Examining the BBC’s track record on Jewish refugees from Arab lands

On November 30th 2013 the BBC News website’s home page and Middle East page both promoted a feature titled “In pictures: Early years of Palestinian refugees” which showcases images from the newly digitised archives of UNRWA – currently being promoted by that organization within the framework of its permanent public relations campaign. 

In pictures Palestinian refugees

Quite how the promotion of campaigning material produced by politically motivated organisations can be considered part of the BBC’s remit or in adherence to its editorial guidelines on impartiality is a (big) question in itself, but it is notable that the captions to the photographs showcased by the BBC adhere diligently to the UNRWA script, with the text accompanying the final photograph, for example, reading:

“There are now four generations of Palestinian refugees. The “right of return” to their former homes in what is now Israel remains one of the thorniest issues in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”

But of course the issue of Palestinian refugees is only half the story. The other half – that of Jewish refugees from Arab lands – has no dedicated UN refugee agency to document its history, no hereditary refugee status, no UN sponsored ‘Solidarity Day’ and no UN funded committee  to champion its ‘inalienable rights’.

The other half of that story has in fact never been mentioned in any UN resolution whatsoever in the past 66 years, as was pointed out by Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, at a special UN session held on November 21st.

“In his statement, Prosor decried the United Nations’ actions. “Since 1947, there have been 687 resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. Over 100 of those resolutions “deal specifically with the Palestinians refugees. And yet as we speak today, not one resolution says a single word about the Jewish refugees.”  “

The special session was titled “The Untold Story of the Middle East: Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries,” and was hosted by the World Jewish Congress. The event featured testimonies from speakers including Lucette Lagnado, Linda Menuhin and Levana Zamir and the film below was also screened. In conversation with BBC Watch, Ambassador Prosor noted that only one Arab country was represented at the event. 

As readers may already be able to guess, that recent conference was not covered by the BBC’s UN correspondent. Whilst it is not true to say that the BBC ignores the issue completely (see here, here, here, here and here for example) its coverage of Palestinian refugees continues to be considerably more extensive – and notably less controversial – than that of the content it produces on the subject of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. 

A search for ‘Jewish refugees from Arab lands’ on the BBC News website produces 52 results (dating from between March 2002 and November 2013) – many of which are not actually directly related to the subject. In contrast, a search on the same website for ‘Palestinian refugees’ produces 1,304 results. 

Search BBC website Jewish refugees

Search BBC website Palestinian refugees

To use a term frequently employed by the BBC in its Middle East coverage, that ratio is of course disproportionate and – in addition to compromising the BBC’s commitment to impartiality as laid down in its editorial guidelines – also goes against the obligations of the BBC’s constitutional basis, according to which one of its public purposes is to build a “global understanding of international issues”.

Understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be promoted by consistent under-reporting of the story of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. 

 

BBC Arabic on Jews from Arab lands

BBC Arabic recently featured a programme and an article about Israeli Jews with origins in Arab countries, by Omar Abdel-Razek, titled “Arab Jews in Israel between marginalisation and integration”. The audio version can be heard here and the written version read here

Fortunately, the wonderful ‘Point of no Return’ blog has a much better version of the written article than automatic translation can provide, together with valuable insights. 

“On the plus side : the programme humanises Jews in Israel, and interviews some who voice mainstream views – notably, Eli Avidar and Levana Zamir, who deftly quash the idea of a return to Arab lands while these are being poisoned with antisemitism. On the minus side, the programme adopts a far-left discourse, assuming ‘Arab Jews’ were exploited by Ashkenazim as a labour reservoir and stripped of their culture. […] The mere fact that the programme calls them ‘Arab Jews’ diminishes their separate Jewish identity.”

Particularly interesting is this unsourced statement in the written article: [emphasis added]

“History records that Arab Jews in Israel live between marginalization and integration, but that most of them did not embrace the idea of ​​Zionism before the establishment of Israel.”

It is, of course, impossible to know the views of all of the hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands who arrived in Israel both before and after the establishment of the state, but certainly this one-dimensional, Eurocentric view of Zionism does not take into account movements such as E’ela BeTamar which saw thousands of Yemenite Jews make their way to pre-state – and pre-mandate – Palestine between 1881 – 1882, inspired by the spiritual belief in the importance of their re-settling of their ancient homeland which was one of the precursors to the Zionist movement.  

Contrary to the impression given in the article, the immigration of those Yemenite Jews actually pre-dated the arrival of European Jews, so whilst many did end up using their existing experience of working in agriculture, their arrival in the country was certainly not purely “as an alternative to Arab workers in the plantations of European Jews”.

Neither does this version of history take into account the existence of Zionist societies in Arab countries such as Morocco, where the first branches were established only a few years after the 1897 Basel Conference. 

Another one of those Zionist societies was located in Tripoli, Libya, and in the early 1930s one of its members – a young man named Mordechai – managed to obtain from the British Mandate authorities one of the much-coveted, rarely issued ‘certificates’ for legal immigration to Palestine for himself, his wife and their first-born son – on account of his being a carpenter: a trade given priority. Pictured below are some of the tools which in fact enabled him to overcome the obstacles to immigration set in place by the British which Zionists from all over the world – including those from Arab lands – faced at the time. 

SONY DSC

Mordechai was this writer’s partner’s grandfather and the fourth generation of his offspring is now growing up in Israel.

Once again invoking a bizarre version of history, the BBC article states: [emphasis added]

“There are those who believe that they were forced to migrate [from Arab lands] after the escalation of the Palestinian Arab conflict.”

Mordechai’s daughter-in-law could cast some light upon that particular distortion, having experienced the pogroms in Libya in 1945 and in June 1948. It was after the latter bout of violence that her family – after hundreds of years of living in Tripoli – made hurried arrangements to move to the new Jewish state, as did over thirty thousand others. That exodus did not take place because of a “belief” that they were being “forced to migrate”, but for practical reasons of survival. The minority of Libyan Jews who remained in the country were subjected to increasing discrimination.

“1. Jews cannot vote, attain public offices nor serve in the army or police.

2. The government is authorized by law to take title to the “properties of certain Jews.”

3. Jews are prohibited from acquiring new property.

4. Jews cannot receive passports or certification of their Libyan nationality. If a Jew wants to leave the country he may obtain a special travel document which does not indicate that he has Libyan nationality. If he does not leave within six months after receiving the document, it expires and he automatically loses his nationality and property rights.”

The Six Day War in 1967 brought renewed pogroms against Libya’s few remaining Jews – and an end to 2,500 years of Jewish presence in that country. 

It is highly regrettable that the BBC chooses to entrench inaccuracies concerning Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews from Arab lands in this manner – particularly when its target audience is obviously the Arabic-speaking world.  

BBC report on Jews in Tunisia tainted by agenda-driven addition

h/t David

The BBC World Service’s recent two-part ‘Heart and Soul’ programme on the subject of Jews from Arab lands was, to many, a refreshing piece of reporting on the whole. 

(See our posts here and here.) 

Presenter Magdi Abdelhadi’s visit to Tunisia was also featured in the Magazine section of the BBC News website on October 24th, with the article reflecting much of the radio broadcast’s content. 

Somebody, however, apparently could not resist adding to Mr Abdelhadi’s report a side panel of ‘facts’ titled “The Exodus”, where we are informed that: 

“As reports of Zionist settlers driving Palestinians off [sic] their villages hit Arab capitals during the 1940s anti-Jewish sentiment hit new heights”

So, despite numerous examples, including the massacre of Jews in Baghdad in 1828, mass forced conversions in the Persian city of Meshed in 1839, the Damascus blood libel in 1840, the pogroms in Morocco in 1905, the 1929 Hebron massacre and the Farhud in 1941, the BBC once more returns to the simplistic narrative of contextualising prejudice and violence against Jews from Arab lands solely as a reaction to Israel and Zionism. 

What a shame it is that Magdi Abdelhadi’s insightful report from Tunisia has been tainted by the reversion to agenda-inspired versions of history. 

BBC World Service programme on Jews from Arab lands – part 2

In the second part of the BBC World Service ‘Heart and Soul’ programme entitled ‘Arab Jews: A Forgotten Exodus’ (which can be listened to here), presenter Magdi Abdelhadi travelled to Tunisia to meet members of its tiny Jewish community. 

To his credit, Abdelhadi did a much better job in this second episode than in the first. Not only did he not shy away from presenting the various threats posed  by Islamist extremists  to the continued existence of Tunisia’s remaining Jewish community, but he vigorously challenged Rachid al Ghannouchi – leader of the En-Nahda party which heads the coalition in Tunisia’s current government – on his ‘double speak’ regarding attacks on Jews and his party’s relationship with the Salafists carrying them out. 

Al Ghannouchi has often been portrayed by some members of the Western media (and even by some Western governments) as a ‘moderate’, despite – among other things – his party’s feting of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh last January and his own long extremist history

Magdi Abdelhadi, however, seems to have got Ghannouchi’s number. Perhaps he could help out with some sorely-needed editing on the BBC’s ‘Country Profile’ page for Tunisia, where interim president Moncef Marzouki is presented as a “counterweight” to the Islamist En-Nahda party – despite his having earlier this year sponsored a conference co-organised by the Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood-linked ‘Palestinian Return Centre’  – and where a profile of the En-Nahda party includes the claim that Ghannouchi  is “widely viewed as a moderate, reform-minded Islamist”. 

BBC World Service programme on Jews from Arab lands – part 1

If you happened to miss the first episode of the BBC World Service ‘Heart and Soul’ programme entitled ‘Arab Jews: A Forgotten Exodus’ which we mentioned in a previous post, it can be heard here

To give credit where it is due, the programme did try to boldly go where no BBC reporter has gone before and in general gave the impression of trying to present a reasonably balanced picture. However, little – if any – context was given in relation to anti-Jewish discrimination or pogroms in Arab lands prior to the emergence of the Zionist movement and the establishment of Israel. 

Neither did the programme relate to the additional influence of attitudes and ideologies imported by European colonialists or the consequences of, for example, the Vichy regime in North Africa.  

In addition, several of the interviewees perhaps gave the impression that Jews in Arab lands were not interested in Zionism which – although perhaps the case for some – is by no means true of all. Consequently, listeners may have been left with the impression that the persecution of Jews in Arab lands has a background exclusively related to Zionism and Israel. 

Impressions of the programme as recorded by Bataween at the ‘Point Of No Return’ blog can be read here

Part two of the programme – in which the presenter will visit the Jewish community in Tunisia – is still to come. 

Upcoming BBC WS programme on Jews from Arab lands

Readers may be interested in having prior notice of a programme scheduled to be broadcast on the BBC World Service this coming Saturday, October 13th 2012, with repeats the following day. 

The two part programme is entitled “Arab Jews: A Forgotten Exodus”. 

For background on the use of the term ‘Arab Jews’, see this article from the blog ‘Point Of No Return’ and this essay by Lyn Julius from ‘Jewish Quarterly’.