinian refugees. Indeed the Palestinian refugees are a poor people, a scapegoat for repressive Islamic governments who despise Israel and who will not allow these people to become immersed in Islamic countries.
My family is also indigenous to the Middle East. They are from communities that lived in dusty tents for years. They helped to build a country that was poor and barely habitable. They were refugees with a plight that has been unrecognized for decades.
Rather than engaging in violence like the Palestinians, Middle Eastern Jews persevered and built new lives. They became Israeli citizens and they ceased being refugees. At first they had to overcome social discrimination, as two very different Jewish populations found themselves interacting so suddenly — European and Middle Eastern. However, it is crucial to note that Israel eventually absorbed populations from Europe and the Middle East without receiving assistance from the international community. The Middle Eastern Jewish community makes up more than half of Israel's Jewish population.
I believe that without honesty or a comprehensive view of the Middle East, individuals are simply deluding themselves into thinking they actually have a firm understanding of a very complicated conflict. I have never heard a single Middle Eastern department at any university bring up this issue. Instead, much of the dialogue surrounding the Middle East attacks Israel, which makes up less than one percent of the Middle East. We cannot omit important narratives simply because they would call to question what we already believe.