Sunday, January 06, 2008

Irwin Cotler on the Middle Eastern Jews & the Arab-Israeli conflict - Overcoming a historic optical illusion (contd.)

First, some background. As I pointed out in 2006 (in "A historic optical illusion - Israel & the invisible Middle Eastern Jews"), it is widely believed that
the creation of Israel involve[d] "creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians)" [as Richard Cohen once inaccurately put it....] This is a common view, but it happens to be based on a fundamental misconception. The way history actually turned out, what was created was not exclusively, or even primarily, "a nation of European Jews," but primarily a nation of Middle Eastern Jews, or Mizrahim. (No, that wasn't the original plan back in the late 19th century, but Hitler derailed the original plan by murdering most of the European Jews.)

For most of the history of Israel, the majority of Israeli Jews have been Jewish refugees from the Islamic Middle East--the Arab world and Iran--and their descendants. In most cases, they came from Jewish communities whose presence in the Middle East long pre-dated the coming of Islam. As it happens, the number of Jews who fled or were expelled from the Arab world & Iran in the aftermath of 1948 is roughly equivalent to the number of Arabs who fled or were expelled from what became Israel. With the arrival of the Russian Jews in the 1990s, the Mizrahim for first time ceased to be the clear majority of Israeli Jews, and now there may even be a slight Ashkenazi majority--but given relative birth rates, this situation is probably temporary.

To look at it from the other direction, the overwhelming majority of the Middle Eastern Jews wound up in Israel, whereas most of the European Jews did not wind up in Israel--more of them went to the US and elsewhere (or were murdered). In short, the Zionist movement may have intended Israel to be primarily a refuge for the European Jews, but that's not what actually happened. Instead, Israel has turned out to be primarily a refuge for the Middle Eastern Jews--and the one place in the Middle East where they have some degree of self-determination. [....]
To elaborate a bit (as I did in an earlier discussion):
[....] in the wake of the 1948 war somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries (the numbers are very approximate, but they happen to be fairly similar to the number of Arabs who fled or were expelled from what became Israel)--some in the immediate aftermath, and more over the decades that followed. Most of them wound up in Israel. These Middle Eastern Jews are often referred to as Sephardim, but this is a bit imprecise, since technically "Sephardim" include only Jews who can trace their lineage back to pre-1492 Spain ("Sepharad" in Ladino). It wouldn't include, for example, many of the Jews from Iran and Iraq (and the Iraqi Jewish community, whose presence in Mesopotamia went back more than two millennia, once numbered over 120,000). The most inclusive term is "Mizrahim" (roughly, "Eastern").

The best historical analogy here is the (partly violent, partly negotiated) "exchange of populations" between Greece and the new post-Ottoman Turkish state after the 1922-23 Greco-Turkish war. Over a million Greeks fled or were expelled from Anatolia, which became the new Turkish nation-state. (The Aegean coast of Anatolia, which had been part of the Greek world for over 2500 years, was almost completely emptied of Greeks.) In the other direction (as Greeks sometimes like to forget) several hundred thousand "Turks" (a generic term that included various Muslim ethnic groups) fled or were expelled from Greece to Turkey. In the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there was a roughly analogous "exchange of populations" between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.  [All that is part of a larger pattern of post-imperial ethnic simplification that has played itself out repeatedly and pervasively, over the course of the past century, in the whole belt of countries running from the Baltic to the Middle East and North Africa that mostly used to be included in the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires. For a brief addendum, see here.]  (The difference is that, a half-century after 1923, none of these Greeks and Turks were still stateless "refugees" living in refugee camps.)

From the early 1950s through the arrival of the Russian Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1990s (i.e., for most of the history of Israel), the majority of Israeli Jews were not Ashkenazim, but Mizrahim--i.e., Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries and their descendants. [....] The Mizrahim still constitute about half of Israeli Jews now. [....]

Given the importance of the Mizrahim in these and other respects, it is remarkable how little role they play in the predominant historical/ideological narratives about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is clear enough why they have been largely ignored or marginalized by the Arab side and their supporters, who have focused on the "European" dimension of Israel's Jewish immigration and have been understandably inclined to equate "refugees" with "Palestinian refugees." What is more surprising is that they have played such a minimal role in the corresponding narratives from the Israeli side, whether from the peace camp or from their opponents. [....]
(For some further discussion of these issues, see Shalom Lappin's "Avoiding Distortions of History," Joseph Braude's "The Jewish Refugee Problem," and Albert Memmi's powerful mixture of historical analysis and autobiographical reflection, "Who is an Arab Jew?".)

=> Irwin Cotler, a Canadian Member of Parliament, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and a major figure in international rights law, correctly insists in a recent article (below) that
The time has come to rectify this historical injustice, and to restore the "forgotten exodus" to the Middle East narrative.

Remedies for victim refugee groups -- including rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress -- must now be invoked for Jews displaced from Arab countries, as mandated under human rights and humanitarian law. In particular, each of the Arab countries and the League of Arab States must acknowledge their role in the perpetration of human rights violations against their respective Jewish nationals.

Further, the peace plan currently being promoted by the Arab League should incorporate the question of Jewish refugees from Arab countries as part of its narrative for an Israeli-Arab peace, just as the Israeli narrative now incorporates the issue of Palestinian refugees in its vision.

On the international level, the UN General Assembly should include references to Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in its resolutions. The UN Human Rights Council should do likewise. [....]

Where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace -- which is what we all seek.
(This piece was also posted on the Engage website.) Read the rest below.

=> You can also see Cotler discussing these issues in an interview HERE:



Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

=========================
National Post (Canada)
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The Forgotten Exodus
Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler is an MP and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada (2003-2006). He is a professor of Law at McGill University and an international human rights lawyer who acted as counsel to both Israeli and Palestinian NGOs.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the UN Partition Resolution of Nov. 29, 1947. It is sometimes forgotten that this was the first ever blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution. Regrettably, while Jewish leaders accepted the resolution, Arab leaders did not, and by their own acknowledgement, declared war on the nascent Jewish state.

Had the Partition Resolution been accepted, there would have been no Arab-Israeli war, no refugees and none of the pain of these last 60 years. Annapolis could now be the site of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Yet the revisionist Mid-East narrative continues to hold that there was only one victim population, Palestinian refugees, and that Israel was responsible for the Palestinian naqba (catastrophe) of 1947.

The result was that the pain and plight of 850,000 Jews uprooted and displaced from Arab countries -- the forgotten exodus -- has been expunged from the historical narrative these past 60 years. Moreover, the revisionist narrative has not only eclipsed the forgotten exodus, but denies that it was also a forced exodus, for the Arab countries not only went to war to extinguish the fledgling Jewish state, but also targeted the Jewish nationals living in their respective countries. The United Nations is preparing, yet again, to commemorate the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on this 60th anniversary of the UN Partition Resolution, but will ignore the plight of Jewish refugees.

Indeed, evidence contained in a recent report, Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights And Redress [See HERE --JW], documents for the first time a pattern of state-sanctioned repression and persecution in Arab countries -- including Nuremberg-like laws -- that targeted Jews, and resulted in denationalization, forced expulsions, illegal sequestration of property, arbitrary arrest and detention and the like.

These massive human rights violations were reflective of a collusive blueprint, as embodied in the Draft Law of the Political Committee of the League of Arab States. This is a story that has not been heard. It is a truth that must now be acknowledged.

The UN also bears express responsibility for this distorted narrative. Since 1947, there have been 126 UN resolutions that have specifically dealt with the Palestinian refugee plight. Not one of these resolutions makes any reference to the plight of the 850,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries. Nor have any of the Arab countries involved expressed any acknowledgement, let alone regret. What, then, is to be done?

The time has come to rectify this historical injustice, and to restore the "forgotten exodus" to the Middle East narrative.

Remedies for victim refugee groups -- including rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress -- must now be invoked for Jews displaced from Arab countries, as mandated under human rights and humanitarian law. In particular, each of the Arab countries and the League of Arab States must acknowledge their role in the perpetration of human rights violations against their respective Jewish nationals.

Further, the peace plan currently being promoted by the Arab League should incorporate the question of Jewish refugees from Arab countries as part of its narrative for an Israeli-Arab peace, just as the Israeli narrative now incorporates the issue of Palestinian refugees in its vision.

On the international level, the UN General Assembly should include references to Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in its resolutions. The UN Human Rights Council should do likewise.

The annual Nov. 29th commemoration by the United Nations of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People should be transformed into an International Day of Solidarity for a Two-State Solution, including solidarity with all refugees created by the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Furthermore, any bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations -- such as those being promoted this week in Annapolis, which one hopes will presage a just and lasting peace -- should include Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in a joinder of discussion.

Where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace -- which is what we all seek.

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