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May 25, 2003

WJC to publicize Jewish exodus from Arab lands

Israel's refugee problem. Yes. The arabs had a refugee problem that was the result of their attempt to wipe out the newly-born State of Israel in 1948. They play this problem to the hilt and the world ignores or forgets the Jewish refugee problem. Fortunately, Jews exiled from their homelands had a place willing to take them in, to nourish them and provide new homes among fellow Jews.
Raising international awareness of the forgotten Jewish exodus from Arab lands is high on the agenda of the World Jewish Congress, WJC secretary-general Avi Beker told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday at the conclusion of a two-day meeting of the WJC Executive in Jerusalem.

In the light of Palestinian insistence on the "right of return" and in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the WJC believes it has become imperative to increase international awareness that 900,000 Jews were expelled or fled from Arab countries, where they had lived for over 2,000 years, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. They left the oldest Jewish Diaspora, said Beker, and 650,000 of them settled in Israel.

The difference between Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Palestinian refugees, said Beker, is that while the Jewish refugees integrated into mainstream Israel and the Diaspora societies in which they live, the Palestinians deliberately kept their refugees in camps and did not allow them to integrate into the countries in which they live.

When Jews fled the persecution they had endured in Arab lands, they left behind them untold amounts of property and other assets for which they were never compensated.

Many of them kept their stories locked up inside them, said Beker, but over the past few years, they have started to talk and to tell tales of horror and torture.

Beker, who has worked closely with Holocaust survivors, said that there is a similar syndrome of "belated remembering." People who lost status and economic stability and suffered humiliation and betrayal are realizing, as they age and see their generation begin to die off, that this may be the last opportunity to let the world know what happened.

In December 2001, the European Jewish Congress organized an international conference in Paris to explore the history of Jews from Arab lands. Since then the WJC has organized similar conferences in Montreal, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles the last three during and immediately after the war in Iraq.

People are more ready in the Diaspora to be recruited into the subject than their Israeli counterparts, said Beker.

"In the Diaspora they're ready to go on record and ask for justice for Jews from Arab countries." All the conferences draw huge attendances, he said, with prominent political figures and other influential people sitting in the audience.
People come forward to tell stories of what happened to them in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Algeria. Sometimes the reliving of the experience is so painful that they need to have a relative stand with them to hold their hands, he said.

These stories best illustrate that there was a population exchange in the Middle East and give Israel her best case of rebuttal against the Palestinian demand for the right of return, he said.

Beker believes that the Jewish refugee issue in terms of population transfer is the missing component in the road map. "You can't deal with all the proposals in the road map and think that this will solve the refugee problem," he said. If Israel is ready to make painful concessions, he added, then the international community must start solving the problems of Palestinian refugees by making them citizens of all their host countries.

Beker also called on the international community to reform UNRWA and change its mandate so that it will become part of the peace process instead of perpetuating the refugee problem, as it has to date. The annual UNRWA budget is $400 million dollars he said, and nearly all of money is provided by Western countries a third by the American taxpayer.