July 31, 2003 | New York Daily News

A Refugee has Lessons for Arabs

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

An amazing reunion took place in Tel Aviv the other day. After being separated for 52 years, 79-year-old Salima Moshe Nissim of the southern Iraqi city of Basra embraced her 83-year-old sister, Marcel Madar. Madar had immigrated to Israel in 1951, when more than 130,000 Jews fled Iraqi anti-Semitism. Nissim stayed behind. Now, finally, there she was in Israel, one of six aging Iraqi Jews flown there this week in a top-secret exodus coordinated by the U.S. Army, the Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency and New York's Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Twenty-eight other elderly, ailing Iraqi Jews remain behind for now, the final remnant of a great community that thrived in Mesopotamia – now known as Iraq – for more than 2,500 years.

Jews first came there as slaves, captured by the Assyrians when they destroyed the biblical temple of Jerusalem. The psalms say they wept by the rivers of Babylon when they remembered Zion. But they soon developed a rich community of religious scholars, scientists and merchants. Some even became advisers to caliphs and kings.

By the 19th century, more than a quarter of Baghdad's population was Jewish. Then, in 1941, Iraqi nationalists found common cause with the Nazis. Pogroms and anti-Jewish legislation grew worse when Israel was born. With help from Jews everywhere, Israel organized a mammoth airlift. Iraq's price for freedom: Its Jews would have to leave behind everything they owned.

When I first visited Baghdad in 1989, fewer than 300 Jews remained in the city, gathering every Sabbath in a synagogue discreetly hidden behind a yellow brick wall just blocks from where Saddam Hussein's statue recently was toppled. Soon there will be none.

Iraq's Jewish community was not the only one to disappear from the Islamic world after 1948. Some 600,000 Jews fled homes in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iran.

You won't find any of these Arab Jews in refugee camps today. Most were almost immediately resettled in tiny Israel, where they've become part of the nation's life. When was the last time you heard of an Arab-born Jew getting on a Palestinian bus with a suicide bomb?

I say that because at about the time Jews left Arab lands, some 600,000 Palestinians fled the war the Arabs had launched against the newborn state of Israel. Rather than being resettled, most have been forced by their Arab brethren to fester in refugee camps around the Mideast. Palestinians say there are as many as 4 million such refugees today.

The answer to their woes is not a right of return to Israel, where they would destroy its character as a Jewish state. The answer is to learn from the Jews: Care for your brethren, resettle them, improve their lives, live in peace.