November is always a special month for Laurette (not her real name). An Iraqi Jew suffering under Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, she always celebrates the date in November 1970 when she was able to leave the country.
Her escape had to take place in the utmost secrecy: Jews were hostages, unable to secure passports to flee persecution. Like more than 2000 Iraqi Jews, Laurette was smuggled with the help of Kurds over the northern border into Iran. One night, they left their Baghdad homes with a suitcase, as if they were going on holiday.
It was an exit not without its risks: before Laurette set out on her final journey out of Iraq, Jews had been arrested and thrown in jail. Her party passed eight Iraqi checkpoints on the way to Irbil in Kurdistan, praying silently each time that they would not be caught.
When they finally reached Darband, on the Iranian border, “it was like a whole world of terror and despair was lifted in an instant and replaced with light and that special feeling of "lightness of being,” she said.
But Laurette’s happiness was tempered by the sorrow of being separated from her parents, whom she would not see again for 20 years.
November happens also to be the month chosen by the Israeli Knesset to remember what happened to Jews like Laurette. Specifically, 30th November was designated as the Memorial Day, being the day in 1947 when vicious rioting broke out in Arab countries against their Jewish citizens. It is a story that still too few people are familiar with.
Since February 2010, Israeli governments of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in any peace deal. The 50.2 per cent of Israel’s Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution have a right to expect that a peace deal will be signed that does not ignore their painful history. They cannot reasonably be asked to approve a peace plan that only provides rights and redress for Palestinian refugees, without providing rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries, as mandated under humanitarian law.
But Arab states have never recognised, much less apologised, for the mass displacement of loyal citizens and the violation of their human rights. Jews like Laurette and her family left behind spacious homes for which they have never received compensation. Indeed the Muslim quarrel with Israeli ‘imperialism’ becomes absurd against the claim that Jews lost privately-owned land and property amounting to four or five times the size of Israel.
An international fund, as proposed by President Bill Clinton at the Camp David talks in 2000, would compensate refugees on both sides, and also be used to finance the rehabilitation of refugees in host countries. ‘Peace will not bring about the international fund, the international fund will bring about peace’, declares Levana Zamir, head of the Israeli organisations representing Jews from Arab lands, for whom establishing the fund is a matter of urgency. The West and Israel would pay into the fund, but it is imperative for reconciliation that Arab countries should also contribute, even if it is only a nominal amount. Compensation should go to the 200,000 Jews, like Laurette, who did not go to Israel but settled in the West. They are also entitled to justice.