view from central park

Israel fixed its refugee problem

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Danny Danon, Israeli’s ambassador to the UN, wants to introduce a General Assembly resolution on behalf of 850,000 forgotten Jews who were forced to flee such Muslim-ruled countries as Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Morocco. The purpose of the resolution is to balance a one-sided focus on the plight of Palestinian refugees.

The UN body UNRWA has purposefully kept the Palestinian refugees in a stateless status for generations. What began as 700,000 refugees in the 1940s has now been artificially inflated to a refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions, reaching roughly 5.5 million “refugees.”

Meanwhile, the story of the 850,000 Jews who endured and fled Muslim persecution, violence and death in the 1940s, although a complex story, was overall so successfully resolved by Israel that their plight and narrative have been largely ignored.

The harrowing stories of these forgotten refugees, Jews who thrived and flourished in Muslim Arab lands for centuries, have been long suppressed. It is one of 20th century refugee stories, a minority unjustifiably forced out of its host country. Due to the twist in the story — Israel absorbing these Jews into their country — these refugees from Arab lands have long gone unheard. Yet their story is one of people forcibly sent from their homes into exile.

Ephraim Kishon’s famous social satire as depicted in the famous 1960s movie, “Salach Shabati,” illustrates the emotional, logistical and profound psychological turmoil, upheaval and reorientation of the emigration, displacement and resettlement experience. The journey of Salach Shabati, one fictional family, is told through humor. But the real pain and suffering in the alienating process of arriving in Israel from persecution and forced abandonment of former homes was quite real. It the story of Israel absorbing the “other” Jew, the non-Ashkenazi non-European Jew, families who came from poverty and persecution in Muslim Arab lands. The resultant clash of cultures in Israel, the divisions between the dominant European Jewish coloration of Israel and the perceived primitive Jews from Arab lands, have not been simple to navigate. To this day, despite much progress and repair, underlying tensions persist.

Forced exile, limbo statelessness, displacement and resettlement, have been the destiny of the Jew throughout history. The curse of Cain was to be a “na ve-nad,” a restless wanderer, simultaneously marked with the sign of Cain as a protection from G-d. The Jewish people, like Cain, would live as a persecuted minority and endure and outlive every other nation, even great nations. The Jewish people’s destiny to live on in purpose and perpetuity is striking and humbling.

But the twists and turns of this gift of eternal survival could not be more raw, more painful, more defined by loss and pain. The 850,000 refugees from Arab lands are a part of that story of exile and return, a story unheard on the international stage.

In her book, “The Man in the Sharkskin Suit,” Lucette Lagnado details a charming childhood in Egypt and the anguish and complexity of her family’s change of status from comfortable middle class Egyptians to displaced refugees. Her story is just one of the 850,000.

In large part, the reason why the story of these Jewish refugees from Arab countries has mostly flown under the radar is the success of young, fragile, nascent Israel in absorbing and caring for these fellow Jews.

While the process was far from perfect and painfully flawed, replete with tragic and even some incomprehensibly malevolent points — for example, the kidnapping of Yemenite children — ultimately Israel did not turn a blind eye to their brethren, did not leave them hanging in the wind waiting for a UN body to do something with them. These Jewish refugees didn’t remain refugees for long, let alone artificially pass the refugee status on from generation to generation, as UNRWA scandalously does with Palestinians. Israel cared enough and was responsible. It did something to solve the problem.

And the refugees themselves rose above incredible hardships and chose to join the story of developing Israel, looking ahead, building lives and, ultimately, a nation.

The symbolism of balancing the Palestinian refugee narrative with the counter-narrative of Jewish refugees from Muslim Arab lands is important. History’s lopsided presentation ought to be repaired.

The effects of two refugee narratives, Arab and Jewish, ought to be presented. Knowing that the massive Jewish refugee crisis has long been resolved only serves to emphasize the Palestinian choice to remain refugees for generations.

Copyright Intermountain Jewish News

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