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Mediterranean Quarterly 14.3 (2003) 41-77

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The Silent Refugees:
Jews from Arab Countries

Maurice M. Roumani

Before the war on Iraq was launched in April 2003, two developments in the Middle East seemed to have set the stage for more conflict and bloodshed that would threaten to engulf the world. The first was the rising tide of terror against Israel, and more recently against Western targets. The second was the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority on the repatriation of Palestinian refugees that brought an end to the peace negotiations at Camp David and Taba, which had held a promise for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Forces behind the Escalation of Violence

If we look closely at both factors, we can see that they are intertwined. The Palestinian intifadah (uprising), with its terror and suicide bombers, was used to pressure Israel into evacuating the West Bank and the occupied territories taken in the 1967 war. But whereas the intifadah seemed to have the limited aim of removing the settlers from the occupied territories, the return of the Palestinian refugees to what once was their home has broader implications. It is intended to undermine the character of the Israeli state from within and reduce its Jewish inhabitants to a minority, a status known all too well to Jews, especially those who hailed from Arab countries.

The expulsion of those Jews from Arab countries and their resettlement in [End Page 41] the newly established state of Israel changed their inferior minority status to that of citizens with equal rights in a democratic nation. Thus, the present crisis looks like an orchestrated policy, the aim of which is to expel Jews from the Middle East, as the Europeans had expelled them before. These two factors are interrelated in another way, in that they assume that Israel, or more accurately, Jews, through Western ties and interests have robbed the Arabs of their territory. For the Arabs, this is not a mere loss of territory but rather an affront to Islam and its teaching. The Arabs experienced similar feelings when Napoleon's army defeated their armies on the shores of Alexandria in 1798. The trauma was so severe that it prompted deep soul-searching and new reforms within Islam.

In the case of Israel, Arab defeat triggered revolutions in the states of the Middle East and North Africa, regional instability, anger, and frustration. Recently the Arabs, especially the Palestinians have given the name of al Naqba (calamity, disaster, or catastrophe) to the Arab defeat at the hands of the Israelis in 1948. For the Arabs, Jews are considered dhimmi, namely, "protected" people under Islam, generally subjected to humiliating and discriminatory laws. Zionism, which liberated the Jewish people from a minority status, was rejected by most Arabs and was generally seen as an attack on Arab territorial integrity. The many attempts that have been made over the past one hundred years to bring about a rapprochement between the parties has had limited success. Al Naqba can be redressed, according to Arabs, either through a continuous and unabated military struggle until victory is reached or, alternatively, through a temporary truce, reminiscent of another truce concluded by the Prophet that allowed the community of believers to gather strength before engaging the enemy in the final battle.

Although many claim that this religious conviction represents a minority position in the Arab world, the wars waged against Israel over the past fifty years and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Arab world underscore the position that continues to fire Arab nationalism and Islamism. The proponents of the latter, whose voices have grown stronger lately, leading their camp into military struggle against Israel and the Jews, believe that they are bearers of the banner that was raised by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century against the Jewish tribes of Arabia and soon after against the [End Page 42] Christians in Europe. The march of Islam was halted in France, was rolled back to Spain, and landed in Morocco, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Over the centuries...


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