Geopolitics

Israel's Focus On Jewish Refugees Of Arab Lands Helps Counter Palestinian Claims

Jewish refugees from Libya
Jewish refugees from Libya
Serge Dumont

TEL AVIV - A small synagogue nestles in a dead-end street near the ocean promenade in Tel Aviv. The synagogue, used by Jews from Aleppo, Syria, was crowded last week for prayer services on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

As in the other 10,500 places of worship in Israel, the congregation recited a special prayer imploring God to spare their country the pain of a war with Iran. But at the end of the service, most of these Syrian Jews refused to talk about their native land.

"What’s the point?" asked Youssef Karras, 60, son of a well-known jeweler of Aleppo. "My family and I suffered for years before being able to leave with just a small suitcase and a few jewels hidden in my mother's corset lining. Why would you expect me to be nostalgic?"

Karras continues: "Many of us miss our youth, but not the place where we were born, because Jews were never accepted in Arab countries. Life was not rosy there, and (our) status was inferior to that of Muslims."

Danny Ayalon, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, has chosen this period of the Jewish High Holidays to launch a new campaign, named "I Am A Refugee," whose goal is to raise international awareness of the fate of the Jews who have fled Arab countries since 1948, when Israel was created, with major exoduses around the 1956 war in the Sinai, and the Six-Day War in 1967.

How many Mizrahim (“Eastern Jews”) are there? Estimates vary from 750,000 to one million. Over the years, about 275,000 have emigrated from Morocco, 145,000 from Algeria, 75,000 from Egypt, 70,000 from Tunisia, 35,000 from Syria and 5,000 from Lebanon. Several hundreds of other Mizrahim have been expelled from Kuwait and the neighboring emirates.

Pogroms took place in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, among others. In 1948, Jews of Egypt fleeing the violence lost their citizenship. In one day, they became stateless refugees, and their possessions were nationalized when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1952.

Today, no more than 5,000 Jews still reside in Arab countries, including 1,000 in Tunisia and 300 in Yemen. The Jewish community in Aden, Yemen who are descendants from warrior tribes mentioned in the Koran, has been reduced to a small museum on the ground floor of a synagogue in Tel Aviv, with a congregation of a dozen old men.

The most recent exodus of Arab Jews was in 1992, when Hafez el-Assad, father of the current Syrian dictator, authorized the last Jews still living in Syria to flee through Turkey. This measure was negotiated in secret by emissaries of the American Jewish community, advised by the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries.

However, during the 1980s, the grand synagogue of Beirut was renovated at great expense. Egypt, too, authorized the renovation of all 22 Jewish places of worship left in Egypt. Sha'ar Hashamayim (the Gate of Heaven), the best-known synagogue in Cairo, also benefited from major work, financed by Swiss sponsors. But except for a few tourists, these places are almost empty.

Gathering testimonies and documents

In any case, at the beginning of this month, Israeli diplomats abroad received instructions to bring up the "I am a refugee" campaign at every opportunity, and to do their best to call attention to the subject. According to sources close to Ayalon and to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the campaign will run for several years, along with the support of the World Jewish Congress and other associations active in the U.S.

A website has been set up to create support for the Mizrahim, and to collect their stories. A "Day of Jewish Refugees" is also being established.

The Israeli Minister for Senior Citizens has been gathering documents and mementos since 2009. According to Deputy Minister Léa Nass , more than 20,000 sources of all kinds have already been logged. The goal is to create a museum on the lines of Yad Vashem, which itself perpetuates the memory of victims of the Holocaust.

Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a prominent figure of Israel's far right party under Lieberman, did not wake up one morning and discover the Mizrahim. He is the descendant of Algerian Jews and it is not a new subject for him. In 1950, the UN was already looking at the question of "Jewish refugees." In 1967, the Knesset (Israel's legislature) voted a resolution on the refugee problem, after several debates. The World Jewish Congress organized two international conferences during the 1990s. Moreover, several books and a documentary film called "The Silent Exodus" have long been available.

The Israeli government, in fact, has decided to pursue this issue now for purely tactical reasons. It wants to counteract the Palestinian Authority's diplomatic offensive, starting on September 27 at the United Nations General Assembly. The Palestinians are hoping to make progress toward their goal of obtaining status as a non-member state of the UN.

Israel does not want to leave the field to the Palestinians, and has therefore come out with the refugee issue, to emphasize that Palestinians are not the only ones suffering from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, which is one of the organizations spearheading the campaign, along with WOJAC, says that the amount of property that was stolen from Jews or that Jews had to abandon amounts to about $6 billion, whereas the value of Palestinians' possessions would be less than $3.9 million (both sums valued in 2007).

The JJAC also claims that the losses Palestinian refugees suffered in 1948 and 1967 (in the Six-Day War) were compensated by donations from the international community, including the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, while uprooted Jews were "abandoned."

With a little help from the diaspora

In reality, the picture is less clear. Indeed, unlike the Palestinians, who were installed in camps in nearby countries with limited freedom, the Mizrahim quickly found ways to bounce back. Two-thirds of them immigrated to Israel, where they received assistance, especially from charity organizations funded by the Jewish diaspora. The others have been able to start a new life in Europe (France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy), South America (Brazil), Canada or the United States, with the aid of local Jewish communities.

"The problem of Jews from the Arab countries is the other side of the Palestinian refugee question," Danny Ayalon has said repeatedly. "In 2010, the Knesset passed a law obliging the Israeli government to include the issue in all future talks, and we will be doing that. Palestinians are asking for financial compensation for their refugees? Well then, we will too. The bill will be expensive." According to him, peace negotiations with the Palestinians can be summed up as bargaining between horse traders.

In Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Algeria, among other countries, the possessions of Jews who emigrated have usually been acquired by those close to the ruling regimes. Individual dispossessed owners who have tried to get their belongings back have always been met with flat-out refusals. It was 2005 before an Arab country took the initiative of discussing compensation for its former citizens. The move came from the Libyan foreign ministry, which through an Israeli-Arab Knesset member contacted Meir Kahlon, president of the Organization of Libyan Jews in exile.

Kahlon, who emigrated to Israel in 1950, subsequently went to Jordan and secretly met an emissary of Muammar Gaddafi. Naïvely, no doubt, he thought he was beginning negotiations for compensating Libyan Jews directly for their expulsion and expropriation in 1969, after a coup d"état by "the Guide," but discussions took an unexpected turn. Instead of compensation, the Libyan leader offered to create a political party, financed by Libya, to promote Gaddafi's ideas in the Knesset.

According to Meir Kahlon, Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam took part remotely in the discussions, which ended with no results in 2007. This failure did not keep the Guide's entourage from contacting Israel to try to buy weapons, as the regime neared its end. At the time, to woo Jerusalem, the Libyans also offered to pay compensation to Jews expelled from Libya. But they received a stinging rejection.

Soon after Gaddafi's death last October, representatives of Libyan Jews made contact with the new regime in Tripoli to obtain the right to visit the places of their childhood and pray at their ancestors’ tombs. Tripoli told them that they would be risking their lives if they tried such a thing. One of them, visiting on his British passport, was arrested during a short trip to Tripoli. Since then, he swears that he "understood the lesson."

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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