Why Remembering Jewish Refugees Matters

This year is International Solidarity Year with the Palestinian people. And this week was the 67th Anniversary of the Partition Plan, which proposed a Jewish and an Arab state in western Palestine. While the UN prepares to re-issue its routine condemnations of Israel, Jewish organisations worldwide joined the Israeli government in marking a different commemoration on November 30.

This is the date in 1947 when anti-Jewish riots broke out in Syria, and soon after in Bahrain and Aden. Shops were looted, synagogues and schools were burnt down and scores of Jews died. Violence soon spread across the Arab world. Within a few years, the majority of the Arab world's million-strong Jewish population had fled.

The violence went hand-in-hand with state sanctioned persecution. In an atmosphere of increasing antisemitism, Jews were fired from their jobs, banned from travelling and entering universities, stripped of their citizenship and dispossessed of their property.

Thus the Arab-Israeli conflict created not one, but two sets of refugees.

The story of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands is little known, but has huge repercussions for today. No understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict is complete without taking into account the fact that half of all Israeli Jews are descended from, or are themselves, Jewish refugees from Arab or Muslim lands.

The Day of Remembrance will restore the narrative of 'eastern' Jews to mainstream Jewish history. But first and foremost, it will be about plugging a gaping hole in the Israeli education system.

The parliamentarian who pushed through the law, Shimon Ohayon, a former schoolmaster, puts it as follows: "Every Israeli child learns about the Kishinev pogrom, but has anyone heard about the Farhud in Iraq? The education system teaches about the first exodus from Europe, while the second exodus -- the one from Islamic countries -- is missing from textbooks."

It's not enough to promote educational and political awareness at home. After years of neglect the Israeli government has woken up to the need to raise the issue in American and international diplomatic fora.

The UN has an especially shameful record of neglect when it comes to Jewish refugees. Not a single resolution concerns Jewish refugees, whereas over 170 resolutions deal with Palestinian refugees.

The Israeli government is taking the fight to the heart of the problem -- and a commemorative event was planned for the UN building in New York.

Ohayon frankly admits that Jewish refugees are a weapon in the fight against Israel's delegitimization. "This is a vital part of our fight against those internally and externally who delegitimize our presence here and claim we are somehow foreign to the region."

A key strategy of the Palestinian and Arab campaign has been to portray Israel as a colonial interloper in a Muslim-Arab region. But Jews lived continuously in the Islamic world for thousands of years, just as they did in the land that is now Israel.

Although they did not remain refugees for long, the 'ethnic cleansing' and mass dispossession of Jewish refugees remain an injustice still to be addressed.

The struggle for recognition and redress will be greatly aided by the 30th November commemoration.

As the Canadian ex-Justice minister and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler has said: "Without remembrance there will be no justice, without justice no peace, and without peace, no reconciliation."