Jewish Refugee Day: bring it on!
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Last week the Babylonian Heritage Centre at Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv welcomed a distinguished guest: Deputy Foreign minister Danny Ayalon came to deliver an address on the 71st anniversary of the Farhud.
This appalling pogrom, incited by neo-Nazis on 1 and 2 June 1941, the festival of Shavuot (the word Farhud means Violent Dispossession), claimed the lives of at least 137 Jews, injuring 1,000 and wrecking and looting 900 Jewish homes. It shook the 2,600-year-old community to the core: Iraq’s Jews would never recover their self-confidence. Within 10 years, 80 percent of the Iraqi-Jewish community had fled to Israel as refugees.
Danny Ayalon believes that a date as near to the Shavuot pogrom as possible should be declared Jewish Refugee Day. He has already submitted a proposal for a memorial day to Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, who heads the Knesset’s symbols and rituals committee.
The new memorial day would, he says, correct a historical injustice by finally recognizing the 850,000 Jewish refugees forced to leave their homes in Arab countries. Such recognition will have unavoidable political ramifications, by spotlighting a de facto, irreversible exchange of Jewish and Palestinian refugees between Israel and the Arab world. It goes hand in hand with another campaign to force the US government to distinguish between genuine Palestinian refugees on the one hand and their millions of descendants on the other.
In a conflict where symbolism has been ruthlessly exploited by the Palestinian side – from keffiyehs to keys to special commemorations like Land Day and Nakba Day – Ayalon’s initiative will have powerful resonance. Schools in Israel will be encouraged to teach the neglected history of pre-Islamic, millenarian Jewish communities native to the Middle East and North Africa, while diaspora groups all over the world will be invited to mark the occasion with films, lectures or exhibitions.
If the Jewish Refugee Day becomes an integral part of the Jewish calendar, the Israeli government will have come full circle. In the 1950s it insisted that Jews from Arab countries were Zionist immigrants returning to their homeland. A memorial day for displaced Jews will place the focus on the ‘push’ factors: Jews are being portrayed not as immigrants but as refugees, forced out against their will by violence and state-sanctioned persecution.
The idea of a memorial day is not new: it has been mooted by the Egyptian-born professor Ada Aharoni for some years now.
“A special day to mark ‘the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries’ can not only spread the word in Israel and abroad, but also leverage the subject to promote understanding and reconciliation between two peoples, and repel the worldwide wave of antisemitism”, she writes. “It also might lead researchers, sociologists, historians, media people and educators to research and disseminate information on the displacement of Jews from Arab countries in order to register it as an integral part of the general Jewish heritage and an important, but so far neglected, aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Professor Aharoni has been toying with a ‘Jewish Nakba Day’ to coincide with Palestinian Nakba Day on 15 May. But many have not been comfortable with the association with the ‘Nakba’, a euphemism for the failed Arab genocide of the Jews.
Some have suggested that Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be remembered at Passover – a uniquely Jewish commemoration of oppression and freedom. Egyptian Jews in particular can point to the irony of their Second Exodus in modern times.
But Ayalon’s idea of tying a nationwide memorial day to the Farhud is a shrewd one: this is a catastrophe that occurred seven years before Israel came into being. It cannot be rationalised as a backlash to the creation of the Jewish state. It is often argued that the Palestinians were not responsible for the plight of the Jews. In the case of the Farhud, the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who spent two years in Baghdad before eventually joining Hitler in Berlin, had a direct hand in making the Farhud happen, by whipping up frenzied Jew-hatred in Iraq. The Farhud is a tragic example of unprovoked antisemitism. Its legacy of oppression and intolerance is still with us today.
What Jewish Refugee Day should not become, however, is an occasion for mourning. The new memorial day should also be an occasion for Jews from Arab countries to celebrate the freedoms and rights they now enjoy in Israel and the West. The message should come through loud and clear that Jews have no wish to go back to the dangerous and inhospitable Arab lands of their birth.