Carole Basri stood in the bright sunshine in front of the Isaiah Wall, only blocks from the United Nations headquarters. She clutched a black-and-white picture of her white-bearded great-grandfather — the former chief rabbi of Baghdad.
“I come here as a Jew and an Arab,” she told a small gathering of reporters and Jewish officials Monday. “My family had lived there for 2,500 years, before the rise of Mohammed and Islam. I want to see Iraq someday, see the home of my parents and my legacy.”
Basri believes that can happen if the truth about the long history of Jews in Arab countries, and how they were forced to leave, is finally publicized to the world after decades of silence.
Basri, a corporate attorney, joined leaders of several major Jewish organizations, Israeli officials and American diplomats in what amounts to the first step in a major effort to educate the world about the flight of an estimated 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries such as Libya, Morocco, Syria, Egypt and Iraq after the State of Israel was established.
The new international campaign, backed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, World Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, American Sephardi Foundation and the government of Israel, will be called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
With Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, serving as honorary chairman, JJAC will attempt to intensify a worldwide campaign to complete the documentation of losses of Jews expelled or forced out of Arab countries during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s before they die or records are lost forever. The group also will advocate for the rights of Jews who suffered property losses.
The push comes as the United States is reportedly set to go to war with Iraq, but officials said Monday that was merely a coincidence.
“This has nothing to do with the gathering storm of Iraq,” Holbrooke said.
Officials made it clear, however, that it has everything to do with the success of the Palestinians in publicizing the plight of their refugees while the world remains ignorant of the Jewish-Arab refugee problem.
Historic Jewish communities in Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli were dismantled, with Jews having to leave their possessions behind. Some had to escape in the middle of the night.
“This is a historical truth which needs to be discussed, and it’s time to get it out,” said Holbrooke. “I wish I was standing here two years ago.”
In those two years, since the death of the Oslo peace process, the Palestinian movement has gained worldwide support for its refugee problem, comparing Israel to an apartheid state that is violating international law by occupying their land and trying to force them out.
“There was ethnic cleansing and apartheid, but it was not Israel,” said Basri. “It was the Arabs who practiced it on their fellow Arabs who were Jews and to the Palestinians for failing to reintegrate them in their lands” from 1948 to 1967.
Officials said the issue should be resolved as part of a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians with the help of an international fund.
Holbrooke explained the international legal and political basis for aiding Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian. He referred to UN Resolution 242, which declares that there should be a just settlement of the refugee problem, statements by then-UN Secretary-General U Thant and comments by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who acknowledged the rights of Jewish refugees.
Presidents Conference chairman Mortimer Zuckerman compared the Palestinian refugee with the Jewish Arabs.
“In fact, there were more former Jewish refugees displaced from Arab lands — estimated at 850,000 — than Arab refugees displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israel conflict, estimated at 750,000,” he said. “In light of the world’s preoccupation with the plight of the Palestinian refugees, we bring attention to the plight of Jewish refugees.”
Some officials noted that the issue was neglected for decades by Ashkenazim in Israel and America for various political and social reasons. But no longer.
“This is not a Sephardic issue,” said Leon Levy, honorary president of the American Sephardi Federation. “This is a Jewish issue for justice.”
“You are never going to get peace in the Middle East unless you state the truth,” said Basri, chair of the American Bar Association Middle East and International Law section. “And the truth is that half of Israel is made up of Jews from Arab countries.
“These Jews finally deserve to be living in peace in Israel after they were thrown out of every other corner in the Middle East.”