A broad coalition of Jewish lobby groups has
made a series of breakthroughs this year in its campaign to link the question
of justice for millions of Palestinian refugees with justice for Jews who left
Arab states in the wake of Israel's establishment 60 years ago.
Referring to these Jews as the "forgotten refugees" and claiming
that their plight is worse than that of exiled Palestinians, the campaign has
scored political successes in recent months in Washington, London, and Brussels.
Last week, the campaign received a major fillip when one of Israel's largest
political parties announced that restitution of property for Arab Jews was
a central plank of its platform for the general election scheduled for February.
Shas, a religious fundamentalist party and the third biggest in the current
parliament, said it will refuse to support any government that reaches a deal
with the Palestinians unless it first forces the Arab states to compensate
these Jewish emigrants.
Shas, which has a record of opposing peace agreements with the Palestinians,
draws its support chiefly from Jews who migrated to Israel from Arab countries
– known in Israel as the Mizrahim.
The party is likely to be the power broker in the next government. Its refusal
to accept terms offered by Tzipi Livni, the prime minister-designate, especially
on Jerusalem, forced her to call the election last month.
The international campaign highlighting the suffering of Arab Jews, led by
Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), a pressure group drawing together
dozens of Jewish groups in the U.S. and Europe, has made dramatic headway over
the past year.
After heavy lobbying, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution
in April declaring that no Middle East peace could be achieved "without
addressing the uprooting of centuries-old Jewish communities in the Middle
East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf." George W. Bush, the president,
was also said to be "very conscious" of the Arab Jews' plight.
In recent months, members of JJAC have also addressed the British parliament,
the United Nations, and the European Parliament.
And last month, the group officially moved its operations into Israel, promising
to bring strong pressure on the next government.
A central claim of the JJAC campaign is that the Jewish exodus associated
with the 1948 war dwarfs that suffered by the Palestinians. JJAC argues that
at least 850,000 Jews were forced out of 10 Arab countries, compared to 720,000
Palestinians expelled from the territory that became Israel.
Using dubious figures, one economist, Stanley Zabludoff, produced a paper
this year for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs arguing that Arab Jews'
losses, at $6 billion in today's figures, are 50 percent higher than Palestinian
Yitzhak Cohen, a Shas spokesman, echoed that claim: "The uprooted Jews'
problem is equal to, if not greater than, the Palestinian refugees' problem."
An equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian property losses as a consequence
of the 1948 war has been drawn by Israeli politicians on a number of occasions
in peace negotiations.
The issue was raised during the later stages of the Oslo talks, at the Camp
David negotiations in 2000, and again at the conference called by Bush a year
ago at Annapolis. A cabinet minister, Rafi Eitan, has the issue included in
This year, both Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, and Livni have emphasized
the plight of Arab Jews in private conversations with visiting heads of state.
The reason is clear. Proponents of the Arab Jews' case argue that what occurred
during the 1948 war was an "exchange of populations," suggesting
that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already been settled in a manner
similar to the conflict between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, when hundreds
of thousands were displaced from their homes.
Unlike Shas, however, Israeli governments have been reluctant to go public
with such claims – a fact recently lamented by Uzi Dayan, the country's former
national security adviser.
This is because the equivalence argument fails to withstand minimal scrutiny.
There are a number of grounds for rejecting the case made by the JJAC, Shas,
and government officials.
First, it holds the Palestinians accountable for actions for which they had
no responsibility. In fact, the cost of the exodus of Jews from Arab states
was borne chiefly by the Palestinians themselves, whose land, homes, and belongings
were transferred to these Jewish immigrants.
Second, although historians are agreed that the Palestinians were expelled
by Israel in 1948, there is little evidence that most Arab Jews were forced
from their homes.
According to the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, whose family left Baghdad in
1950, most of these Jewish migrants left of their own accord, even if under
pressure from Zionist agencies. The largest numbers came from Morocco, lured
to Israel by Zionist officials who promised them a better life.
Only in the case of the small Jewish populations in Egypt and Libya was compulsion
And third, and most embarrassing for Israel, there is overwhelming evidence
that its secret Mossad agency carried out false-flag operations in Arab countries
that endangered local Jews and significantly contributed to the exodus.
The involvement of Israel in bombing campaigns in both Egypt and Baghdad –
and possibly elsewhere – is mentioned, for example, in the diaries of Moshe
Sharrett, the former prime minister. The explosions were designed, in his words,
to "liven up the Middle East."
A majority of the Jews from Arab states ended up in Israel, where today they
constitute nearly half of the Jewish population. Shas makes it clear that its
primary goal in raising the issue of restitution is to foil any attempt by
the next government to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party and the candidate
most likely, according to polls, to become the next prime minister, is also
known to be sympathetic to the principle of tying the question of Jewish and
Should a new White House under Barack Obama try to revive the Middle East
peace process, Shas may yet offer Netanyahu precisely the escape hatch he is
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.