June 28, 2008

Not nice but not a nakba?

There was a response on Comment is free yesterday to Lyn Julius's nasty little piece "on" the departure of Jews from Arab states following the establishment of the State of Israel. It's by Rachel Shabi, who the blurb says
is a Guardian contributor. She currently lives in Tel Aviv and has written a book on Israel's Oriental Jews, to be published early next year. She was born in Israel to Iraqi parents, and grew up in the UK.
Anyway, here's what she says:

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) thinks that Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinian refugees should somehow be offset against each other – the rights of one side counterbalancing the rights of the other. It's a neat argument: Jews were forced to abandon material assets and leave Arab countries; Palestinians similarly fled or were expelled from their homes. Ergo, the region witnessed an exchange of populations and if Palestinian refugees are to be compensated by Israel, so too must the Jewish "refugees" from the Middle East, by the Arab nations that expelled them.

Nice try, but there are many reasons why this formula is all wrong. First off (as David Cesarani points out), it's tasteless. There is no need for the fate of these two peoples, Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, to be so fused materialistically. Middle Eastern Jews may indeed have a claim to lost assets, but those genuinely seeking peace between Israel and its neighbours should know that this is not the way to pursue it.

Second, defining Jews from Arab lands as "refugees" is problematic – and many Middle Eastern Jews would be angered by it. Countless Israelis recount leaving former homes in Arab countries and illegally, dangerously migrating prior to 1948. Such experiences do not include a component of expulsion: they left because they wanted to.

Broadly, you could say that any Middle Eastern Jew ("Oriental" or "Mizrahi" Jew) who defines their migration to Israel as "Zionist" cannot also be a refugee: the former label has agency and involves a desire to live in the Jewish state; the second suggests passivity and a lack of choice. Demanding the refugee label to bloc-define this group denies every other scenario: such as that Jews weren't all driven out of the Arab world; that they didn't all want to leave; or that many actually chose to do so.

What's more, if you take the line that Zionism both caused Palestinians to leave their homes and brought Middle Eastern Jews to Israel, then the refugee offset equation is, as the Israeli professor Yehouda Shenhav puts it, a form of "double-entry accounting".

Jewish Agency officials knew that their activities in Palestine could imperil Jews in the Middle East (see the work of Israeli historian Esther Meir-Glitzenste). They chose to carry on with those actions and committed to "rescuing" those Jews if things did take a turn for the worse. If Zionist officials themselves worried about a backlash in the Arab world, how can Israel then be absolved of responsibility for the Jewish exodus from those countries?

But let's get to the heart of the matter. What JJAC seems keen to establish is that Arab countries treated Jewish citizens with contempt and cruelty, fuelled by antisemitism. This formulation perpetuates the myth of Arabs and Jews as polar opposites, destined to be eternal enemies. It shirks the plain fact that Jews lived in Arab counties for over two millennia, for the most part productively and in peace. Even historians like Bernard Lewis say that. Sure, there were hostile periods, but nothing like the waves of anti-Jewish persecution experienced in Europe. The conflict between Arab nations and nascent Israel made it practically untenable for most Jews in the Middle East to stay put – and both sides of the conflict are to blame for that. In other words, Oriental Jews weren't simply "pushed" out of Arab countries; they were also "pulled" towards Israel.

"Pulled" because by the early 1940s Zionist emissaries were operative in the Middle East. They helped set up underground organisations that sought to inspire Jews to migrate to then Palestine.

Scores of Middle Eastern Jews recall that Jewish Agency officials dazzled them with stories of a better life in Israel. Many of them felt betrayed when they set foot in the new Jewish state – and continue to feel that way today.

But Oriental Jews were equally "pushed" out because, often, Arab governments did little to encourage them to stay. For instance, the Iraqi government passed a series of anti-Zionist laws during the 1948 war with Israel, but it didn't properly define Zionism so the laws were wide open to abuse and often experienced as anti-Jewish. The government, a British puppet and under constant threat amidst Iraqi nationalist calls for independence, used the Palestinian issue to deflect attention – sacrificing its Jewish community to this end.

Middle Eastern Jews were stuck between two opposing currents, Zionism and Arab nationalist anti-colonialism – and squeezed out in a pincer manoeuvre.

But this situation at national level did not always sour relations on the ground. Talking to Middle Eastern Jews now in Israel, there are many positive tales about former days in Arab countries: good lives; full rights; friendly Muslim neighbours. These recollections jar with the picture JJAC paints, of a rampant Arab antisemitism during this period.

Of course, we could only focus on the bad and write what the Jewish historian Salo Baron called a "lachrymose" version of events. But what's the point? The Middle Eastern Jewry comprises many threads and, compared with European Jewry, has a distinct history, heritage and culture. This legacy, in all its dimensions, should not be hijacked to fuel further rage and acrimony in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The comments are pouring in including this one by Professor Geoffrey Alderman:
Dear Ms Shabi

You do however agree (don't you?) that where it can be proved that Jews living in Arab lands were persecuted and/or had their property confiscated, they should be compensated and that this compensation must come from the respective Arab governments?

Geoffrey Alderman
There are a few pats on the back for the professor's perfectly reasonable question but I was a little anxious about what the professor omitted from his question as I see him as quite an extreme zionist who has expressed satisfaction about the holocaust in that, he says, it led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Here's me (Ilan):
Geoffrey Alderman raises half of a very important point. If people have fled persecution or they have been the victims of ethnic cleansing, they should be offered compensation or the right of return. I presume he means where it can be proved in specific cases then compensation will be due in those specific cases. If he doesn't mean that then we could be back to Lyn Julius's grotesque racist idea of "trade-off" in which case how many Anglo-Saxons would give up their homes to incoming settlers on the grounds that Anglo-Saxons have deprived people of their homes abroad?

Where either Arabs or Jews have been forced out of their respective homelands they should of course be entitled to compensation. They should also be offered the right to return to their homeland. It is that latter that doesn't feature in Geoffrey Alderman's question. If Arab states are denying Jews the right of return then that is to be condemned and rectified. Likewise, if Israel is denying Arabs the right of return, that too is to be condemned and rectified.

Now between this article and the one by Lyn Julius, a consensus is emerging. I think all agree that whatever it was that caused Arabs to leave Palestine and Jews to leave Arab countries, the idea of a trade off is a racist obscenity. That leaves us with compensation and the right of return both of which should be offered to both Arabs and Jews.

Let's not forget though, that whilst Arab regimes have been stupid and cruel in their treatment of Jews, Israel's existence as a Jewish state (or more correctly, a state for Jews) is predicated on its ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. In fact I think it is the only state today that owes its existence to the combination of on-going colonial settlement, ethnic cleansing and racist laws. Put another way, whilst Arab (and other) countries have had boundaries and dictatorships imposed on them, Palestine has had a whole colonial settler population imposed on it and it has had most of its native population removed.

Back to the question of either compensation or return this should be the choice of the victims, not the perpetrators. For example, if Syria was to say that it will compensate members of its former Jewish population where it can be proven that they left under duress this would not do. They must offer the right to return. Similarly, Israel should offer (or be compelled to offer) the victims of its ethnic cleansing either compensation or the right of return, depending on what they, the victims, want, as per UN General Assembly resolution 194.

Finally, like Professor Alderman, I would like to hear Rachel Shabi's views on these two issues of compensation and return.
She hasn't come back yet and nor has the prof. She's either being sensible and waiting to deal with all queries at once or she's being even more sensible and staying away from the open zoo that is the comment section at comment is free.

Still the comments are still open if you want to have a go.

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