Naim Reuven was only 8 when he left Baghdad more than 50 years ago, but he still remembers going with his father to catch fish in the Tigris River.
His dad worked in a laundromat, a middle-class father of six and one of Iraq’s more than 100,000 Jews. Baghdad’s Jewish community suffered a pogrom in 1941, but Reuven, born a year later, has only fond memories of his childhood there — until Israel declared independence in 1948.
“When Israel was established it began, there was hate,” said Reuven, now 70. “We had a neighbor we got along with, and then there was hate.”
He still remembers the fear when grenades were thrown into his family’s synagogue.
In 1951, after three years of increasing animosity and persecution, the Reuvens moved to Israel, where the government placed them in an immigrant absorption camp and gave Reuven’s father agricultural work. Reuven now lives in Tel Aviv’s low-income Hatikvah neighborhood, retired after a career in construction.
More than 800,000 Jews lived in the Arab world at the time of Israel’s founding. Virtually all of them left, fled or were forced out of their homes after Israel’s birth, with more than three-quarters moving to Israel. The once-thriving communities they had established in places such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia shrank and, in some cases, virtually disappeared. In many cases the emigrants were forced to leave behind much of their property.
As part of an effort to have those Jews recognized as refugees and demand compensation for their lost property, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) will be hosting a conference in Jerusalem in mid-September focused on “raising the flag of rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” according to WJC Secretary General Dan Diker.
Then, on Sept. 21, the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Israeli Foreign Ministry will host a similar conference at United Nations headquarters.
“It’s important that the world accept and recognize that most of them were forcibly exiled and subjected to the worst kind of anti-Semitic assault,” which included Jews being “attacked, assaulted, killed, robbed,” Diker said in an interview. “This issue has been largely ignored by Jewish leaders over the past number of years. They were resettled, so it wasn’t perceived as an acute bleeding.”
In addition to the WJC efforts, the Israeli Knesset is slated to vote soon on a resolution to establish a day commemorating the history of Jews from Arab lands and to found a museum focused on that history. The U.S.-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries also advocates for the refugees’ rights.
While the campaign for the Jewish refugees ostensibly is aimed at winning some recompense for Jews from Arab countries and their descendants — known in Israel as Mizrahim, Hebrew for Easterners — it’s also part of a political effort to create a Jewish parallel to Palestinian refugee claims from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Advocates want the Jewish refugee issue to serve as a counterbalance to the Palestinian refugee issue in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and they want recognition and monetary compensation for Jewish refugees to be a part of any final-status deal.
While no mechanism for such compensation exists now, Diker envisions an international fund that would resolve claims for Jewish and Palestinian refugees. Meir Khaolon, chairman of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, which is collaborating with the WJC in its campaign, says Mizrahi Jews have listings of 80 percent of the property left behind in Arab countries.
“It restores parity to Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” Diker said. “That narrative has become distorted in recognizing and advancing the narrative that the Palestinian Arabs are the sole aggrieved party in this conflict.”
The issue of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not new, but Diker said it has risen in prominence now because of a parallel effort by Knesset members to celebrate Mizrahi history and culture in Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is leading the effort and introduced the resolution in the Knesset two months ago to memorialize Mizrahi communities, will speak at the upcoming WJC conference along with other Israeli and international politicians.
“All those Jews wanted to be part of the Jewish rebuilding” of Israel, Ayalon said. “But the fact that they were harassed, that they were killed, that they were robbed of their dignity as human beings is something that has never been recognized.”
Most Mizrahi Jews who moved to Israel did so because they faced persecution in their home countries, according to Maurice Roumani, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and an expert on Libyan Jewry. While Jews had lived under Muslim rule for centuries with restricted rights, their situation became increasingly precarious during the years leading up to Israel’s founding. When Israel declared independence, Jews across the Arab world lost rights and in many cases citizenship, and expulsions followed in the years and decades following 1948.
“The claim that Jews left on their own is not reflecting the truth of history because the true history shows that Jews could no longer continue living there without having their lives threatened,” Roumani said. “Jews from Arab countries had been living in continuous insecurity for generations. If their lives had not been so insecure, few of them would have left.”
Reuven said he does not see himself as a refugee from Iraq.
“I’m Israeli for everything,” he said.
Clara Yona Meshumar, whose parents left Libya for Israel in 1947 and 1950 before marrying, said her family left not under duress but “out of religious faith. They always said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”
“From my parents’ stories it was the fulfillment of the dream,” said Meshumar, who also serves as the academic director of Kedma, an Israeli nonprofit that in part promotes the teaching of Mizrahi history in Israeli schools. “They were not Zionist in the European sense, but they were Zionists. The moment that legal immigration became possible, most people went.”
While the Palestinian refugee community places its refugee status at the center of its identity, Meshumar and other Mizrahi Jews said their families made no formal effort to preserve the memory of their former homes or commemorate their exodus from Middle Eastern countries beyond telling stories or performing Mizrahi Jewish rituals during holidays.
By contrast, Palestinian families retain mementos of their former homes in present-day Israel, such as keys or land deeds, and annually commemorate losing their homes during Israel’s establishment, which they call the Nakba — the “catastrophe.”
Israel and the Palestinian Authority haven’t negotiated directly since 2010, but Diker said that creating parity between refugees could allow the parties to resolve their respective refugee claims separate from negotiations on borders and security.
“You don’t need a final status agreement in order to solve the refugee problem,” he said. “We’re not adding a claim. We’re recognizing a claim.”