Aug 14 2011

Tragedy Shrouded in Silence

A Jewish refugee from Iraq (source: The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center)

The pages are yellowing, nearly disintegrated. For decades they have lain forgotten, stuffed into crates piled high in the archives of Israel’s Ministry of Justice. No one reads them; no one even shows interest. Even now, nearly sixty years after the painful experiences of loss and flight they recount, they still wait for their stories to be told.

In one, a Jewish woman from Alexandria describes her youth in Egypt:

After the [1948] war broke out, my mother was arrested in her ninth month of pregnancy, and they wanted to slaughter her; they threatened her with bayonets and abused her…. One evening a mob came to kill our family with sticks and anything they could lay their hands on, because they heard we were Jews. The gatekeeper swore to them that we were Italian, and so they only cursed us, surrounding my parents, my brothers, and myself, only a small baby. The next day my parents ran away, leaving everything—pension, work, and home—behind.

On another page, Mordechai Karo, also Egyptian-born, testifies about an explosive device planted in a Jewish neighborhood in Cairo in the summer of 1948: “The tremendous explosion killed and injured scores of Jews in the neighborhood. One of these casualties was my young daughter Aliza.”

Thousands of pages of similar testimony have been collecting dust in various government offices since the 1950s. Under the bureaucratic heading “Registry of the Claims of Jews from Arab Lands,” they tell of lives cut short, of individuals and entire families who found themselves suddenly homeless, persecuted, humiliated. Together they relate a tragic chapter in the history of modern Jewry, a chain of traumatic events that signaled the end of a once-glorious diaspora.

Yet for all its historical import, this chapter has been largely repressed, scarcely leaving a mark on Israel’s collective memory. The media seldom mentioned it then, and rarely do so today. Schools do not devote comprehensive curricula to it, and academia pays it little attention. Indeed, in the past decade only one doctoral dissertation was written on the devastation of Jewish communities in Arab countries. Furthermore, of all the parties represented in Israel’s Knesset, not one has included in its platform an explicit demand for the restitution of these Jews’ property, or the recognition of their violated rights.

This dismissive attitude toward one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the Jewish people should be cause for astonishment. After all, the heritage of Jews from Muslim lands is enjoying something of a renaissance today, both in academic circles and within the general public. Yet not even the outspoken proponents of this heritage are particularly eager to discuss the historical circumstances under which their deep roots in the Arab world were severed. This prolonged silence becomes even more incomprehensible when we take into account the centrality of the refugee problem to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Palestinians and their advocates repeatedly emphasize the need to correct the historic injustice done to the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who left or were expelled from their lands and dispossessed of their properties in the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”), Israel’s international representatives and spokespeople have refrained from highlighting the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fell victim to systematic persecution and attacks throughout the Middle East and Maghreb at the same time.

How to explain this omission? The answer, as we will see, is neither simple nor easy to digest. It involves a number of motives, some of them pragmatic and some ideological, all of which deserve close scrutiny. Our investigation will raise difficult questions, concerning not only various Israeli governments’ policies in both the past and the present, but also the conceptual foundations of the Jewish state itself. And yet, before we can address these sensitive topics, we must recall certain facts that have been buried for too long in dusty ministerial archives.

(Read here the whole article, or here in PDF format).

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May 7 2011

What really bothers London?

How come the UK is more concerned with issues of human rights in Israel, than in Syria, Libya or Egypt?

Cairo, February 2011

The British Foreign Office published at the end of March its annual Human Rights and Democracy report for 2010. One could have imagined that due to the tremendous ongoing turmoil in the Arab world, Britain would prioritize promoting human rights issues exactly there. The whole world’s eyes are fixated since last December not only on the cruel brutality of Arab autocratic regimes facing huge demonstrations, but also on the decades-long systemic violations of basic human rights that sent so many millions of people to the streets in the first place.

But it seems that the British Foreign Office has a different agenda. (more…)

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Mar 3 2011

Only one side of the story

The email in my inbox immediately piqued my interest.

It was a message from Paideia, The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, which was putting together a delegation of foreign journalists for a week-long tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. They were looking for an Israeli-based journalist to join the group.

Kids with a Palestinian flag

Kids with a Palestinian flag (source: Whewes)

I thought it would be interesting, and so I found myself about a month ago on a tour with 12 journalists: 9 from Sweden (4 of them Jewish and one Palestinian who’d emigrated from Syria), one from Russia, one from Turkey and one from Germany. The printed media, radio and television were all represented. The first three days were devoted to a seminar at “Yad Vashem”, the holocaust memorial museum. One day was spent in Hebron, another in Bethlehem, another in Tel Aviv and another in Sderot.

I quickly felt that the experience was a microcosm of everything that goes on between Israelis, Palestinians and agents of all nationalities in the international arena. I found the criticism, the accusations and the dynamics within the group to be marred with harsh intellectual violence. Naturally, I couldn’t respond and react to everything, but I put my thoughts and impressions down in writing. I am now publishing a diary of sorts for those days, which differs in essence from the format of a straightforward journalistic account, yet is of just as much value, in my opinion. (more…)

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Dec 6 2010

Israel’s catastrophic fire

An unprecedented ferocious wildfire – causing death, destruction and heavy losses – was raging since Thursday morning through Mount Carmel in northern Israel, threatening to reach the southern outskirts of the country’s third largest city, Haifa. Despite the rapid arrival of more than 30 fire-fighting aircrafts from all around the world, Israeli security forces have managed only last night to contain what seems to be the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.

Smoke over Haifa University (photo: Hila Shaked)

Two teenage brothers are under arrest on suspicion of negligent conduct that police say was responsible for the blaze. The fire has left 12,000 acres of burnt forest, and damaged five million trees, with the government estimating immediate losses at $70m (€52m). (more…)

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Nov 15 2010

“UNRWA’s existence is a failure”

John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in Gaza (photo: Heinrich Böll Foundation)

John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in Gaza (photo: Heinrich Böll Foundation)

The Israeli negative view of UNRWA is perfectly understandable. Palestinians will not achieve their rights through illegal activities, such as firing rockets into Israel. UNRWA shouldn’t exist after so many years – and due to history, people in Gaza have to prove to their neighbors that they are truly committed to peace.

These are some of the most interesting remarks that John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in Gaza, made in a special interview. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees’ (UNRWA) mission is to provide welfare and education services to 4.8 million people defined by it (as of today) as refugees – in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. (more…)

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