Eye on Future, French Group Works for Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands
When the International Court of Justice ruled in July that Israel’s West Bank security barrier was illegal, Yves-Victor Kamami learned a valuable lesson. “The lesson of the security barrier is that everything is now an issue for the courts,” Kamami told JTA in an interview. “There will come a point when the permanent borders of Israel are settled and then the world will move on to the issue of the refugees. We have to be ready for that.” A former president of Bnai Brith France and an executive member of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, Kamami recently set up the International Federation of Jewish Refugees From Muslim-Arab Countries. The organization aims to raise international awareness about the hundreds of thousands of Jews who left Arab countries from 1948 onwards following the creation of the State of Israel. It will do so by collecting eyewitness accounts of Jewish life in these countries from emigres. “It’s getting on now for 60 years,” Kamami said. “Many of those who were forced out are already dead and if we don’t make an inventory soon, this will be lost in the trash can of history.”
Some 900,000 Jews left Arab countries after 1948 and more than 600,000 went to Israel. They and their descendants now make up around half of Israel’s Jewish population. There were various reasons for the vast exodus of Sephardic Jews. Some were entranced by the birth of the Jewish state and quit their homelands for Zionist ideals. Others saw their futures compromised in the newly independent North African states because of the association of Jewish communities with former Colonial powers. Still others, facing government-sponsored anti-Jewish riots in countries such as Iraq and Egypt, were forced out and should be categorized as refugees, Kamami said. All, though, faced a pervasive climate of hostility in which attacks against the Jewish community were liable to break out at any time and where Jews — and Christians — were second-class citizens. Today, fewer than 8,000 Jews remain in Arab countries; some states, such as Libya, were totally emptied of their Jewish populations. Kamami accepts that his project to gather testimony from those who left Arab countries is not the first — nor indeed, the only — attempt to undertake such a task.
The World Organization of Jews From Arab Countries was set up in 1975 to address the issue of Sephardic refugees but has since suffered severe funding difficulties and has been largely moribund in recent years. Attempts by JTA to contact the organization both in the U.S. and Israel were unsuccessful and the group does not run a Web site. Nevertheless, two U.S.-based organizations — Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, and Justice for Jews From Arab Countries — are both very active. Following a campaign by the latter group, the issue was forced onto the U.S. political agenda earlier this year with the tabling of twin resolutions in the Senate and House of Representatives calling on President Bush to ensure that “any explicit reference to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue is matched by a similar explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” Israel also got in on the idea a few years ago when it announced that it was partnering with the American Sephardi Foundation on a project to preserve and collect 10,000 claims from previous compensation initiatives that had been abandoned. Kamami, though, says what has been missing until now has been the existence of a francophone group because “most Jews who left Arab lands — whether they came to France, Israel, the U.S. or Canada — spoke French. “It’s also much more logical for international bodies such as the U.N. Having a Web site in English or Hebrew is not as effective and running it from the U.S. falls into the problem here of a latent anti-Americanism,” he said. Some emigre organizations in France are less keen, however, on such a campaign, convinced that claiming reparations from former countries will damage future contacts with their places of birth.
Simon Atias, the president of the Paris-based Organization of Jews Originating from Morocco, strongly disagreed with the notion that the term “refugees” could be ascribed to Jews who left Morocco. “That’s much more applicable to people who were forced out of Iraq and Egypt,” he told JTA, presumably because Jew faced less hostility in Morocco than elsewhere in the Arab world. However, he, too, noted that after a long period during which there was little activity in campaigning for Sephardic Jews, there had been a sudden upsurge of interest in recent years. “There was something in Israel, but they really didn’t do anything until negotiations with the Palestinians started,” he said. That’s true for Kamami, too — as he readily admits. “The new trend is victimology. We need to show the trauma and the climate of physical attacks on Jews which is what forced them to leave,” he said. Kamami believes the issue of the dispersal of Jews from Arab countries has been ignored for so long because the Jewish world was largely uninterested in hearing about their plight. “Historians were occupied with the Shoah, which was obviously the major disaster to befall the Jewish people,” he said, adding, “So no one wanted to hear others speaking about losing their property or their money. They didn’t have the right to talk about it. Some feel they still haven’t. They were ashamed. What was their experience compared to the Shoah?”
Half a century later, he said, times have changed. The issue of the Palestinian refugees will soon become a major issue for debate and Israel will need to be armed to confront it, Kamami believes. In fact, rather than talk of refugees, Kamami prefers to refer to what he calls “an exchange of populations.” “Seven hundred thousand Palestinians left or were forced out in 1948 and that’s less than the Jews who were forced out of Arab lands,” he said. “We can talk of a population change like between Germany and Czechoslovakia after the war or between Hindus and Muslims” following the end of British rule in India. Nevertheless, he says, such a narrative was initially an uncomfortable one for the fledgling State of Israel. “Israel didn’t want to make a big deal out of it at the outset. That was for a positive reason, since we were creating a new nation and the idea that these Jews had been chased from the Diaspora rather than having made a clear Zionist choice to come to Israel was not acceptable. This narrative is good for our Zionist egos but it is not the reality,” he said. That said — and despite the deliberate analogy with the issue of Palestinian refugees — Kamami points out an intrinsic difference between the two cases. “Those that arrived in the refugee camps in Israel, the ma’abarot, didn’t stay there,” he said. “They chose to integrate into their new countries. They helped to build Israel. And those who went to the U.S., Canada and France renewed the Sephardi Diaspora.”