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Israel Marks Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries

December 9, 2015

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”  (Lamentations 3:19–22)

On November 30, Israel marked with a formal event the expulsion and/or murder of 850,000 Jews from Middle East nations in the 20th century.

The commemoration of the “silent Exodus” came about through a Knesset (Israel parliament) law introduced by Member of the Knesset (MK) Dr. Shimon Ohayon last year.

Jewish Girl in Tangiers, by Charles Landelle

Jewish Girl in Tangiers, by Charles Landelle (1874)

The date chosen for the memorial marks the day after the United Nations’ November 29, 1947 partition plan of Mandatory Palestine when persecution against Jews in the Middle East began to significantly rise.

Orders by the Arab League to persecute the Jews led to pogroms (organized massacres) and forced expulsions. 

Over the next 20 years, for instance, Morocco’s Jewish population dropped from 286,000 to 50,000.  Algeria’s dropped from 130,000 to 1,500 and Egypt’s dropped from 75,000 to fewer than 1,000.  (TheTower)

Israel’s commemoration ceremony held in Jerusalem last Monday was organized by Israel’s Social Equity Minister Gila Gamliel, who is descended from 20th-century Jewish refugees of Libyan and Yemenite decent.

Gamliel committed herself to introducing “Jewish heritage from Arab countries and Iran to the Israeli education system.”

The 2nd annual ceremony, titled “Longing for Home,” began with a moment of silence for the victims of the pogroms, followed by stories from Jewish refugees and musical performances.

Many of the performers have roots in Iran or the Arab world, including singer-actors Liraz Charhi of Iranian heritage and Guy Zu-Aretz of Libyan heritage.  (Israel HaYom)

Singers Dikla and Rita Shalhoun are of Egyptian and Lebanese heritage, respectively; and musicians Gilad Segev, Haim Oliel and Yair Dalal are of Syrian, Moroccan and Iraqi heritage, in order.

Gila Gamliel, Israeli Minister for Senior Citizens

Gila Gamliel, Social Equity Minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video message for Monday’s ceremony in which he pledged to create a prize for research on the heritage of Jewish communities native to Iran and Arab countries.

Gamliel flew to New York for a similar event held the next day by the Permanent Israeli Mission to the United Nations, in the face of what Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon called a “historical injustice.”

“Facing violent, and even murderous anti-Jewish riots, government confiscation of wealth, nearly a million Jews were forced to flee the places their families had called home for generations, leaving behind everything they had,” Danon said Tuesday.  “We are here tonight to ensure that the world finally recognizes the stories of these forgotten refugees.”

Danon also pointed to the UN’s focus on the 650,000–700,000 Palestinian refugees that left Israel during or before the 1948–1949 War of Independence (as well as their descendants, all designated by the UN as “refugees”), while ignoring Jewish refugees that came out of the Muslim world.

Danon also said the UN has focused on trying to reclaim property left behind in Israel while ignoring property “left behind in Casablanca and in Cairo.”  Jewish refugees also “do not have a special UN agency and several UN organizations acting as a lobby on their behalf” as Palestinian refugees do.

United Nations-Jewish refugees from Arab Lands

Danny Danon (center left), Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, poses for a group photo with participants of a special event entitled “The Untold Story of 850,000 Refugees: The tale of ancient Jewish cultures in Arab Lands.”  Gila Gamliel stands to his right.  The event was organized by the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN.  (UN Photo by Amanda Voisard)

Jewish refugees were fully absorbed by the State of Israel, while the Arab nations refused to absorb their Arab brothers, Danon noted.

Gamliel also spoke before the UN “to declare that our story be brought to light in this institution so that at long last, justice shall finally be served.”

“Over the last 65 years, the UN and its agencies have spent tens of billions of dollars on Palestinian refugees, but not a cent on the Jewish Refugees,” Gamliel said, “and since 1949, the United Nations has passed more than a hundred resolutions regarding Palestinian refugees and not a single one regarding Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”  (Times of Israel)

In Monday’s ceremony, Gamliel noted, by teaching Israel’s children about the heritage of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, “every child in Israel will know about the pogroms and persecution faced by Jews in Middle Eastern countries, just as they know about the persecution in Europe.”

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