Israeli peace activist Ada Aharoni, left, said that informing people about the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries decades ago can be used as a tool to help ease tensions on campuses between Jewish and pro-Palestinian students.
Aharoni, an Israeli professor, poet, author of 27 books and the founder of the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace (IFLAC), was in Toronto last week to take part in the inaugural Canadian Academic Friends of Israel conference.
The March 8-9 conference, titled Emerging Trends in Anti-Semitism and Campus Discourse, was held at the University of Toronto and chaired by Ed Morgan, a U of T law professor.
The event, which featured speakers such as Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Miriam Ziv, was attended by some 120 professors, students and Jewish leaders.
Some of the issues explored included anti-Jewishness that may be disguised as anti-Zionism, as well as emerging narratives that affect campus communities and academic freedom, and the Zionist ideology itself.
Aharoni has taught at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the University of Haifa and founded IFLAC in 1999 to spread the culture of peace and build bridges between nations. She spoke at the conference about the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries and shared her story about being a Jewish refugee from Egypt.
“I presented it as a tool for students to be able to empower them, so when they hear that Palestinians were thrown out [of Israel], they’ll know there were two migrations, not only one, in the mid-20th century,” Aharoni said.
She said that in 1948, about 650,000 Palestinians fled Israel, while about 900,000 Jews from neighbouring Arab countries either fled or were thrown out of their homes and forced to leave all their possessions behind.
“I spoke about ethnic cleansing, because the Palestinians keep telling you about there was an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel, and it’s not true. There was an ethnic cleansing of Jews in the Middle East. So few are left in those Arab countries,” Aharoni said.
“Out of the 100,000 Jews in 1948, only 40 Jews are left in all of Egypt.”
She urged the students at the conference to share this information with their peers, because, based on a case study she conducted when she was teaching at Penn State University, this information can help change the minds of people who have anti-Israel views.
She said she was teaching a class made up of North American, Israeli, Arab and Palestinian students, and she assigned a research paper that had to contain only objective facts and statistics about the fate of Jews from Arab countries.
“My goal was to find out if their opinions [about the Arab-Israeli conflict] would be changed,” Aharoni said.
“By the last lesson, Palestinian students stood up and said… ‘We checked all your statistics, and you know what, you’re right… How come you Jews, who are supposed to be wise and intelligent, have kept all these facts in your drawers for more than 60 years?’” she recalled.
“I was so pleased, because my students understood what all the governments of Israel have never understood – that this [information] is really a tool.”
She said her Palestinian students said this information made them feel like they weren’t the only underdogs.
Aharoni said they told her that, “‘Until now, we’ve been told the Nazis killed six million Jews and that’s why you came and took our country. This has nothing to do with us – go to Germany. But when you come and tell us that half the citizens of Israel are Jews from Arab countries, that is a different story – we are responsible for what happened.’
“In Islamic philosophy, to be able to have peace, real peace, the side that has done wrong has to pay something concrete, and [the Palestinian students said] ‘You have already paid when you were robbed of all your property in the Arab countries.’”
Aharoni recalled reading a poem she wrote titled The Second Exodus at a lecture she gave at the Penn State Hillel with both Jewish and Palestinian students in attendance.
The poem was about her father, who died of a heart attack after he found out that all his property, money and assets – even money he had set aside in a Swiss bank – had been confiscated by the Egyptian government.
“Two Palestinian students wearing keffiyot had tears in their eyes, and one of them said, ‘That is exactly what happened to my father.’ Suddenly we were on the same side. We were not enemies anymore. We were refugees who had suffered from the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Aharoni said that there is a lot of Jewish history that people are simply unaware of, and becoming informed can help nations better understand each other and help the peace process along.
“Until now, we have been doing hasbara to the Americans, the Canadians, to the French, but not to the Arabs, and they are the ones who should listen to us. It’s not with you that we want to make peace. We want to make peace with them,” she said.
“Changing someone’s attitude from hatred to understanding and harmony and co-operation is something that is happening all the time. But to be able to speak about it, you have to know.”