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Shiko Behar, Ilan Halevi, Nizar Hassan, Kochavi Shemesh: Displaced Persons: Arab-Jews, Arab-Palestinians, Mizrahis and Palestinian Refugees

Dr. Moshe (Shiko) Behar is a lecturer in Israeli and Middle East Studies at the University of Manchester, director of the Palestinian organization 'Alternative Information Centre'. Nizar Hassan is lecturer at Sapir College. Ilan Halevi is Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Kochavi Shemesh is an attorney and leader of the Black Panthers in Israel.



Displaced Persons: Arab-Jews, Arab-Palestinians, Mizrahis and Palestinian Refugees

In the early years of the State of Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Housing populated the abandoned Arab homes with Jewish immigrants from North African countries.
Documentation of the fourth meeting in the series “Meetings from the Dark Perspective,” the headline of which was “1948 Refugees: Mizrahi Perspectives.” A panel discussion with Ilan Halevi, Kochavi Shemesh, Nizar Hassan and Shiko Behar*. The meeting was conducted in Tel Aviv, 8 December 2003.


The meeting opened with a screening of Nizar Hassan’s film Cut (Israel 2001, 70 minutes, Hebrew, translation to English). The hero of the film, Haim Dokomanji arrived in Moshav Ajur from Turkey in 1953. Haim, who arrived with a suit and tie, was shocked by what he found in Israel, and was soon contemplating his bitter fate. Some time later, he met Salome Jamo, who arrived at the Moshav from Iraq with her family just a few years earlier. It was love at first sight, and despite both their families’ reservations, the two were soon married. When the Jewish Agency declared Ajur to be a cooperative village, the two families found this marriage useful. They reached a political agreement between themselves and ran together for the village council. It was a pact that lasted several years, until the start of political in—fighting between the village residents over control of the council. This is the story of ordinary people, who arrived in Israel because of their beliefs and found themselves accepting the values and rules of a reality they had never anticipated. A simple tale about the realization of an ardent belief, reflects a truly tragic fate that repeats itself again and again.


Shiko Behar: When we thought about the topic “1948 Refugees: Mizrahi Perspectives,” it was clear to me that we had to screen the outstanding film of Nizar Hassan, “Cut.” In this discussion we will raise topics that are almost never discussed openly and critically within the Israeli public. As we know clearly today, during the 1948 war approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from here and they left all of their property behind. In December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which determined amongst other things that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”  

Several months later the UN General Assembly conditioned its acceptance of the State of Israel as a UN member on implementation of Resolution 194. We know this did not happen. In the next years the situation of Jews in Arab countries deteriorated. Approximately half a million of them came to Israel. Israel generally contends that this is a “population exchange”  and asks to exchange the private property of the Arab Jews and with that of the Palestinians. The simple idea of returning the property directly to its rightful owners never arises in Israel, just like the thought that a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee problem will greatly assist in the compensation of Mizrahis by both Arab states and Israel, the latter which did everything possible to separate between Jews and non—Jews in accordance with the central idea of Zionism.

Ilan Halevi: As a member of the Palestinian delegation in the matter of refugees I was a partner to the consolidation of the official proposal in this matter in the early 1990s. The official Palestinian position has not changed, and it says that the right of return is not given to negotiations or bargaining. With this, on the basis of recognition by Israel of this right, it is possible to conduct negotiations about its implementation.

One of the things that happened in Camp David, although there was disagreement, was a disconnect between the subject of compensation and that of realizing the right of return. This is a very big change as according to Resolution 194 of the UN General Assembly, every Palestinian refugee has a right to return, if he so desires, to his home and if he does not want to, he is eligible for compensation. This was in 1948, and then of course they thought that one who returns will return to his property. The choice between return and compensation essentially blocked debate for tens of years, as its meaning was that the refugee had to sell his right of return, something that would not be done and is considered a type of treachery.

The agreement at Camp David, also by Israel, to completely disconnect the matter of compensation from the realization of this or that option concerning return, opened up the discussion. According to the proposals at Camp David, whether the refugee returns or not, he would receive compensation for both his property and his suffering over the years.

Shiko Behar: My question is directed to Kochavi Shemesh. You and many of your friends in the Black Panthers came from the (Jerusalem neighborhood of) Musrara. You entered or were placed in the homes of Palestinians and you sat on the border in the period prior to 1967. Was there awareness, consciousness, any knowledge amongst the Mizrahis concerning the past of the neighborhood and the question how you arrived at where you were? Also, was the Palestinian question connected in some way to the struggle of the Panthers that began in the early 1970s about the rights of Mizrahi Jews within Israel (which at the time was managed by the Labor Party)?

Kochavi Shemesh: As a Jerusalemite it is rather odd that I’m saying this, but I didn’t know Arabs until 1967. Until after the war, I did not see an Arab in my life. In Jerusalem the old neighborhoods were predominantly Arab neighborhoods, whether Talbiyeh, Katamon, Musrara, Baka or Ein Kerem. Apart from a very small group of Arabs in Beit Tsafafa, when we arrived in Jerusalem there were no Arabs. I lived my entire life in Jerusalem and never saw an Arab.

When we arrived at Musrara it was closed. There were still barbed wire fences and cement blockades that blocked the streets. I remember that we broke into a row of shops, and Mizrahi families lived in the shops. On the other hand there were Moroccans who arrived to Ajur in an unorganized fashion, who left the transit camps and wanted to live in Jerusalem. They arrived, and slowly were pushed across the border to Jordan. I remember numerous demonstrations. As a child I recall that my aunt was once beaten up, detained and they tried to kick her out. All the time there were demonstrations about housing. As a child I won’t forget this.

One day Moshe Dayan arrived. At that time he was the Southern or Central Commander, I don’t recall, he was responsible for Jerusalem. He saw this entire ruckus—here demonstrators, there demonstrators—and he ordered the opening of Musrara. And within two days they took down the barbed wire fences, the cement blocks, and hundreds of families streamed in, Iraqis and Moroccans, to Musrara. The houses there were distributed according to rooms. For example, we were my mother and two children, so we received one room, that’s all, three by four meters and there was no floor.

All of the time there was dissent. Shiko asked if there was awareness. Awareness didn’t exist. The families who came from Arab states knew the official position of the Israeli government, which was very simple: the property of Israeli Arabs for the property of Jews from Arab states. I want to tell you something. I came from a very wealthy community. Iraqi Jewry, according to the estimates, the Jews of Iraq left behind approximately US $2 billion of that time, which is a fortune today. In today’s money this is approximately US $70 billion.

But a strange thing happened to us. You saw how we received homes. However, the inner Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem—such as Talbiye, Katamon and Baka, those not close to the border—all of them were populated by Ashkenazis. If it is property for property of the Jews from the Middle East, why did they put all the Ashkenazis in Talbiye?

On this point there was certainly awareness. I recall that the Mizrahi old people would say where am I from, what did I receive here, I received a room but had so much in my country of origin. On this background there was certainly great discontent. I remember that once we went to look at homes in Talbiye. It was very strange to see parents with one or two children in an apartment of eight rooms. I come from a small family, but in Musrara there were families with ten children in a room.

In retrospect I think how is it possible that in Jerusalem not one Arab remained? I saw an Arab with my own eyes only after the war, in 1967. I look at those in Beit Tsafafa, it was a completely closed area, they certainly almost did not leave the neighborhood. There was a military government. When I finally met Arabs I tried to speak Arabic, but it didn’t work for me, I didn’t know Arabic well enough so I began to learn Arabic from them.

All of the hatred began to develop not against the regime. While there was also hatred against the government, people hated Mapai, they hated many things, but most of the hatred and anger was toward the Arabs because they would fire on us every day. In Musrara it was routine, every time some legionnaire began to fire on us, there was no (Israeli) army, and the entire neighborhood would escape to the city center. It began with the shooting of one legionnaire and then all the positions began, one after the other, and the whole neighborhood escaped to the city center. After a few hours the shooting would cease and everyone would return. It was routine.

Now, against whom did hatred develop? There were no Arabs in Jerusalem, we didn’t see Arabs, but the shooting we heard and all the time we were told, your situation is because of the Arabs, look, there is a security situation. I believe it was this situation that resulted in development of the Black Panthers, because after 1967 the border moved and they began building the neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol. Everyone thought it was for us, the people of Musrara, and that soon we would be moved. Yet suddenly in 1971 we saw that new immigrants from Russia began to arrive and they were housed there.

The Black Panthers rose in Musrara, on the background of trouble on the border and afterwards the immigration from Russia. All throughout the years we were told that because of the security situation we were suffering. We can’t help you because the security situation is difficult. Of course it became apparent that this was nonsense.

This is the reason that I am one who believes that the integration between the problem of the Mizrahis and the problem of the Palestinians is a necessary one, that is to say, there is no possibility to disconnect the two problems from each other. Even if we want to solve the problems of the Mizrahis we must solve the national questions that exist between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Nizar Hassan: I am an Arab. I am also an Arab who lives in Palestine, although I am a citizen of Israel. I began working on the film in 1998, and today I don’t really understand why I made the film. You remember that between 1994 -1998, 2000, there was a celebration, and excuse my bluntness, but there was an orgy of (Jews and Palestinians) “always together.” I know numerous producers who made a living out of this togetherness. Someone came who wanted to make a film together. The truth is I refused this whole story, why do I always need this togetherness, to this day I don’t understand.

I wasn’t interested in Mizrahis, it doesn’t interest me. I am interested in territorial continuity. In my dream, I cannot distinguish amongst Palestine and Iraq, Egypt. If this is good or not is another story. Palestinian and Jewish families always moved freely in this space. They weren’t foreign. In East Jerusalem, the Old City, almost everyone is Tunisian. I understand that my family also perhaps came from Andalusia, Morocco, and later arrived at where we arrived. It is also possible to find families who moved in the other direction. Jewish, Muslim and Druze families also changed religions all the time.

I thought, how did the Arab world give up on its (Jewish) Arabs? This was the question I asked myself. In the wake of Oslo the fear was that perhaps they would also give up on the Christians. It frightened us. I also thought whether the Arab world is willing to take responsibility for what happened, and not only to talk about imperialism and Zionism.

Israel is the continuation of Europe. The success was that they succeeded in moving the two populations within the Arab world: the Palestinian population outside, and in this territory another population was placed.

When speaking about refugees in Israel, there is always someone who squirms in his chair. There is an original sin in Israel. “I don’t exactly sit on the village,” many Israelis emphasize, as if the Palestinian home was not precisely there, as if you cannot sue them as they don’t really live in your house. Those Israelis know this is the homeland of someone else. Since I was a child it was as if, particularly amongst those who love you very much and want to live with you, “I don’t live in an Arab house.” And if I live in an Arab house like in Musrara—then they want peace.
Ajur was the most developed city in the region, and it is three kilometers from the Palestinian Ajur. They had a problem: they couldn’t say Agur, as the Jewish Agency wanted in order to promote Hebrew, although officially the name of the moshav became Agur. It was impossible for the Kurdish Jews to say this. It didn’t work. They were asked “what, are you Arabs?” Because “Ajur” sounded like an Arab village.  

On the other hand, there is a success story from the Israeli perspective. Because in the end the residents became Mizrahi Israelis, and Mizrahi is Israeli. My problem is that I’m not interested in Israelis. They are actually not Jewish Arabs who are truly interested in their identity and see this Ajur as one continuity, and that it is their right to move between Palestine and Tunis. They are Mizrahis who can argue with Ashkenazis about the definition of Israeliness. I have nothing to do with that. The Mizrahi are oppressed or not oppressed, leave me alone with this story. I am personally not oppressed, although I know that the situation in which I live is different.

That they were promised the land of the Palestinians or the money they took in Iraq, and suddenly everything remained in the hands of the Ashkenazis, this is the discourse of my enemy, not mine. I don’t belong to this and I don’t want that solidarity. When the movie came out, all sorts of Mizrahis intelligentsia and wheelers and dealers began to argue whether there is a connection and if a Mizrahi or Palestinian struggle is needed. I say there is no connection and there will not be. With all due respect to what you think, there will not be.

The Arab world is extremely problematic, it isn’t even a nice place to live. I have a dream, and with this I am not alone, that this place will change and numerous things must be changed because regardless of everything, this is the place in which I want to remain. Please, so there is a discourse, so it is possible to begin building something different. To come and fight against the Ashkenazis, or help you to solve the national problem, however you want to define it—forget this, this is the PLO strategy.

From this my entire story comes. I thought about a discourse different than “come let’s celebrate, let’s kiss.” In my film I did not turn my camera on the “other.” I didn’t see the people of Ajur as the “other,” in my entire life I never saw them in this way, for me they are exiles just as I met Arab exiles in France, who no longer speak Arabic and you truly feel the exile.

The feeling that I attempted to convey and didn’t succeed, a most strong feeling, is that the people of Ajur and the surrounding area have barbeques on Holocaust Day! It is amazing, this alienation, and I think it is your obligation, that of the Jewish Israelis, to look at this and analyse the phenomenon. I think it is terrible. It took me two years to tell this story. For the first time I understand that the Holocaust is truly a religion in this Ajur, a secular religion. Now, these people understand that their oppression is me and the Ashkenazis, and that everything derives from this story of the Holocaust.

All of the anger of the Ashkenazis is focused on the Holocaust.

All of this story that “we are Jews, we are all Jews” is not exact at all. Judaism as the Kurdish understood it is not the Judaism about which the Ashkenazis speak. Judaism for the Ashkenazis is the Holocaust. All of the kibbutzs around Ajur spoke about this.

I went to a game of Beitar Jerusalem (Jerusalem football team supported primarily by Mizrahis) and heard half the stands calling to the referee, who was Ashkenazi, “Allah have mercy on Adolf,” because the referee ruled against Beitar. The sentence “death to Arabs” I barely heard. Not once and not twice I went to Beitar games, and the sentence “Allah have mercy on Adolf” I heard often. There is something here most problematic and sensitive. I think that Shas gave some answer. For Shas if we are Jews, there is a Jewish religion, and it’s not the Holocaust or the KGB.”

Kochavi Shemesh: I want to remark on what Hassan said. Really the Mizrahi question is Arabic. I can’t disassociate myself from the connection between Mizrahi, Arab and Palestinian when we speak both about the national question and the social question. In the national question we have a common interest and a common struggle, so it is impossible to separate. We live in the same place, we have the same problems and as Nizar looks at me as an Arab, the Ashkenazis also see me in this way. Do you think there is a difference? If I would go to Rehavia (Ashkenazi neighborhood in Jerusalem) they would detain me.

Ilan Halevi: There is no chance for a connection between the two struggles in the immediate term. Not that there is no connection; in the analytical, historical and political sense there is. But this connection is not expressed in the creation of a joint front of the struggle of Mizrahis or the Jewish Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian struggle.

I think that in reality it is true that in a certain period the PLO tried to develop such an approach. Not the PA, because the PA entered the logic of peace with the state of Israel as it is, so there is no longer much interest in Mizrahis, Neturei Karta or other forces that want to change the face of Israel from within. The attempt at Oslo was to reach an agreement with the Israeli regime, which failed.
It is true there is a retreat of the Palestinian demands in the past decade. We see this in the recent period in the double wording of the Geneva Initiative, which speaks indirectly and haltingly about recognition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel. Recognition of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state can be significant for the position of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

In several places in the Arab world—in Iraq, Egypt, the Maghreb countries—there is at least amongst the intelligentsia a rethinking exactly about what Nizar said, how did the Arab world give up on these Jewish Arabs? How did the Arab society in North Africa and in the West allow the Zionist movement to uproot Jews of the Arab world from the society of which they were a part? I cannot testify to a discussion on the popular level. This argument exists as the question weighs heavily on understanding the current situation. People what to understand what happened and why it happened.
In the consciousness of the Palestinians, but also in the Arab world, there is a retrospective feeling that something was missed in the process. For years before the establishment of Israel, years prior to 1948, from the beginning of the British mandate, the Palestinians and the entire Arab world warned of the international plot and conspiracy in the matter of stealing Palestine from its legal residents and the establishment of a Jewish state in place of them. They warned morning and night for the entire first half of the 20th century, and despite everything it happened.

The historical riddle remains, how could we so clearly know this, and still have failed to prevent the result? How did we see the future, but couldn’t do anything to change it? This question still aggravates, and not only historians.

*Ilan Halevi is a journalist, author and representative of Palestine in the Socialist International, an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid Conference, a member of the Palestinian delegation in the multilateral discussions on the topic of the Palestinian refugees. Kochavi Shemesh is an attorney and leader of the Black Panthers in Israel. Nizar Hassan is an Arab—Palestinian citizen of Israel, director of the film Cut in addition to others. Dr. Moshe (Shiko) Behar is a lecturer in Israeli and Middle East Studies at the University of Manchester.

This article originally appeared in Mitsad Sheni, the Hebrew language publication of the Alternative Information Center (AIC). Translated to English by the AIC.

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