UN Conference Calls for Attention to Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Ronald S. Lauder (left), President of the World Jewish Congress, and Silvan Shalom, Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water, and Minister of Regional Cooperation, at a conference at the U.N. on the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.(Photo: World Jewish Congress.)
Ronald S. Lauder (left), President of the World Jewish Congress, and Silvan Shalom, Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water, and Minister of Regional Cooperation, at a conference at the U.N. on the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.(Photo: World Jewish Congress.)

“The Untold Story of the Middle East: Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” conference was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York last week.  Hosted by the World Jewish Congress, the conference aimed at raising awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, a problem generally overlooked by the public.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, pointed out that since 1947, the UN have passed 687 resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including 111 which deal specifically with Palestinian refugees.

“And yet, there is not one resolution that says a single word about Jewish refugees. This is a chapter in the chronicles of history which seems to have fallen off the shelf. They are the UN’s forgotten refugees.

“By making the Palestinians the poster children for international victimhood, the Arab states believe they hold a permanent trump card to defame and pressure Israel,” Prosor said.

“Sixty-five years, and the Arab states have never yet been held accountable for the crimes that they committed.

“We cannot and will not allow the history of the Jewish refugees to be swept under the Persian rug.”

Israeli Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom, whose grandfather was once the leader of the Jewish community of Gabes, Tunisia, said, “Over the last 65 years, the U.N. and its agencies have spent tens of billions of dollars on Palestinian refugees, but not a cent on Jewish refugees.”  Shalom fled Tunisia himself in 1959, after the government there began passing anti-Jewish laws.  He spoke of recent attacks on Jewish institutions, such as the burning of the Jobar synagogue near Damascus, as well as the desolation of once-thriving communities in Yemen and Iraq.

In addition to community leaders, such as Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress; and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, several refugees spoke at the conference.  One, Sylvain Abitbol, originally from Morocco, is now Canadian and co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, and considers himself “one of the lucky ones.”  Refugees spoke of their experiences in their homelands and the circumstances that forced them to flee.

Linda Menuchin, originally of Iraq, said, “My father was so fond of Iraq. I don’t know if he could ever imagine that Iraq would betray him the way it did.”

Among the topics raised at the conference, concern was expressed for the Iraqi Jewish Archive, a collection of artifacts recovered from the basement of the Iraqi intelligence ministry and restored by the U.S. government that are currently on display in Washington, DC.  The collection, which was restored through the enormous efforts and contributions of several agencies, is set to be returned to Iraq, where an uncertain fate awaits, as many suspect it will be mistreated.  This despite the belief that the collection was stolen from the Jewish community in the first place.

“We urge our government not to send them back to an uncertain fate in Iraq, where hundreds of holy Torah scrolls remain in disuse and decay,” Hoenlein said.  42 Jewish groups signed the statement expressing the sentiment.

Not all is dismal, however; WJC President Lauder expressed his appreciation for Canada, whose parliament recently recommended that the country officially recognize and encourage the need for justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries as part of any resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“We hope that all countries follow Canada’s lead,” Lauder said.

There are approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands.  In the words of Egyptian refugee Levana Zamir, Israel is  “a huge refugee camp, but a prosperous one.”