A new hasbara campaign: Countering the ‘Arab Narrative’

‘Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries’, new propaganda initiative from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews convene at a sports
"To define [Jews from Arab countries] as refugees is exaggerated" [AFP]

A propaganda initiative by the Israeli government is taking direct aim at the core issue of Palestinian refugees through a manipulation of the stories of Jews who left Arab countries in the years after 1948.

The main instigator of this ‘Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries’ campaign – the name of a recent conference in Jerusalem – is Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, whose previous efforts have included laughing in the face of international law over dinner jazz.

According to The Jerusalem Post, Ayalon “called for the recognition of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries… to counter the ‘Arab narrative’ of the Israeli- Arab conflict”. Ynet called it a “new hasbara campaign”.

But while some Israeli officials clearly have high hopes for this approach, talking up Jewish refugees as a way of ‘balancing out’ or neutralising Palestinian claims is a strategy long criticised by many Zionists.

Back in April, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry Alon Liel criticised the new focus, saying that “to define [Jews from Arab countries] as refugees is exaggerated”. Iraqi-Israeli former Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillelhas stated: “I do not regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.” 

I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as refugee. “

– Yisrael Yeshayahu

Another former Knesset speaker, Yisrael Yeshayahu, expressed similar sentiments: “We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations.” Former-MK Ran Cohen, who emigrated from Iraq, once commented: “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”  

As well as encouraging a narrative contested by many Israelis, the attempt to link the two population movements is also illogical. The expulsion of Palestinians and destruction of hundreds of villages in 1948 was a catastrophe (Nakba) for an entire society, while in the case of Jews from the Middle East, their arrival in Israel was in line with the state’s Zionist raison d’être.

In the words of Israeli professor Yehouda Shenhav, “any reasonable person” must acknowledge the analogy to be “unfounded” :

Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine…Those who left did not do so of their own volition. In contrast, Jews from Arab lands came to this country under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some came of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.

There are other problems. Australian professor (and supporter of Israel) Dr Philip Mendes has written how “the Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries took place over many decades, before and after the Palestinian exodus” and “there is no evidence that the Israeli leadership anticipated a so-called population exchange when they made their arguably harsh decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees”. In other words: “the two exoduses…should be considered separately”.

Furthermore, one person’s rights are not ‘cancelled out’ by another’s: the rights of Jews to recognition of and compensation for lost properties across the Arab world are legitimate, and entirely separate from the Palestinian refugees’ rights. Yet revealingly, ask Danny Ayalon and Israel advocacy groups if they support full rights for all refugees, Jewish and Palestinian, and you will get prevarication or silence.

In the hands of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, this is yet another cynical propaganda ploy that seeks to counter growing awareness of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine with rhetoric of “the other Nakba”. As the co-founder of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) put it in 2007:

Most of the people advocating campus hasbara, or to general audiences, bring good talking points, but neglect the fact that we have a good balancing narrative, namely that more Jews were made refugees than Palestinians.

In June 1948, with hundreds of Palestinian villages already ‘cleansed’, senior Jewish National Fund official Yosef Weitz met with Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to discuss recommendations made by the so-called “Transfer Committee”.

The five specific proposals were to destroy villages, prevent Palestinians cultivating their land, settle Jews in some of the empty communities, pass relevant legislation, and employ propaganda against a return. According to Weitz,     Ben-Gurion “agreed to the whole line”.                                                                       

This, to borrow a phrase, colonial present, is what Danny Ayalon’s pet project is trying to conceal, and it is particularly ironic coming from a man who unashamedly promotes the continuation of ‘Judaisation’ policies in Israel today. Perhaps he should stick to YouTube.

Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.