Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit back at the Arab world’s treatment of its own refugees as he surged ahead with a government-led campaign to raise awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
In a filmed address Monday to delegates of the “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” conference in Jerusalem, which was co-hosted by the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Senior Citizens, Netanyahu said that in contrast to Muslim countries who had neglected its refugees and used them as a propaganda tool to criticise the Jewish State, "Israel who was just born as a nation-state, has managed to absorb and resettle the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and turn them into productive citizens."
The “I am a Refugee” campaign was launched last week by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, in effort to highlight the little-known 856,000 displaced Jews in Arab countries on the creation of the State of Israel, in comparison to the much publicised 726,000 Palestinians similarly affected.
The move is thought to be an initiative aimed at staving off the potential damage to Israel’s reputation caused by the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s appeal for non-member status at the UN later this month.
The figures encapsulate Jews who fled Middle Eastern and North African countries around the time of Israel’s establishment, many of whom sought refuge in the newly-formed Jewish State.
Admitting he was “interested in getting our message through to organisations associated with the UN” at the Jerusalem conference, Ayalon added that he would himself be travelling to New York for its General Assembly in two weeks to lobby UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to add the issue to the organisation’s agenda.
Another keynote speaker at the conference, whose participants included international parliamentarians, heads of Jewish organisations from Arab countries and refugees themselves, was noted pro-Israel Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, who described the Palestinian presentation of persecution and displacement by the Israeli State as a "false and dishonest narrative that only one group of people was displaced in the war of 1948 and that was because of the ethnic cleansing by Jews."
A former Justice Minister in the Canadian government and a human rights lawyer, Cotler added that false propaganda by the Palestinian Authority was a real obstacle to peace, adding that "where there is injustice, there will be no correction. Where there is no correction, there will be no reconciliation." He further called on Arab countries to acknowledge the Jewish category of refugees in future peace talks.
Echoing Cotler’s words and stressing the importance of the issue to Netanyahu’s administration, Ayalon added: "The Israeli government has decided to put its full force behind this issue, of which there are political implications, in particular regarding peace negotiations. It is not intended to put obstacles in the way of negotiations – a true peace negotiation process must have an historical base of truth in order to survive."
However, far from helping to provide a platform for stalled direct peace talks with the Palestinians, signs have already emerged to suggest the campaign will be met with opposition from Israel’s close neighbours. Hamas issued a letter to the Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby Wednesday, calling on him to halt Israel’s mission.
Rejecting claims Jews had ever experienced discrimination or persecution in Arab countries, the group argued that “Jewish researchers and officials” had verified the fact that the Zionist movement itself had called for Jews to voluntarily leave their homes in Arab countries.
As some conference speakers criticised Israel for not having done enough to raise awareness of the issue, which has often been overshadowed by the plight of Jews during the Holocaust, co-host World Jewish Congress Secretary-General Dan Diker said: "Pushing this issue forward in efforts to bring justice to the Jewish refugees will succeed due to the unity that exists around the matter."
He added: "Until this very day, Israeli governments have always said that it is not the right time to raise the issue of refugees. No more. Finally there is a government that state if not now then when?"
According to a poll released by the WJC to coincide with the international conference, 54% of Israeli Arabs are more likely to align the cause of Jewish refugees from Arab countries with Palestinians displaced from Israel, compared to only 48% of Israeli Jews.
Even more worryingly, 96% of the Jewish population was found to have no knowledge of the issue, compare to 89% of Israeli Arabs, 55% of whom stated there should be a general fund established to compensate Middle Eastern refugees, of both Jewish and Arab origins.
Insisting the truth had to be told in order to cement Israel’s legitimacy, Diker said of the poll’s findings: "Any people’s national security is based on their narrative, which is vital in order to create legitimacy – the way we tell ourselves that narrative, as well as the way we tell it to the world is a statement concerning our history and our identity as a people."
Closing the conference, the organisers pledged to further lobby the issue at international level and issued the a joint appeal to the UN: "We call on the United Nations Secretary General to place the issue of Jewish refugees on the agenda of the United Nations and its affiliated forms. We also call on state parliaments around the world to pass legislation, recognizing the historic and justice and suffering of the Jews who were expelled, forced out, or who fled Arab countries."
Despite the Israeli government receiving criticism for neglecting the issue of Jewish refugees in favour of Holocaust education, the history of North Africa’s displaced Jews is largely intertwined with the plight of Europe’s Jews during WWII.
In 1930, prior to the creation of Israel, approximately 225,000 were living in Morocco, the largest North African Jewish population. Whilst Morocco protected its Jewish community from Nazi legislation during WWII, an emerging anti-Semitism came into being after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, which led to a mass aliyah (emigration to Israel), which further increased following Moroccan Independence in 1956. Today, approximately 3,500 Jews are still living in the country.
The Jewish community in Tunisia was largely protected under its treaty with France, as many Tunisian Jews took up French citizenship. Following the WWII-era Vichy administration’s virulently anti-Semitic policies from 1940, however, the climate worsened significantly for the indigenous Jewish population as occupying Nazi German forces deported Tunisian Jews to North African Nazi camps. When Tunisia gained independence in 1956, its Jewish population further dwindled from approximately 100,000 to round 1,000 currently and remains the largest religious minority in the country.
French colonisation of Algeria in 1830 helped protect its indigenous Jewish population which had been present since the destruction of the first ancient Jewish temple, over 2,000 years previously.
In the late 1930s, there were approximately 120,000 Jews living in Algeria, the majority of whom had taken up French citizenship. During WWII the Vichy administration annulled the citizenship of Algerian Jews, confiscated property and banning them from working in various professions.
When Algeria gained independence in 1962, only citizens with a Muslim father or paternal grandfather were granted Algerian citizenship, which led almost 140,000 Algerian Jews to emigrate to France and, in smaller numbers, Israel.
Today, there is no remaining Jewish community in the country.