In “The Exodus Obama Forgot to Mention,” Andre Aciman’s June 8 op-ed article in The New York Times, the professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center reminds the world that 800,000 Middle East Jews were forced to leave their homes in Arab nations when Israel was created.
Writing eloquently of the pain – and financial loss – suffered by those, including his own family, expelled from their lifelong homes, Aciman recalls that many of the expelled Jews, victims of “rampant nationalism,” had ancestors who lived in Arab lands before the advent of Islam. And not only did they lose their homes, but they lost their possessions, their livelihood, and – for many – their pride.
“When the last Jew dies, the temples and religious artifacts and books that were the property of what was once probably the wealthiest Jewish community on the Mediterranean will go to the Egyptian government – not to me, or to my children, or to any of the numberless descendants of Egyptian Jews,” writes Aciman.
While the plight of these refugees has not been forgotten, it is not high on the communal agenda – even in the Jewish community – and most of us are likely to identify the phrase “refugee problem” with the Palestinians.
Several organizations have been created to deal with this issue, among them the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, founded in France in 1976 and charged with documenting the assets lost by the Jewish refugees. In addition, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries was launched in 2002 to “ensure that justice for Jews from Arab countries assumes its rightful place on the international political agenda and their rights be secured as a matter of law and equity.”
While the majority of those who fled in 1948 – whether they were expelled or left because of worsening harassment – went to Israel, some made their homes in other countries. (In “Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” Wall Street Journal reporter Lucille Lagnado’s touching 2007 memoir about her father, we read of an Egyptian Jewish family’s gradual ruin after being driven from Cairo to Paris to Brooklyn.)
Aciman is right. If the phrase “justice for all” is to have any meaning, equity demands that we include the nearly 1 million displaced Jews among those whose needs must be considered in any comprehensive resolution of the Mideast conflict. To do less would be to dishonor their loss and their humanity.