Mordechai Kedar on the Jewish Refugees in Israel

Last month Congregation Darchei Noam hosted a lecture by Dr. Mordechai Kedar on the issue of the Jewish refugees in Israel. Dr. Kedar is not only a prominent scholar, but he also served in the IDF intelligence. Being fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, he has an extensive knowledge about the area.


Mordechai Kedar in Toronto

Unlike the “Palestinian” refugees, who have been in the centre of the anti-Israeli propaganda for decades, the issue with the Israeli refugees has been mostly ignored. In the lecture he presented a unique perspective, which dealt mostly with the role of those refugees in building the Jewish unity in Israel.

The problem of the refugees cannot be separated from the issue of the Jewish mindset. The building of the latter started in the late 19th century, long before the Declaration of Independence. The forming the Jewish identity and society in the land of Israel took decades. The IDF’s formation started with the armed self-defence groups established in 1920’s. Petah Tikva, the first new Jewish town was established in 1882, Tel Aviv – in 1909. The process began much earlier than 1948.

The main goal of the Zionist movement was to take the Jews out of exile. The hard job was to make the Jews one nation – Jews came from all places in the world; they spoke different languages; different looks, habits, food, traditions. To blend them into one nation was more difficult than bringing them together in one place.

At the time the Israeli mindset hasn’t fully crystalized yet. The term used for those early newcomers could be translated as “human dust” – they had to learn everything – Jews didn’t have army, other than serving individually, they never fought. The founding fathers had to solve many problems in a very short time. The presence of Jews in Palestine has been challenging – the Arab hostility caused massacres in the 20’s and 30’s, when the Jews had to fight to survive.

The main challenge of the Zionist movement was that it had to take the exile out of the Jews, meaning to create a new mentality, that they are no more Romanian, Polish, Algerian, Moroccan – they are Israeli. That was the goal – you are no more individuals from many countries, but Israelis.

This was human engineering – the goal in the first decades in the 20th century, in order to be ready when the British leave the Mandate. Building the society preceded the independence and it succeeded. The result was tested during the war the Arabs started after the Independence Day when six armies invaded. Israelis had to fight for survival at the price of 6,000 killed, 1% of the population. The victory showed that the nation building succeeded – without the decades of nation building, Israel would’ve failed.

To illustrate his point, Dr. Kedar showed a collection of photos from the “passage” – temporary camps for Jewish refugees – tents, temporary wooden structures, etc. Nothing was supposed to be permanent; the newcomers lived there until they were settled in different areas. It was difficult, because the British left the country underdeveloped. You could buy food only with stamps, there were shortages.

This was a crucial point in his opinion – the “refugee-hood” was not meant to be a profession, unlike among other well-known people. “Olim hadashim,” that was the name Israel used to describe those people, they were not considered refugees, because the refugees by definition are in that situation temporarily, after the turmoil in their lands ends, they are supposed to go back.

Those people were not refugees – they came to become Israelis. Israel provides instant citizenship to all Jews (only a handful of countries have that law, like Germany).

The issue of compensations for the Jewish refugees is often brought up – that was possible in some East European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but not in the Arab countries. Those are marginal issues – the compensations are minor personal problem compared to the goal of building the prosperity of Israel. Still, there were compensations – Germany was a big financial supporter of Israel, which helped the Germans to clear their conscience after the war.

That approach is reflected in treating the army personnel – in Kedar’s time, the medical problems were treated swiftly, while now there is complicated process for which the army is responsible and the parents often get involved. Before the community needs were more important than those of the individual. For example, the POW problems – you remember how much attention was given to Shalit, while after the 1948 war so many people were missing and that got very little attention in the press. The project of building the country and society overshadowed the individual needs and interests.

Sephardic Jews were considered second-class citizens, because most Zionists came from Russia and they had socialist ideas, demanding that the state be in charge of everything – society, economics, even religion. Many people are not aware of what such a control means. The early Zionist organizations were like this – they even wanted to reform religion as something backward and the new Israelis had to be detached from it. The idea was to eradicate the “shtetl” from the Jewish consciousness. The traditional Jew with black clothes and hat didn’t belong in the new society.

In the kibbutzes they tried to reshape the Judaism into a reflection of the new experience in Israel, the “shtetl” had to be abandoned. With the emerging of Shas party the Sephardic tradition, which wanted to restore the previous glory of Judaism, to a great degree brought back the old Judaism.

The “right to return” is not applicable – no Jew wants to return to Yemen and Morocco. As it was said, the compensations are unrealistic – the Muslim countries are broke, they can’s compensate even their own citizens. Morocco is the only country where there is some stability and Jews live there, but still the compensations are not discussed. Jews have the right to larger compensations than Palestinians, who had smaller properties. Many of those Palestinian “refugees” were not native to the country. They came from different countries, like Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, etc. They went to Palestine to work. The term “Palestinian” Arab didn’t exist before 1948, they were called “Shami” people who live in the East Mediterranean – they are not refugees.

The tribalism is a major problem for those people – there are refugee camps in Nablus and other parts of the “Palestinian territories,” why is that? The answer is that they consider themselves a different tribe or clan and don’t belong in the area, so they are not absorbed. The refugee issue is phoney – they turned that into a profession. How can Arab keep their brethren without electricity and water? They even kill each other.

Israel absorbed all Jews, who came. Dr. Kedar gave an example with his family. When he met his wife, he found out that she grew up in Massachusetts, her father was born in Leipzig, and her mother was from Russia. His parents came from Poland – both families were Ashkenazi, but his daughter married a boy whose parents were from Herat and Bukhara respectively. His younger daughter married a boy whose mother was from Tunisia and his father from Marrakesh, Morocco. This is what happens in Israel – it is a mixture of East and West.

When he wanted to marry, his mother asked him if she could find someone “normal,” meaning Polish. He said – you are invited to my wedding, and she never mentioned this again. It’s really hard to take the exile out of the Jews.

During the Q&A session he was asked for more details on his view about the compensation of the Jewish refugees.

He stated that if there was a way to compensate those Jews, it definitely must be done. In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus, occupied the northern part and created a state, which no country recognized. Nevertheless, over the years they managed to establish the state, and now de facto there are two states in Cyprus. Thousands of Greeks were expelled from Northern Cyprus – a form of ethnic cleansing – and many of them have documents for their properties. They still have houses there – the Turks are ready to compensate them. But the Greeks want to go back – some took the case to the European court of human rights. The court concluded that if the government wants to compensate, they should accepts that and not return. This is an important precedent, because it was decided by a major court, not some banana republic.

He had an interesting experience at a discussion about the Palestinian refugees at BBC. Dr. Kedar was a guest along with the minister for refugees of the Palestinian Authority and an old Palestinian from a camp in Lebanon, who claimed he had a deed for half of the kibbutz near the Lebanese border. He wanted to forego the property in exchange for just one house in the area. Kedar told him that if he is fully compensated for his property, he would be able to build a palace in the new Palestinian state. The man answered – thousand times no, million times no – the Palestinian state will be an Arab state and there is not a single Arab, who wants to live in an Arab state. This gives you an understanding of the situation in the Middle East. Let’s say that tomorrow Canada declares that every Arab can immigrate – how many Arabs would come here? All of them… The Arab countries are dysfunctional; very few want to live in them.

© 2014



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One Comment

  1. Congregation Darchei Noam Presents:
    864 Sheppard Ave West (Corner of Wilmington Ave. & Sheppard Ave. West)
    The Jewish Exodus from
    Arab Lands 1947–1967
    Sunday March 2, 2014 at 7:30pm
    Naïm Kattan
    Iraqi Jewish writer, Montreal
    Naïm Kattan, author of Farewell to Babylon, 1976, will present a
    personal view of a Jew from Iraq, the long history of Jewish life
    there and its destruction by Arab nationalism and Islamism.
    Naïm Kattan, is a Canadian novelist, essayist
    and critic of Iraqi Jewish origin, born in Baghdad
    and educated in Baghdad and France. He
    is the author of over 30 books in several
    languages and has received honours in both
    Canada and France. In 2013, the Canadian
    director Joe Balass directed a documentary
    titled La longueur de l’alphabet avec Naïm
    Kattan about Kattan’s literary legacy.

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