The Last Israelis -

Archive for June, 2013


June 27, 2013

Jews From Muslim Lands: The Forgotten Refugees of 1948

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Last Thursday was World Refugee Day, dedicated to nearly 60 million people worldwide who were forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution. One group of refugees rarely acknowledged is the Jews who were indigenous to Muslim lands but compelled to flee around the time when the State of Israel was established.

A Google search for “1948 refugees” produces about 6 million results. All but a few (at least through page six) are about the Palestinian Arab refugees, as if they were the only refugees of 1948. But it is estimated that from the beginning of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War through the early 1970s, up to 1,000,000 Jews fled or were expelled from their ancestral homes in Muslim countries. 260,000 of those refugees reached Israel between 1948 and 1951 and comprised 56% of all immigration to the fledgling state. By 1972, their numbers had reached 600,000.

In 1948, Middle East and North African countries had considerable Jewish populations: Morocco (250,000), Algeria (140,000), Iraq (140,000), Iran (120,000), Egypt (75,000), Tunisia (50,000), Yemen (50,000), Libya (35,000), and Syria (20,000). Today, the indigenous Jews of those countries are virtually extinct (although Morocco and Iran each still has under 10,000 Jews). In most cases, the Jewish population had lived there for millennia.

Few know this history because the Jewish refugees of 1948 were granted citizenship by the countries to which they fled, including Israel. By contrast, many Muslim countries refused to integrate the Palestinian refugees, preferring to leave them as second-class citizens in order to maintain a domestic demographic balance and/or a political problem for Israel.

Media bias also explains why so few people know about the 1948 Jewish refugees from Muslim lands. A search for “1948 refugees” on the BBC news site generates 41 articles (going back to 1999); 40 discuss the Palestinian Arab refugees of 1948. Only three of the 40 (dated 9/22/11, 9/2/10, and 4/15/04) even mention the Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, and two do so only in a single, superficial sentence that presents the issue as a claim rather than a historical fact.

A search for “1948 refugees Jews from Arab lands” on the New York Times site produces 497 results (replacing “Arab” with “Muslim” halves the results), while “1948 Palestinian refugees” yields 1,050 results. Consider a comparison using Sri Lanka, another war-torn, multi-ethnic country that gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The nearly 26-year ethnic conflict there began in 1983 and claimed 80,000–100,000 lives, many multiples of the total casualties from the nearly 100-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sri Lanka’s conflict also produced hundreds of thousands of refugees, including at least 200,000 Tamil refugees in Western Europe alone. Yet a search for “Tamil refugees” generates only 531 articles – less than 5% of the 11,300 results for “Palestinian Arab refugees.”

Institutionalized favoritism at the UN has also enabled the Palestinians to monopolize the refugee issue, which undoubtedly reinforces the media’s bias. All non-Palestinian refugees around the world (nearly 55 million) are cared for by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which works under the guidelines of the Convention on Refugees of 1951. But Palestinian refugees (whose original population was under one million) have a UN agency dedicated exclusively to them (UNRWA).

UNRWA’s unique definition of “refugee” includes anyone “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” So, in addition to families who lived in the area for generations, UNRWA’s definition includes any migrants who arrived as recently as 1946 but were then displaced. And because the definition includes “descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition,” UNRWA’s refugee population has grown from 750,000 in 1950 to 5,300,000 today (making resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue even harder). Despite these problems, the United States continues to support UNRWA (with over 4.1 billion dollars since 1950).

The rest of the world’s refugees are assisted by the High Commission, which is mandated to help refugees rapidly rebuild their lives, usually outside the countries that they fled. Jewish refugees from Muslim lands did just that: they rebuilt their lives in Israel and elsewhere. But the fact that they quietly adapted and Israel granted them full citizenship doesn’t lessen the wrongs committed by their countries of origin. These Jewish refugees from Muslim lands suffered legal and often violent persecution that resulted in immeasurable emotional and physical loss. They lost billions in property and endured huge socioeconomic disadvantages when forced to rebuild their lives from scratch. Israel was unfairly burdened with the colossal social and economic cost of suddenly absorbing so many refugees. So any suggestion that Jewish refugees from Muslim lands don’t deserve compensation is resoundingly wrong.

Last Thursday, the Israeli Knesset member Shimon Ohayon, whose family fled Morocco in 1956, called on the Arab League to “accept their great responsibility for driving out almost a million Jews from lands [in] which they had lived for millennia.” He explained that “In 1947, the Political Committee of the Arab League drafted a law that…called for the freezing of bank accounts of Jews, their internment and [the confiscation of their assets]. Various other discriminatory measures were taken by Arab nations and subsequent meetings reportedly called for the expulsion of Jews from member states of the Arab League.” Ohayon challenged the League to accept responsibility for “the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population from most of the Middle East and North Africa…[and] to provide redress to the Jewish refugees.”

A just and comprehensive Mideast peace is possible only when Muslim states recognize their role in two historic wrongs: 1) displacing one million indigenous people only because they were Jews, and 2) perpetuating the plight of Palestinian refugees by denying them citizenship. The first wrong requires financial compensation to the families of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, which reparation can be administered by the states that absorbed them. The second wrong should be remedied by granting full citizenship to Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who have resettled in Muslim lands. Both wrongs have festered for too many decades.


June 18, 2013

Iran’s President Rouhani: a Nuclear Fig Leaf

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Naive observers of the recent Iranian presidential election call it a “game-changer.” Such optimism warrants a sober assessment of the election, Rouhani, and the context within which he operates.

An unelected body of 12 Islamic jurists selected eight candidates (after rejecting over 600 for being women, religious minorities, or inadequately zealous). Rouhani, a 64-year old regime loyalist, was the most “moderate” of the final voter options. But he led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime advance its nuclear-weapons program.

Had Mir Mousavi, the reformist leader of the 2009 green movement, been released from house arrest and allowed to compete freely against Rouhani, Mousavi would have likely won by epic margins. Rouhani’s electoral victory was essentially a protest vote against Khamenei.

Fortunately, the will of the Iranian people was so overwhelming this time that it couldn’t be dismissed by Khamenei, who in 2009 engineered election results to favor his preferred candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This time, Khamenei’s survival required acquiescence because (1) much more fraud would have been needed to produce his preferred winner in 2013, (2) far greater global scrutiny and skepticism attended this poll after the 2009 elections, and (3) his regime desperately needed to avoid the unrest produced last time — particularly after Syria’s 2011 uprising demonstrated how quickly and severely things can deteriorate.

But that doesn’t transform Rouhani into some kind of Iranian Gorbechov who will or can revamp Iran’s entire political system (or even just its nuclear policy). Such a “black swan event” is hardly predicted by Rouhani’s past.

Consider the article that he published in the spring 2010 issue of the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs. Despite the veneer of academic neutrality, Rouhani’s worldview is clear: Iran is a model Islamic state that positively impacts the world, and militant hostility toward Israel is good (as is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist organization). According to this summary of a May 2012 interview, Rouhani himself noted that nuclear policy won’t change with a new president because any policy differences relate only to the pace of Iran’s nuclear progress.

When Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami, he gave a speech in 2004, explaining his approach to the nuclear talks then conducted with the “EU-3” (Britain, France and Germany). Rouhani boasted about playing for time: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”

Rouhani also explained Iran’s strategy of forcing the world to accept its nuclear program as a fait accompli: “The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”

Thus, Rouhani is a nuclear fig leaf. His academic and diplomatic polish could enable him to secure the international legitimacy that eluded his crude and outrageous predecessor. Indeed, if Ahmadinejad  – despite all of his Holocaust denials and threats to destroy Israel – achieved so much nuclear progress, then world powers will be totally impotent with Rouhani.

Even if Rouhani wanted to soften Iran’s nuclear policy, it is Khamenei who decides such matters, and his intransigence is well established (e.g., Khamenei banned presidential candidates from later making concessions to the West, and has vetoed direct talks between Iran and the United States).

Suppose Khamenei disappears. The realpolitik considerations guiding the Iranian regime would remain. Iran, which considers itself a protector of Shiite Islam, fears a Sunni takeover of Alawite-ruled Syria. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and Iran just committed 4,000 troops to Syria, to help fortify Basher Assad’s regime.

Iran’s alignments mean that it will also continue supporting Hezbollah, another force fighting alongside Assad’s military. These realities ensure that Shiite Iran’s relations with its Sunni neighbors will grow increasingly adversarial, and that too will reinforce Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Those who cautioned that military action against Iranian nukes could alienate ordinary Iranians and minimize the odds of internal regime change must now concede that the regime has “changed.” Any further change could take years, because president-elect Rouhani must work within a complex system, developed over decades, and he’s not about to overthrow it. Nor are the millions who elected him. They got the president they voted for, so they have no reason to protest any time soon (especially after 2009, when they had strong grounds to protest, but their voices brought only brutal crackdowns without democratic gains).
To show good faith and establish his “moderate” credentials, Rouhani should cease all nuclear enrichment until the next round of diplomatic talks concludes. But in his first press conference yesterday, he vowed to continue enrichment. Rouhani’s assumption of the presidency this August deserves the briefest “honeymoon.” If he offers no substantive nuclear compromise within weeks, the West must issue a firm ultimatum backed by force.

The only time Iran showed any willingness to compromise on its nukes was when it feared an attack: after US forces swiftly devastated Iraq’s military in 2003. If Obama thinks that — without the threat of force — his outstretched hand will now be embraced by a “reformer,” he has fallen for the illusions of a fist that was unclenched for sleight of hand.

Iran has already enriched enough uranium to make several nukes, and will get the Bomb during Rouhani’s first term as president, unless an effective diplomatic and military strategy is pursued. This is no time for naiveté about “moderates.”


June 15, 2013

The Troubling Timing of Obama’s Syria Epiphany

Last August, President Obama declared that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line.” About four months later, Aljazeera released unconfirmed reports that a gas attack killed seven civilians in a rebel-held neighborhood of Homs. Last April, the UK, France, and Israel each claimed that there was evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Aleppo, Homs, and/or Damascus. By April 25th, the U.S intelligence assessment was that the Assad regime had likely used sarin gas, but President Obama dodged his red line by announcing that a thorough investigation was still needed (as if the Syrian government would ever allow one). Meanwhile, reports from foreign intelligence agencies and journalists continued to corroborate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. So why did Obama’s requirement of a thorough investigation to confirm the crossing of his red line suddenly vanish last Friday?

Viewed through the lens of domestic politics, Obama’s Syria epiphany looks conveniently timed to deflect attention from an ever-swelling wave of scandals: Benghazi-gate, IRS-gate, AP/Fox-gate, and now NSA-gate and State Department prostitution-gate. As the film “Wag The Dog” highlights, international crises are great at diverting attention from domestic scandals.

But from the perspective of the Syrian rebels, the timing and nature of U.S. military assistance may be viewed as either too little, too late, or a cynical attempt to ensure a perpetual stalemate. After all, the outgunned rebels have needed lethal weapons from the U.S. for over two years. Chemical weapons use by the Assad regime is old news. So what has changed? The Syrian regime recently defeated rebel forces at the crucial battle in Qusayr, a town providing a strategic supply conduit for rebel forces in Homs. After the military gains enabled by the robust battlefield support of Iran-backed Hezbollah, the Syrian regime is now preparing for a major offensive to retake Aleppo. With another crushing blow to a key rebel stronghold, the regime could ultimately prevail in the conflict, unless the U.S. provides just enough rebel support to restore the pre-Qusayr stalemate.

Obama has already made it clear that any lethal weapons or no-fly zone provided by the U.S. would be limited. Such tentative U.S. involvement is unlikely to end the carnage, given the vigorous support that the Assad regime enjoys from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (which could undermine a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone by supplying Syria with its potent S-300 missile defense system). Indeed, the New York Times reported on June 14th that “the president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups.”

What a difference two years makes. In 2011, the relatively non-sectarian Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the main force fighting for freedom from Assad’s tyranny. Sunni Islamists had not yet felt compelled by FSA failures to join (and ultimately lead) the military effort in large numbers. In 2011, Obama also had far more credibility and political capital – important presidential assets when undertaking a foreign military intervention.

But now the Syrian crisis has deteriorated into a regional sectarian war, increasingly creeping over Syrian borders and into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan. The Syrian belligerents have also radicalized, decreasing the odds that the ultimate victor will be friendly to the U.S. or able to achieve a post-war reconciliation and reconstruction in Syria.

Today, with a death toll exceeding 90,000 Syrians (and increasing by 5,000/month) and millions displaced, the humanitarian need for intervention is greater than ever. But Iran and Russia are redoubling their support for the Assad regime, so the U.S. must not enter the Syrian cauldron with half-measures or it could suffer a costly blow with far-reaching repercussions. If Obama’s “red line” was crossed months ago and the tardy “consequences” are America’s feeble and ineffective entry into the Syrian civil war, then Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries will only feel emboldened to challenge U.S. interests.

Thus, Obama effectively has two choices: 1) continue his disengagement from Syria to preserve whatever political capital and military deterrent he has left for the inevitable showdown over Iranian nukes, 2) enter the Syrian fray in a massive way that ensures a military victory and says to the Iranian regime: “you are next, unless you discontinue your nuclear program.” After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran feared that thousands of American troops would turn eastward and offered to negotiate the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration refused to engage but Iran still temporarily suspended its nuclear program out of trepidation.

U.S. entry into the Syrian conflict could defeat Assad and deter Iranian nukes, but only with the resolve and overwhelming firepower to demolish the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis (ideally with help from NATO forces). Joining the conflict with insufficient commitment mainly to distract a scandal-weary U.S. audience could have catastrophic consequences for the U.S., and that would be the biggest scandal of all.