The Tragedy of the Jews from Muslim Lands: A Plight Twice Forgotten
May 16, 2011 8 Comments
Yesterday, May 15th 2011, was commemorated all over the world as ‘Naqba Day’. It is a day of demonstrations and mourning over the defeat of the five Arab armies and Palestinian Arab militias, as well as the displacement of many Palestinian Arabs as a result of their war against Israel’s independence from 1947-48. In recent years the commemorations have focused heavily on the issue of the descendants of Palestinian refugees, a topic which is well known and has been covered extensively in literature, academic work and in the media.
This day is an appropriate one to also remember the larger refugee crisis caused in the wake of the conflict. The victory of the Jews, the historic dhimmis, over the armies of their larger Muslim neighbours, so incensed the Arab population that in a few years, virtually no Jews would remain in the Muslim lands. A rich civilisation, a population of about one million people, was utterly devastated to the extent that there are only about 5,000 Jews in all the Arab countries today. That is why on May 15th I attended a most important event at the Hilton on Edgware Road. Organised by HARIF (Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa) I went to hear the testimonies of survivors of those dark times and learn more about the fate of the Jews in Muslim lands and future prospects on the issue.
Edgware Road is a center of Islamic life in London. On the way to the event I encountered a small march of anti-Israel demonstrators in a noticeably happy mood. Being a masochist I tried to talk about the conflict to these people, mainly by firing innocent sounding questions to get a feel for the group. No participant knew who Mohammad Amin Al-Husseini was, or that there was a thriving Jewish community in Morocco, Yemen, Egypt and others, or what happened to them. All they ultimately did was shout slogans, like ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘Palestine will be free/from the river to the sea’. All were Arab, but interestingly a sole white fellow emerged with a thick Ulster accent to proclaim ‘IRA-Hamas same struggle, baby’.
Security at the event was tight, an unfortunate necessity at an event such as this. It was a relief to be away from idiotic protesters. The dignity and reflective mood among the participant at this event, called ‘The Jewish Nakba’ was a welcome contrast to the sloganeering and ignorance of anti-Israel activists. When I found a decent seat I immediately struck up a conversation with a man who told of how his father, part of one of the wealthiest families in Iraq, had to flee across the rooftops of Baghdad during the ‘Farhud‘, a large-scale pogrom in 1941 that signaled the beginning of the end for Iraqi Jewry. He also told of life during Israel’s early early years in a transit camp for new immigrants, and the hardship faced after losing all the family assets, apart from their treasured holy books, in Baghdad. I knew this evening would turn out to be a rich experience.
It was soon on to the scheduled speakers. Firstly there was Colette Littman, originally from Egypt. She told of how the Sinai Campaign of 1956 led to increased hostilities towards the Jews among Arab nationalists, who would gather near Jewish homes to issue blood curdling threats. It was very sad to hear her story of when, as a little girl, she asked a Muslim worker in their home what the large knife he was carrying around was for. He told her that it was to cut the throats of her family. After this came Elia Meghnagi, originally of Benghazi, Libya, of all places. He remembered how in the 1950’s every fiery speech from Nasser broadcasted on the radio would lead the young unemployed Arabs to attack Jews and their property. The Jews of Libya lost all legal protection, and the police were eager to play dirty tricks on them. For instance, Jews would be taken to police stations for questioning, only to be released deliberately after the mandated curfew. Then the released Jew would be arrested for breaking curfew and face a possible sentence of five years in prison. Meghnagi ended up in England. His father, a lawyer, lost his practice and found a job in London packing t-shirts.
I found the saddest story was told by Edwin Shuker, who informed the audience about his childhood, a ruined childhood, in Iraq – a country that was descending further and further into madness. Shuker grew up without aunts, uncles or any extended family. Most had fled the country to Israel, and contact would have obvious difficulties. For good reason people fled. Every Wednesday, claimed Shuker, the newspaper featured a section devoted to anti-Jewish letters from readers. Our speaker held up a yellow card, a special ID Jews were forced to carry. The Jewish community had existed for thousands of years and proved only to be model citizens, producing government ministers and prominent businessmen. The Jewish community had long predated Islam. Yet they were now treated as enemy aliens, constantly suspected of spying or harboring spies and even committing terrorist acts. Restaurants eventually stopped serving Jews, and more restrictions reminiscent of the Nuremberg Laws kept on coming. When the Baathists came to power, one in four Jewish adult males in the country were in prison and torture was widespread. On January 27th, 1949, a national holiday was declared – nine Jews were hanged on false spying charges and 500,000 people gathered by the gallows to celebrate.
The evening continued with an award ceremony for a woman who worked to aid Jewish communities at this time, and with the showing of a condensed version of a film aptly titled ‘The Forgotten Refugees’ which I would urge people to check out HERE.
I called the Jewish refugees the ‘twice forgotten’ victims. This is because they were written out of the history of the perpetrating countries – many young Arabs today are unaware that they ever existed – but subsequently let down by those who really should have helped champion their cause. An activist called Michelle Huberman spoke about going to Amnesty International to have the Jewish refugee plight recognized in their campaigns, such as Refugee Week which begins on the 20th June this year. Amnesty were not hostile to the idea, but nobody there seemed to be aware of the issue in the first place. Yet the strangest behavior of all has emerged from the UN. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recognized displaced Jews as refugees, no assistance of any kind was ever offered to them or any country were they were resettled. The UN General Assembly has yet to pass any resolution in their favour. This is in great contrast to the Palestinian refugee issue, as that has been the concern of 101 UN resolutions so far (out of just under 700 in total ever dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict). This alone is enough to damn the UN as a dishonest broker in the conflict. A massive agency, UNRWA, was dedicated to all Palestinian refugees and their descendants with no generational limits. It provides accommodation, schooling, healthcare and other entitlements to all its unfortunate clientele and is proving to be both spectacularly expensive and ultimately pointless. No other refugee group was given a similar infrastructure.
I wondered why ‘The Jewish Naqba’, as some call it, never did get the attention it deserved. My seating neighbour made an interesting point about his father, who never mentioned much about it when he was growing up. He had absorbed the Arab culture of avoiding shame, perhaps, and never sought to burden others with his problems. He was also acutely aware of the plight of the other Jewish communities in Israel. Israel had taken in many refugees from Nazi Germany, Russian pogroms and in the end survivors of the Shoah itself, which destroyed Yiddish civilisation in Europe. Who was he to complain about his loss and try to make it public policy to redress it?
Other refugees offered similar stories. Elia Meghnagi and Edwin Shuker stated how they had never sought compensation of any kind, and were proud not to. They felt the Jewish obligation was to move on, not let it affect the next generation, build a better life for themselves and their children, and contribute much to the general society you live in. This has always been the Jewish way. The contrast with the descendants of Palestinian refugees is astounding. Perhaps if the Jewish refugees had received the same treatment as their Arab counterparts, and had the same sense of victimhood, their history would be better known. Though they too might have been left languishing in rotten ghettos and camps, dependent on international aid (56% of the descendants of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are unemployed – few incidents could give more credence to free-market views on welfare). Jewish refugees were able to forge successful lives, but it is still in the interest of sound justice not to take them out of the equation as the civilised world seeks to make peace between Israel and the Arab world.
HARIF released a succinct statement for the event:
”We, Jews from Arab lands and their descendants, call upon the international community – the UN, US, EU and the Arab League – to recognise our right as dispossessed people.
We call upon them to take into account the plight of nearly one million Jewish refugees in any Middle East peace negotiation, and provide compensation for human rights abuses, lost assets and property.
In any solution to the conflict in the region, we should not be taken out of the equation just because we re-settled in Israel and other countries and were not left to languish in camps”.
For more information on the forgotten Jewish refugees, the blog Point of no return is an invaluable resource. Sir Martin Gilbert’s recent detailed work on the history of the Jews in Muslim lands, In Ishmael’s House, will no doubt be recognized as an authoritative work on the subject.