Monday, December 05, 2016

Arab Jews: The Eternally Displaced

Priya Singh
(Priya is a Research Scholar at the University of Calcutta and a commentator on West Asian Politics. She can be reached at

 On December 1, 2016, the World Jewish Congress, along with Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, honoured the Jews who fled from the Arab lands after the establishment of the state of Israel, at the UN headquarters in New York. Evelyn Sommer, Chair of World Jewish Congress, North America, observed that “the time has come” for the international community to take tangible measures to make sure that there was justice for the refugees, who unlike the Palestinian refugees, have been neither acknowledged nor aided in any way by the United Nations. On November 30, 2016 in an event organised by the Social Equality Ministry, Israel observed the third annual commemoration of the expulsion of an estimated 850,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries during the course of the 20th century. It was on June 23, 2014 that the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) passed a law designating November 30 as Jewish Refugee Day. The explanation for this decision was to bring to the fore the “forgotten exodus and history of the region and recognition that there were two populations displaced, Palestinian and Jewish.” Both communities were regarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be “bona fide” refugees. 
Prior to the 1948 mass migrations, there was a significant and vibrant Jewish community in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. The story of the mass migration of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries, in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the creation of the state of Israel, has never really been part of the debate concerning Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli engagements at reconciliation. There are those who contend that the claims of the Jewish refugees and their voices have been excluded from the broader refugee narrative that has been dominated by the Palestinian refugees. Consequently, the Jewish refugee migrations conjure the notion of a Jewish Naqba (Catastrophe) along the lines of the more established and accepted Palestinian Naqba, signifying the expulsion of the Palestinians in the wake of the 1948 war, giving birth to the Palestinian refugee problem.  The contention has been severely criticised by the Palestinians who do not regard the Jews from Arab lands as refugees but as emigrants who returned to Israel, their professed homeland, either voluntarily or as part of a political decision. The Israeli government’s official position on the Jews from the Arab lands is that they are refugees who have a right to the property left behind in their country of origin. The Jewish exodus of 1948 apparently involved the migration of an estimated 850, 000 Jews from Arab and Muslim Lands. The Palestinian exodus of 1948, on the other hand is said to have witnessed the expulsion of an estimated 720, 000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.  The Palestinian Arabs fled to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and to nearby countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The Arab Jews migrated to the new state of Israel, United States, west Europe and south America.
The term Arab Jews refers to people of Jewish faith historically connected with the Arab Muslim world. The Arab Jews had been thoroughly Arabized, proficient in Arabic and had become an indelible part of the social and cultural life in their nations of origin. In countries like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, Jews occupied high economic and political positions though the picture was not idyllic at all times and there were the intermittent hurdles, instances of discrimination and violence as well. While Israel considers Arab Jews to be genetically Arab, Arabs regard them as inadequately Arab. The historical process that led to the displacement of the Palestinians was intrinsically linked with the process that expelled the Arab Jews from their land of origin. As a result, both communities were deprived of their property, land, national and political rights. The Arab Jews were uprooted from their roots in the Arab world and from their deeply entrenched history and culture in Israel. Unlike the Palestinians who have nurtured the shared advocacy of yearning for their land of origin in their diasporic existence, the Arab Jews have been confined to a situation of no return wherein they are prohibited from evoking nostalgia of belonging to their place of origin. The Arab Jews were painstakingly displaced from the Arab world and “de-Arabized.”  The Zionist ideology as well as the Arab national discourse considered “Arabness” and “Jewishness” as exclusive, binary categories. The state of Israel in the process of creating a Jewish nation, initiated the project of transforming the Arab Jews into Israeli Jews, which entailed a meticulous mobilisation of the educational and social apparatus of the state. A new term, Mizrahim (signifying “Easterners” or “Orientals”) was coined for the Jews from the Arab and Muslim world, which has become popular since the 1990s, indicative of both the origin and experience of the non-Ashkenazi (Jews of central or eastern European descent)Jews in Israel.

Once considered as  “backward” people who could destabilize Israel’s assertion of being a colony of the “civilised” west in the Middle East, only to be included in the nation-building project purely because of the holocaust, the Mizrahis enjoy a paradoxical existence in modern day Israel. The ruptures and fault lines within Israeli society and polity has not really succeeded in representing the warped identity of the Mizrahis. There exists a deep rooted resentment among the Mizrahis for the Ashkenazis, who in turn harbour a deep sense of mistrust for the Arab Jews. The Ashkenazis, by and large perceived the Mizrahis as having more in common with Palestinians than Jews, as such the state segregated Mizrahim from the Ashkenazim by means of separate communities and education systems, where Arabic was prohibited. The disconnect continues till date.

However, just as fused identities are continually evolving in nature, the Mizrahis continue to keep the connect by way of an animated exchange of ideas with Arab, Turkic, Greek, Indian, and Iranian popular cultures primarily through the medium of television, films, music videos and concerts that shatter the Eurocentric Israeli approach. Such instances of participation represent a type of subconscious contravention of a prohibited longing culminating in the construction of a new identity, which does not view Arabs and Arabness in contrast or contradictory to something but rather perceives “Arab” as an inherent, fundamental and completely spontaneous component of the Mizrahi identity. There has been some resistance from the Arab Jews, politically, since the 1970s when a local chapter of the Black Panthers, named after the militant African-American group in the United States was constituted replicating its demands for radical change. This was followed by the Keshet movement demanding an equitable peace for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the cultural, political, and economic incorporation of Israel/Palestine into the Middle East in the process putting to close the binaries and one-dimensional chronicling of Middle Eastern identities.


Sino-Bangladesh Entente: A Looming Concern for India?

Srimanti Sarkar

(Srimanti is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, and can be reached at

Bangladesh today is fast emerging as a vibrant economy with significant advancements taking place especially in its development sector. It has a huge labour force, a potential market, and a very significant geo-strategic location in between the three major economies, viz. India, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. This has attracted countries around the world and especially in the region, including China, to take keen interest in Bangladesh. China also has been regarded as a plausible regional partner and a “time-tested, all-weather” friend by Bangladesh with whom bilateral relationship has been clear of the contingencies of changing political regimes. Likewise, China even considers a well-developed Bangladesh an “asset” for her with a potential to prosper as a vibrant economy.  The growing Sino-Bangladesh synergy should be understood in light of the major cooperative measures undertaken in sectors like trade, investment and infrastructural development, defence, energy, culture and environment between the two countries.
But, whether China’s increasing clout in Bangladesh is seemingly an ‘entente’ having major socio-economic and geo-strategic implications is a matter to carefully ponder upon. While China strives to realise, it’s so called, “Chinese Dream”[1]—it will be judicious to assess whether Sino-Bangladesh interests converge to affect India’s position in a negative way. The following section will try to appraise whether Sino-Bangladesh ties pose an immediate and impending threat upon India.

The fast normalisation and affirmative conditioning of the Sino-Bangladesh bilateral relations though seem to be a natural upshot of regionalism; when looked from a security perspective hints a critical geo-strategic concern for India. Bangladesh’s growing closeness with China is, more than often, seen as a tactic by the former to counter balance India out of, what Keohane’s conceptualises as, the ‘Lilliputians’ Dilemma’. It implies that small states primarily adopts three broad policies while acting alone vis-a-vis big states—viz. a  passive  strategy  of  renunciation,  an  active  strategy  designed  to  alter  the  external  environment  in  their  favour  (e.g.,  subversion), or a defensive strategy helping them to preserve the status quo (e.g., traditional diplomacy, deterrence)—in order to cope with their high (and rising) costs of independence. Although Bangladesh cannot be literally categorised as a ‘small’ state in terms of its geographical size and population, it is perceptively a ‘small power’ compared to both India and China. Accordingly, Bangladesh seems to adopt the third strategy of maintaining a status quo with regard to India—as pursuing a passive strategy of renunciation will be impractical given her unavoidable dependence on India (which almost entirely surrounds Bangladesh from all the three sides), and altering India’s pre-dominance in the region is literally not feasible (which by virtue of her sheer size and huge repository of all kinds of resources is the largest power in South Asia)—while fostering closer ties with China in an attempt to diversify her over dependence on India. But, Bangladesh seems to be a geo-strategically significant country for China as well, and the growing Sino-Bangladesh relations is often perceived as an integral part of China’s, so-called, “Look South and South-East Asia Policy” to which Bangladesh acts as a potential gateway. Considering China’s keen policy overtures in South Asia, where India is a core country, it is more than often apprehended that China is trying to build a chain of influence around India – in her neighbourhood – in order to lessen India’s geo-political clout in the region. China has been pro-active regarding her ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, which has gained significant traction. Through the OBOR initiative, China attempts to curve out a continental geo-strategic[2] and maritime realm[3] which will have definite implications across regions of Asia as well as South Asia. Under the OBOR initiative, the ‘Belt and Road’ are expected to loop and branch and meet at critical points; and Bangladesh features in both the overland component of the initiate–-via the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC); as well as in the maritime component—as a port hub for the Maritime Silk Road.

For China, the BCIM Corridor is a key corridor in its south-eastern region, just like the geo-strategically significant China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in its west. For Bangladesh, the corridor is central because it will help attract India’s $1.2 billion market in the west, China’s $1.4 billion market in the north and Myanmar’s $70 million market in the east. With Bangladesh literally posited in the middle and with its own market pull of 160 million people it will be able to reap substantial benefits.[4] However, with excellent connections developed among these huge markets, a frenzy of economic activity will be inevitable among all the four countries as well. India, off late has shown enthusiasm in taking ahead the BCIM-EC which will link Kolkata with Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, passing through Myanmar and Bangladesh, with Mandalay and Dhaka as the focal points. But, for India some of the considerations have been that, this route does not follow  the meandering  Asian  Highway-1  route  from Imphal  through  the  Assam  Valley and  Meghalaya to  Bangladesh.  Instead it cuts directly across the Barak Valley through Silchar-Karimganj-Sutarkandi. This renders somewhat futile the expectations of developing and connecting India’s north eastern region (NER) by making the corridor pass through the states of Nagaland, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, as well as Sikkim. However, the Indian government has proposed to build roads and railway linkages which will pass through the landlocked regions like Barak Valley, Tripura and Mizoram and subsequently join the BCIM Corridor. This will then provide the much needed boost in developing India’s NER

Traveller, Refugee: The Rohingya Refugee Crisis in the light of the Condé Nast controversy.

Apala Kundu

(Apala is a student of the Department of English, M.A., at Presidency University, and can be reached at

International celebrity Priyanka Chopra’s appearance in an “insensitive” piece of attire- a shirt that has the words “migrant”, “refugee” and “outsider” crossed out in red while the word “traveller” stands out- on the cover of the October-November 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveller India magazine, sparked widespread controversy and furore on the social media platform, particularly on Twitter. Outraged Twitter users lashed out at Chopra for what they considered an “offensive” and “insensitive” act that sent out a “privileged” and “elitist” message, unheeding of the actual plight of refugees. With her act making international headlines and inviting scathing criticism from people all over the world, Chopra has since issued a public apology through India’s NDTV news channel stating that she was “really apologetic about the fact that sentiments were hurt” (The Guardian 2016), claiming that the magazine’s campaign had been directed towards addressing the issue of xenophobia. The magazine too came out in defence of its cover, arguing that the intention of the photograph was to drive home its belief in a world without borders. “Whether we are moving across oceans or just a few kilometres, or in our mind's eye, into a completely different world, whether we are doing so due to free will or circumstance - we are all travellers” (BBC News 2016). Indubitably, the content of the cover is disturbing. But far more than insensitivity, the strand of argument forwarded in its defence exposes the glaring ignorance and insouciance that informs such ways of thinking.

Refugee movements and flows constitute one of the most important and challenging problems confronting the international community today in the post- Cold War era. But the issue of refugee flows is more than just a humanitarian concern and calls for more than just a humanitarian response. Refugee movements are inextricably intertwined with political, economic, social and security issues that are of immense concern to both “the sending and the receiving countries” (Loescher 1993, 12). The prevention and solution of the refugee problem therefore, “are not just matters of international charity or humanitarian action by UNHCR [United Nations Refugee Agency] and other agencies; ultimately they depend on wider political and diplomatic actions taken by regional and extra-regional states and international organizations to manage regional and ethnic conflicts and to initiate the reintegration of refugees and other displaced people” (12).  

The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defined refugees as “any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This widely accepted definition of a refugee is deeply imbued with a sense of compulsion, which stands in stark contrast to the notions of voluntary choice, luxury and leisure that inform the idea of travel. Refugee flows should be seen for what they are, that is, individual and collective acts of fleeing across the physical borders of the homeland, motivated by a strong fear of persecution or even at times, of death.  Publisher Arpita Das (2016), in her The Huffington Post blog, puts it succinctly: “In our times, these words, ‘refugee’, ‘immigrant’ . . . are important markers of many identities which the wearer of that label is not willing to eschew for something as privileged, as generic as ‘traveller’. . . . The lack of choice in removing one's home and hearth from the familiar to the alien is one fraught with heartbreak and the feeling of being cornered.” The argument espoused by the magazine in its defence is thus exposed as “the outcome of a privileged view of a global issue that does not touch the holder of the view in the least, but is perceived as something which ought to feature in their narrative because it is so ‘topical’” (Das 2016).

Incidentally, the topicality of this narrative serves to unmask yet another disquieting dimension of the refugee crisis that confronts the world today. Priyanka Chopra’s apology, Condé Nast’s defence statement, media coverage of the controversy and the general public’s responses to the controversy on Twitter- all of these make conspicuous the bias in the response of the international community and international media to the global refugee crisis. For though global in character the refugee crisis is, certain instances of it receive conscious media focus and reportage, and involve greater participation from member states of the international community, while others are kept out of the spotlight, and consequently, outside public consciousness. This bias takes the form of a First World-Third world binary, which is reflective of the neo-colonialist character of the international community at present.

Absence of Citizenship Hinders Employment: An Analysis of the Relationship between Education of Refugee Youth and Employment Opportunities

Maneesh P 

(1Project fellow, Department of Econometrics, School of Economics, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai Tamil Nadu, India.He can be reached at

The freedom of movement of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees was restricted at the time of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and they were confined within the camps. During this period refugees suffered alot due to oppressive rules and regulations and stringent security measures were adopted to preclude the connection with LTTE. Refugees were not allowed to work outside the camp during this period and those staying outside the camps were arrested and shifted to government camps. The situation has changed since then and refugees enjoy the freedom of movement with very few restrictions. The government has been providing free education upto the XIIth standard in government and government aided schools. In addition, they provide free note books, text books, uniforms, noon meals and bus passes. A free bicycle is also given to students studying in the XIth standard. In the earlier years refugees were allowed to go out and earn a living with an agreement of returning to the camp by 6.00 p.m every day. But now they may go out at any time and stay anywhere and are required to present themselves in the camp one day in a month to receive the monthly dole that they are entitled to. If he/she is absent without a genuine reason he/she will lose the registration in the camp. Families in a good economic position have settled outside the camp. These families have to register themselves in the nearest police station for security reasons. Refugee girls in the camps have opted for a nursing course so that they may go abroad to make a decent living. The paradox is that the government has been providing educational opportunities to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees without creating opportunities for employment. Youth living in the camps opt for private sector jobs on completion of their education. Moreover, the monthly dole provided by the government to each member of the household is not enough to meet the household expenses, which may induce the children to go out to work instead of going to school.
The relationship between the dropout rate of refugee children from school and the absence of employment in the government sector has not been explored by researchers. Even though a refugee youth has completed secondary education or degree, he/she has to get a job in the private sector or the unorganised sector as manual labourer. There is often no connection between their educational status and the kind of employment they get engaged with. Since the flow of refugees in the local labour market has resulted in a fall in wage level and refugees are willing to undertake risky jobs that local people abstain from, trade unions are fighting for job security and minimum wages. Refugees refrain from organising themselves in a union to demand their rights due to over reliance on government schemes and absence of citizenship. Refugees have the fear that if they protest against government rules and regulations the government may completely withdraw welfare services and impose strict regulations.  Therefore refugees have been obeying government rules and regulations and lead an unsatisfactory life without any vision of the future.
India has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (Geneva Convention) and the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees neither has it enacted domestic law for refugees. The legal status of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India is officially governed by the Foreigners Act 1946 and The Citizenship Act 1955 which defines all non-citizens who enter without visas to be illegal migrants, with no exception for refugees or asylum seekers. India has not adopted a national refugee legislation nor have the national asylum procedures been established, but still refugees are provided with accommodation and financial support.  India has decided not to give permanent resident status or Indian citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, expecting them to return to their home land following the conclusion of the war. As of January 2016, there are 64,079 refugees living in 108 government authorised camps in Tamil Nadu.

Table 1: Camp population abstract

Month & 
Child Male

Source: Department Of Rehabilitation, Tamil Nadu

Absence of right to access government jobs in India has compelled the refugees to get engaged in unorganized manual labour market and private sector. Agriculture and fishing was the job of these refugees when they were in Sri Lanka. Refugees have no right to buy land or property to start a business or engage in agriculture. Therefore, most of them are involved in painting, digging, construction works and agriculture on other person’s land. This work is generally available only a few days in a month and they stay unemployed the remaining days. 

              In 2011, 1728 persons were returned to Sri Lanka and 1291 persons in 2012. The return of refugees to Sri Lanka has been declining gradually (see figure 1). In 2013, 273 families, (718 members) were returned to Sri Lanka. Likewise, 453 persons were returned to their native places in Sri Lanka during 2015. In the beginning of 2016, 50 families consisting of 163 persons were returned to Sri Lanka. The educated refugees return to Sri Lanka to renew their passport so that they may go to foreign countries in search of a job.
Refugees are unskilled labours therefore they have least bargaining power for higher wage rates. Simultaneously, the increase in supply of labour force in the domestic labour market has resulted in a fall in wage rate. Refugees have experienced discrimination in payment and recruitment. Refugee camps are located in interior parts of Tamil Nadu where employment opportunities are limited. If a refugee youth is made to discontinue his education, he will enter the local labour market to search jobs. This will result in further decline in the wage rate. It is necessary to give citizenship and access to government jobs to these refugees in order to curtail dropout of refugee youth and solving their unemployment problems. Refugees can achieve higher socio-economic well being only by ensuring better employment and effective social security schemes. Provision of education in skill development and loans to setup small business units through NGOs and banks will help to reduce the problem of unemployment. 


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