Tuesday September 2, 2014
Israel Hayom
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02.09.2014
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Zvi Gabay

Jews from Arab lands: Turning back the wheels of history

Essam el-Erian, an adviser to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and vice president of the Freedom and Justice Party, called on Egyptian Jews to return home to Egypt so they can "make room for the Palestinians to return [to Palestine], and Jews return to their homeland [each group of Jews to return to its respective Diaspora "homeland"] in light of the democracy" evolving in Egypt. "I call on them now. Egypt is more deserving of you." His comments were heavily criticized by Islamist elements in Egypt and abroad. Following the storm, Erian left his advisory post; it was not clear if he was fired or if he left of his own volition. It is important to understand that he wanted to turn the wheel of history back 65 years, just like Saddam Hussein in 1974, when he called on Iraqi Jews to return, have their citizenship reinstated, and their confiscated property returned.

Until quite recently, the issue of Jews from Arab lands was all but absent from the public agenda and in the Israeli media. Few remember the terrible tragedies suffered by Jews in Arab countries — Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Their disaster has been nearly forgotten. It is not taught properly in schools, not discussed enough in the media, not commemorated by any official state mechanism and, until recently, was not mentioned in any international contexts.

Arab propaganda was able to conceal the population exchanges between Israel and Arab countries during the 1948 War of Independence from international discourse. Arab propaganda argues the validity of the right of return for Palestinians who fought against Israel, some of whom fled for their lives for fear of what might happen had they stayed. It has managed to instill in the public's perception, on a global level, that the Palestinian Nakba was the only tragedy that took place at the time of the state's establishment.

Historical distortion of our demographic and political reality is our fault. One-hundred and sixty international resolutions and declarations have been crafted in relation to the Palestinian Arab refugees, but not one deals with Jewish refugees from Arab lands. The delay in raising this issue in the United Nations forum and in the consciousness of the international public is not a reason to annul Jewish claims to the great amount of private and communal property left behind due to the discrimination and suffering they experienced in their original lands. MK Nissim Zeev proposed legislation in 2010 that would require the government to raise the issue of Jewish property in the diplomatic sphere, but we need to bring the refugee status of these Jews to international attention as well.

The next government must lead an international discussion to solve not only the problem of Jewish refugees, but also Arab refugees, who continue to live in deplorable conditions despite the massive international effort to support them financially. The starting point of this discussion could be the framework outlined by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000, which sought to compensate refugees, Jewish and Arab alike. Parties on every side need to seek justice based on actual facts, not propaganda, because, if this is not done, we will never achieve a lasting peace.

The writer is a former ambassador and former deputy director of the Foreign Ministry.

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