Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab lands: Controversial? Only at the Guardian

This is cross posted by David Matas, and was originally published on the website of the group, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.  It is a response to Rachel Shabi’s article: ‘The problem with Israel’s Jewish ‘refugee’ initiative‘  in the December 16th edition of the Guardian. (See our post on Shabi’s piece, here.)

Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries should, it seems, be an uncontroversial position. Who, after all, favours injustice?

Yet, Rachel Shabi in an opinion piece in the Guardian on December 16th, 2010 under the title “The problem with Israel’s Jewish ‘refugee’ initiative” labelled the call for justice as “cheap political point-scoring.” That is an odd response to a call for justice. Shabi does not claim that there was no injustice, no history of mistreatment of Jews from Arab countries. She acknowledges that Jewish properties and possessions in Arab countries were impounded, that Arab governments sacrificed Jewish communities for short term political expediency.

Shabi does not claim that the call for justice arose recently. She dates it from the 1970s, though, in fact, it existed long before that. Shabi questions the sincerity of those who call for justice, Israeli deputy foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and the organization Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), arguing that neither is “genuinely concerned” with justice for Jews form Arab countries because they have not proposed “setting up heritage centres to commemorate Jewish life in Arab lands”. Yet, JJAC has proposed exactly that for many years. For instance, in November 2004, JJAC issued a statement calling for “Building a Museum to preserve and portray the vibrant, 2,300 year heritage and history of the Jewish Community of Libya”.

Shabi also charges the advocates with insincerity because of their attempt “to corral the subject into the frame of Palestinian refugee claims”. Yet, equality is an element of justice. When there are two victims, both similarly victimized, then both should receive justice. When one does and the other does not, the victim without redress is doubly victimized, the first time by the original injustice, the second time by the inequality of treatment.

Shabi argues that there is a difference between Palestinian and Jewish refugees because some Jewish refugees do not like being called refugees but rather would prefer to be described as being “uprooted” from Arab lands. This argument is terminological flim flam. Moreover, it ignores the history of Palestinian refugees. For decades, Palestinians rejected the refugee label. The PLO objected as late as 1974, to the component of the 1967 UN Resolution 242 which calls for “a just settlement of the refugee problem” not because it recognizes, by implication, that Jews from Arab countries were also refugees, but rather because, so the PLO said it “deals with their (the PLO’S) cause as a refugee problem”. Palestinian refugee rights did not arise for the first time when Palestinians, relatively late in their history, embraced the refugee label. Nor do Jewish refugee rights cease to exist for those Jewish refugees who reject the refugee label. Human rights are inalienable.

Shabi argues that there is no real parallel between Jewish and Palestinian refugees because the Jews have a homeland and the Palestinians do not. Yet, most refugees do not want to be where they are. What is unusual about the plight of Palestinians, compared to refugees generally, is the unwillingness of the governments of countries in which many of them are found to offer local integration and the virulent rejection by the Palestinian leadership of offers of resettlement.

Shabi questions why Israel should represent Jewish refugees claiming redress for injustice. One answer is that the loss for that injustice was suffered not just by individual Jews, but, for Jews from Arab countries who got refuge in Israel, also by Israel. It was Israel who had to rehabilitate Jewish refugees in Israel from Arab countries, establish them and treat them for the physical and psychological wounds they suffered before flight.

As well, the government of every country should stand up for respect for human rights. It is hardly surprising that a Jewish state would stand up for the rights of Jewish victims. The real question would arise only if Israel did not do so. Shabi asks whether the claim for justice for Jewish refugees would arise if there were no Palestinian refugees. The answer to that is certainly yes. A claim for justice arises whenever there is an injustice.

Jews from Arab countries were victims of a great wrong. Communities which existed for thousands of years, from well before the advent of Islam, were brutally expelled, 850,000 in total, their assets confiscated, and their institutions destroyed. How does one remedy that wrong? The belated Palestinian adoption of the refugee vocabulary presents an opportunity. If the wrong to Jewish refugees will not be remedied in isolation, then, maybe it will be remedied in the overall context of redress for refugee outflows sparked by the Arab invasions of Israel in 1948.

Shabi calls what Ayalon and JJAC have done “possibly the worst sort of advocacy for Middle Eastern Jews.” Yet, in reality, what we are seeing now is the Jewish NGO world – in this instance through JJAC – and the Government of Israel at its best, acting as it has done to bring Nazi war criminals to justice and pursue Holocaust compensation, standing up for Jewish victims, taking advantage of an opportunity presented by the twists and turns of history – in this case the peace negotiations and the claims of Palestinian refugees – to do so.

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