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The Abraham Accords and the forgotten Mizrahi refugees

Peace treaties are just a first step between Israel and its Arab neighbors—key to maintaining that peace will be educating the Arabs about the 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Islamic countries.

A Yemenite family walks through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. Nov. 1, 1949. Credit: Zoltan Kluger/Wikimedia Commons.
A Yemenite family walks through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. Nov. 1, 1949. Credit: Zoltan Kluger/Wikimedia Commons.
Karmel Melamed
Karmel Melamed

Following the signing of the peace deals between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, American Jewish leaders from prominent organizations such as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress have come forward to discuss how they have played a quiet, behind-the-scenes role over the past 25 years to encourage the Gulf nations to seek peaceful relations with Israel. Now that Israel has established a “warm peace” with Bahrain and the UAE, perhaps it is the best time for these same American Jewish organizations and their leaders to begin an educational campaign in the Arab language media about the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were forced to flee or were expelled from Islamic lands during the 20th century.

Sharing the stories of the Mizrahi Jewish refugees with the Arab media and the Arab world may not only strengthen the peace Israel has established with these two Arab nations by showing Israel’s Middle Eastern roots, but also educate and enlighten the Arab masses about the Jewish refugees from the Middle East after 1948. As a Mizrahi journalist, I believe that sharing the Mizrahi refugees’ story with the Arab and Islamic world today, when the tides of peace are upon us, is one of the most important things we can do to as Jews living in diaspora to ensure this new peace is solidified and maintained for years to come.

For more than 70 years the American Ashkenazi community’s leadership has horribly failed to educate Jews in America about the plight of 850,000 Jewish refugees who fled or were forced out of the Arab countries and Iran during the last century. American Ashkenazi leaders have ignored the painful stories of Mizrahi Jews facing imprisonment, torture, executions, pogroms, forced exile and asset confiscations in the various Islamic countries they lived in after 1948. Likewise, the American Ashkenazi leaders have also failed to raise the issue of these Mizrahi refugees within the larger American and international dialogue when it has come to discussing the issues of the Middle East conflict.

Moreover, Israel for decades had itself failed to share the narrative of the Mizrahi refugees from the Islamic countries even though more than 50 percent of the Israeli population is of Mizrahi background today. For decades, these failures in discussing the Mizrahi refugees’ painful experiences have allowed the Palestinians and many Arab leaders to spew their false narrative that the Jews of Israel are “foreign colonialists from Europe” who have no true roots in the Middle East roots.

Additionally, Jewish leaders’ failure to discuss the Mizrahi refugees has resulted in the suffering of Mizrahi Jews never being widely known or shared with the Arab populations and the larger world. Instead, the Arabs and the rest of the world have, ad nauseum, heard the Palestinian side of the story regarding the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In essence, once the correct larger historical context of what happened to both Jewish Mizrahi refugees and Palestinians is properly presented to the Arab world, then this may enlighten many moderate Arabs to better understand the Jewish perspective on this issue. It may also instil empathy among them for the Mizrahi Jews’ situation and strengthen the concept that Israel is the Jewish homeland which is not going anywhere.

The following are just a few of the major advantages of exposing the Arab world through their media to the stories of the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were forced to flee or expelled from the Islamic nations during the 20th century:

The Palestinians’ false narrative about the Jews being “European colonialists” who have no genuine roots or claims to the Land of Israel and Middle East will fall apart when the plight of 850,000 Mizrahi Jews is shared with them. The stories of the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in most of the Middle Eastern nations, including Israel, for centuries will automatically debunk the “colonialist” argument.

When the Arab populations learn of the calamity 850,000 Jewish refugees faced at the hands of Arab nations and how they were forced out of their homes and had their lives turned upside down, this may create more empathy for the people of Israel, over half of whom, as mentioned, are Mizrahi. This empathy will allow many Arabs to realize that the Palestinians were not the only victims after the 1948 war and that the Jews too have legitimate grievances that must be addressed and remedied in a final peace plan.

Many of the Arab countries today are essentially tribal societies that share common traditions and cultural norms with one another. When the Arabs learn of the massive Jewish populations that lived for centuries in the Arab and Islamic lands prior to their forced exiles after 1948, then they may feel a closer bond with Mizrahi Jews living in Israel today, who share their language, foods, music, art and culture. This commonality the Arabs will feel and learn about with Mizrahi Israelis will only strengthen their ties with Israel in the long term and solidify the peace between both groups.

Arab populations should learn about the 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Islamic lands after 1948 and how these refugees ultimately worked hard and pulled themselves up from that great calamity. This may help moderate Arabs to encourage or educate their Palestinian brethren that after 72 years it is time to give up the “refugee” mentalities and leave their refugee camps to build better lives for themselves. Their argument will be “look at the Jews, they were refugees from the Arab lands but they moved beyond the victim mentality and built new lives for themselves. You too can now do the same!”

Much of the Arab and Islamic world today does not know of the glorious history and successes of the Jews living in Islamic countries in the past centuries. They are for the most part in the dark about how Jews and Muslims in many of the Arab and Islamic countries lived side by side in relative peace at various points in time. When Arab populations are exposed to this past history of co-existence and tolerance their ancestry had with the Jews, then they may be more willing to accept the Jews living in Israel as one of their peaceful neighbors in the region.

Creating peace and peace treaties may be a challenging first step between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but maintaining that peace by educating the Arabs about the 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Islamic countries will be the key to a stable future in the Middle East. I call on American Ashkenazi leaders who have long had relationships with the leaders in the Arab countries to launch an educational campaign about Mizrahi Jews in the Arabic language media in these nations. Why not bring in Mizrahi speakers from Israel, America and Europe to share their histories and experiences? Why not build new blocks of commonality and friendship between Jews and Arab by sharing the Mizrahi Jews’ history in the Middle East? Why not give moderate Arabs who want to help bring the Palestinians to the peace table, valuable information about the experiences from the Mizrahi Jews who gave up the victim mentality of being refugees and built a thriving new state for themselves?

And interestingly enough, the American Jewish community does not have to look too far to create content about the Jewish refugees from the Islamic world, because the San Francisco-based non-profit “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa” (JIMENA) has been gathering and sharing the hundreds of stories and the history of the Mizrahi Jewish community for nearly two decades. JIMENA’s hard work in sharing the Mizrahi experiences as refugees during the 20th century has even inspired the largest pro-Israel organization in America—“Christians United For Israel” (CUFI)—to create its own documentary film about the Mizrahi Jews.

CUFI’s film, titled the “Mizrahi Project,” offers personal stories from Mizrahi refugees which has not only helped educate Christians Zionists, but also opened the eyes to millions of individuals worldwide about the Jews from the Islamic nation after being posted on YouTube. I had the special honor of being one of the Mizrahi individuals featured in the film, and over the years I have personally received positive feedback from many Iranians and Arabs worldwide about the plight of the Mizrahi refugees. For too long American’s Mizrahi Jews have been ignored and sidelined by the larger Ashkenazi community. With this new peace in the Middle East it’s time to include the Mizrahi Jews and share the experiences of the 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Islamic countries in order to strengthen this new Middle East peace.

Karmel Melamed is an award-winning and internationally published journalist based in Southern California.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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