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."