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Israel

A 'Jewish Nakba' - Did Jews Exiled From Arab Lands Suffer Like Palestinians?

On May 15 Palestinians always mark Nakba Day, or the "catastrophe" of their exile following the creation of Israel. Some Israeli leaders have now responded by asking for the compensation of Jews expelled from Arab countries.

Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM - On Tuesday, May 15, like they do every year, thousands of Palestinians mark Nakba Day, the anniversary of their exile, the "catastrophe," which corresponds to the birth of the State of Israel. But some say there is a corresponding catastrophe that must be acknowledged, to signify what certain Jews went through: their forced exodus from Arab countries.

But if Jews took to the street in protest, the apostles of political correctness would have exclaimed: ‘there is only one Nakba, the Palestinians', an undeniable historical fact, yet still denied, 64 years later, by Zionist Israeli political parties!"

Is there only one Nakba and one suffering? Maybe not… No less than 750,000 Arabs had to leave Palestine in 1948, both because they were expelled by the troops of the Haganah, the Jewish army, and because they were fleeing the war. Similarly, a strangely corresponding number of Jews have been forced to leave Arab countries, often losing all of their assets.

But, at its heart, is this controversial page of history still important in 2012? It is, for two reasons.

First, because the anniversary is marked every year by Palestinians. Then, and most importantly, Nakba Day is a reminder of the battle for "the right of return" of Palestinian refugees. This "right" is political and psychological, since everyone knows that it is out of the question that millions of refugees could actually return to Israel. Nevertheless, it officially remains one of the big issues in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The novelty is that the Israeli Foreign Minister decided to dig out the idea of compensating Jews, in short to brandish the "Jewish Nakba," in order to balance the Palestinian Nakba – if we understood well. The very radical Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, a member of the ultranationalist party Israel Beitenou, has taken the lead in the fight.

Instructions have been given to Israel embassies to try and have acknowledged the dire fate of the Jewish refugees. In Jerusalem, a parliamentary commission echoed this: the question of the compensation of the "856,000 Jews' expelled from Arab countries should be part of a final settlement between Israel and Palestinians.

But what is the truth of the "Jewish Nakba"? The more simple solution is asking the two leaders of the group of Israel's New Historians, Benny Morris and Tom Segev.

Morris estimates that the number of Jewish refugees does not exceed "700,000 people", while Segev describes the Knesset's estimation as "very ideological." Both historians confirm that Jews from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Syria and Lebanon had to leave an often ancestral land against their will, that pogroms took place, and that the amount of the spoliation of Oriental Jews represents "billions of dollars."

Jewish refugees?

Benny Morris says that, while the international community may one day agree to compensate Palestinian refugees, there is little chance it would do the same with Jews.

Compensating the Jews would theoretically be "fair," but they "have the reputation of being rich," and above all, Morris insists, "they are not refugees," differently than the 4.8 million Palestinians registered as such by the United Nations. The two historians criticize the ideological approach that seeks to establish a link between the two Nakbas. Jews from Arabic lands have been "absorbed" in Israel (about 60,000), they do not want to go back to their ancestral countries whatsoever, and therefore "the problem of Jewish refugees does not exist," says Morris.

Segev pushes the logic further: "If Israel is the homeland of all Jews, and all the Jews who settle there are going back home because this is what they have been hoping for 2,000 years – this is the base of Zionist ideology – how could they be ‘refugees'?" Morris and Segev underline that, if Arabs of Palestine are at the origin of the conflict, Jewish refugees have been as much victims of Arab countries as they were of… Zionism. In any case, Palestinians cannot be held responsible for the fate of Jews expelled from Arab countries.

So why dust off the issue of the "Jewish Nakba"? "This a test in propaganda politics: ‘You want to talk about the issue of Palestinian refugees? We strike back with Jewish refugees!"," Benny Morris explains.

Curiously enough, the hardliners of Israel Beitenou do not see that such a new initiative, which adds fuel to the issue of Palestinian "the right of return", is counterproductive. This is the reason why, for decades, successive Israeli governments had left "the Jewish Nakba" in a drawer. The issue maintains its historical legitimacy, but, politically, it does not make much sense any more in 2012.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – David Lisbona

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