Jews and the Arab World
For decades, media coverage of the refugee issue in the Middle East has focused almost exclusively on the plight of the Palestinians, so today represents something of a milestone: a report on Jewish refugees from Arab countries on the BBC website, pegged to the conference currently taking place in London organized by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC).
But, as the excellent Point of No Return blog observes, much of the short report is devoted to the comments of the BBC's Arab Affairs Analyst, Magdi Abdelhadi, casting doubt upon the issues being raised at the conference:
The BBC's Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says the subject is highly controversial as the numbers of Jews who left, and the conditions under which they left, are disputed.
He says one undisputed fact is that Jews were part of Arab societies for centuries, where they were fully integrated in their societies, until Israel was established.
Some left because they were Zionists, others because of growing hostility towards them after the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967, and there were also those who were encouraged to leave by the new Israeli state, our analyst adds.
He says not all of them went to Israel - many went to France and America, where some of them still feel very passionately about the Arab cultures they grew up in.
Let's start with Abdelhadi's assertion about the "one undisputed fact." Whenever I hear someone talking about the charmed life lived by Jews in Arab countries, I am always reminded of a story about my Iraqi Jewish grandfather. Living in London during the 1950s and 1960s, he would often play Shesh Besh - backgammon - with his Arab business associates. He was a pretty accomplished player, but he would invariably lose these contests.
One day, my father asked him why this was. "You're such a good player, Dad," he said, "but when you play these fellows, you always lose - and you look like you're not playing properly. Why?" Shrugging his shoulders, my grandfather responded, "They like to win."
This anecdote neatly symbolizes the psychology of Jews who lived in Arab societies. Implicit in the rolling of the dice and the clacking of circular pieces along the board was an understanding: my grandfather had to behave like a Jew in Baghdad, even though he was in London. That meant not taking advantage of access and influence, not getting ideas above his station, understanding that if he was to preserve his place among this group of men, he had to remember that he was a Jew and they were not.
The historian Bernard Lewis once remarked that the fortunes of Jews in the Arab world never descended to European depths, but they never rose to European heights either. Abdelhadi's "undisputed fact" is eminently disputable and disprovable. Living in societies largely untouched by liberal ideas of equality and rights, Jews were frequently reminded of their subservient position. And much of the time, there was more than just a game of Shesh Besh at stake.
In Baghdad in June 1941, for example, a pogrom known as the farhud, instigated in part by antisemitic broadcasts in Arabic on Badio Berlin, ripped through the Jewish community for two days. Nearly 200 Jews were killed, the beginning of a decade of persecution which ended with their near-complete expulsion from the country. Jewish communities from as far west as Libya and as far east as Yemen can tell similar stories.
The number of Jews dispossessed from the Arab world is not in dispute, as Abdelhadi claims, nor is there any real controversy about their treatment, painstakingly documented through oral testimonies, scholarly articles and archival documents. What this all proves is that - as Resolution 242 acknowledged 40 years ago - the Palestinians are not the only refugees in the Middle East and theirs are not the only demands to be discussed in negotiations. The Jews of the Arab world may, as Abdelhadi says, feel passionately about the Arab cultures in which they grew up, but they haven't received any compensation, much less recognition, for what they lost.