The world knows all about the estimated 600,000 Arab refugees that resulted from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
By contrast, how many are aware that 850,000 Jews were expelled from or fled Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa from 1948 to 1970?
The need to spread that less-well-known narrative was emphasized Sunday night at Adath Israel Congregation, where about 500 people gathered to hear first-hand accounts of the Jewish exodus 67 years ago and its ongoing implications.
The program took place on the eve of the day – Nov. 30 – that an Israeli law enacted last year set aside as a national day of commemoration for Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. It also fell on Nov. 29, the day in 1947 when the United Nations approved the partition plan for the Palestine Mandate and the creation of a Jewish state.
Millennia-old Jewish communities from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and other nations virtually disappeared in the ensuing hostilities of 1947-1948, the event heard, but provided the nascent Jewish state with more than half its immigration until 1951.
Of the total number of Jewish refugees, about 650,000 went to Israel, noted Sam Azoory, head of the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario, who put the total value of their abandoned property at $100 billion, a figure that was later revised to $300 billion. The value of property left by fleeing or expelled Arab populations in 1948, he said, is $3.9 billion.
Jewish-owned real estate left behind equalled an area four times the size of modern Israel, Azoory added.
Videotaped testimonies of Jews forced from their homes were played, and Prof. Ron Levi of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs recalled the plight of his Egyptian-born parents who met in Israel. Ted Sokolsky, former UJA Federation of Greater Toronto CEO, made a pitch for Sephardi Voices, an organization that collects the oral testimonies of Jews displaced from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran.
The world continues to cling to the “false narrative” that 1948 produced only Arab refugees, stated keynote speaker Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former justice minister and an international human rights advocate.
In 2012, Cotler proposed that the Canadian government officially recognize the plight of Jews who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948. Following hearings, the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international development produced a 17-page report on the issue, and in March of last year, Canada accepted its recommendations, becoming only the second nation in the world after Israel to formally recognize the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
Cotler said the UN bears “express and continuing responsibility for a distorted Middle East narrative.” He noted that since 1948, there have been more than 180 UN resolutions dealing with Palestinian refugees, “yet not one makes any reference to the plight of Jewish refugees.”
As well, there are 10 major UN agencies spending billions on Palestinian refugees but none devoted to Jewish ones. The UN marked all of 2014, Cotler said, as a year of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
“So much for equal justice. It smacks, frankly, of UN apartheid,” Cotler said to applause.
The time has come, “indeed it is long past, to restore the plight of this forgotten, forced exodus to the peace and justice narrative in the Middle East, from which it has been expunged.”
In an “action plan” he proposed, Cotler called on the UN to include mention of Jewish refugees in its annual resolutions on displaced Palestinians, and to establish a document and research centre to tell “the 850,000 untold stories. These voices also have to be heard at the UN.”
Cotler called on the UN Human Rights Council to address the issue of Jewish refugees and on international agencies to compensate them.
He said there is no need for a separate UN agency to deal only with Palestinian refugees. To applause, Cotler called for the transfer of the file from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to the UN High Commission for Refugees.
As well, Arab countries and the Arab League “must acknowledge their double aggression” in launching the 1948 war against Israel and against their Jewish citizens. “The culture of impunity that has underpinned their silence must end.”
All bilateral peace talks between Israel and Palestinians and all frameworks for peace proposed by the United States or the European Union must also include mention of Jewish refugees, Cotler added.
“The exclusion and denial of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries continues to prejudice authentic negotiations between the parties, and a just and lasting peace,” Cotler stated.
DJ Schneeweiss, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, acknowledged that this is “a story never told well, neither to ourselves or the outside world. But the more we tell it, the more impact we can have. If we don’t tell it, who will?”
The program was sponsored by several Jewish organizations, including B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Israeli Consulate, Hillel Ontario, the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario and StandWithUs Canada.