A little-noticed U.S. Supreme Court decision has reopened a forgotten chapter in Middle East history with far-reaching implications for the torturous, often violent politics of the region.
The court recently declined Coca-Cola Co.'s request to review a lower court's decision allowing a Canadian Jewish family to sue the soft-drink giant for trespass. The case was brought by the heirs of Joshias Bigio, a businessman in Egypt until the government expropriated his enterprises in the 1960s.
Thirty years later, Bigio's son, Refael, discovered that Coke was using one of his father's factories as part of its Egyptian bottling operations and asked for compensation. When that was not forthcoming, he filed a lawsuit—Bigio vs. The Coca-Cola Co.—in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The Bigios, who eventually settled in Canada, are Sephardim—Jews whose ancestors lived in Muslim countries for centuries before fleeing a wave of anti-Semitic violence and intimidation that began at the founding of Israel in 1948. Many had to abandon homes, businesses and life savings. The Bigio family hung on longer, heavily invested in factories and other enterprises and hoping to somehow weather the storm. "You had to leave with only five Egyptian pounds per person," said Refael Bigio. "Our family wound up eating in a soup kitchen in France."
Now some Jewish organizations see the Bigios' lawsuit as a way to get the Sephardim case into the court of public opinion.
"Why is it that the issue of Palestinian refugees is always talked about and the issue of Jewish refugees isn't?" asked Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Hoping to redress that imbalance, Klein's group is calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola products until the company settles accounts with the Bigio family. Klein says the ZOA, which is the nation's oldest pro-Israel group and claims a membership of 30,000, will picket a meeting of Coke shareholders next Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.
"The Egyptian government's actions were part of a campaign of anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution that caused almost a million Jews in Arab/Islamic countries, like the Bigios, to lose their homes, properties, businesses and livelihoods," the group said in calling for the Coke boycott.
The Bigios and other Sephardim are the counterparts of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.Indeed, Refael still has a document designating his mother, Bahia, as a refugee according to the United Nations' criteria. The plight of displaced Palestinians, many still living in refugee camps in nearby countries as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is well known. Acknowledging their "right of return" has consistently been a precondition of the Arab powers to negotiating a peace treaty with Israel. But the story of the Sephardic exodus from Arab lands has gone virtually unnoticed even by many American Jews, the vast majority of whom are of European, not Sephardic, origin.
"This year I decided to tell the story of exodus 1956 at our Passover table," said Isaac Cohen, referring to the annual commemoration of the ancient Jews' escape from bondage in Egypt. Cohen, a retired Northwestern University professor of medicine, and his parents had to flee their Egyptian homeland in the wake of the second Arab-Israeli war of 1956. A younger, American-born generation knows the story of the original Exodus, Cohen noted, but is largely unaware of the 20th Century exodus of Egyptian Jews.
The ZOA's estimate of nearly a million Jewish exiles from Arab and Muslim countries at that time might be a bit high. Martin Gilbert, biographer of Winston Churchill and author of many books on Middle Eastern history, estimates that 580,000 Jews from Arab countries took refuge in Israel, where they and their descendants constitute the largest segment of the Jewish state's population. An additional 260,000 Sephardim settled in Europe and North America.
By comparison, the United Nations estimated that more than 725,000 Palestinians fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. (Palestinian organizations claim a higher figure, the Israelis a lower one.)
In part, support for the Jewish refugee cause stems from a sense of equity and hopes of getting redress for a rapidly aging generation of Sephardim. The American Sephardi Federation has collected thousands of affidavits of refugees documenting their material losses, in case a legal venue is found to adjudicate their claims.
But the Sephardic cause also has become a part of the war of words accompanying the battles of tanks and bombs in the Middle East. It allows Israel's supporters to move beyond the moral defensive—having to answer the criticism that the Jewish state's founding brought misery to the Palestinians. The Bigios' case enables Zionists to point out that Arabs weren't the only ones to lose their homes; Arab hostility to the Jewish state made Jews homeless, too.
The American Sephardi Federation is pressing for congressional legislation "to make it U.S. policy to mention 'Jewish refugees' whenever there is a mention of Palestinian refugees in any official documents or resolution at the UN."
The Jewish experience in Arab countries goes back thousands of years, the Jews having lived in foreign lands as well as their ancient homeland since biblical times. But the condition of Jewish communities in the Arab world started to change with the emergence of the modern Zionist movement. As Jewish immigrants from Europe settled in the Holy Land, the resentment they provoked spilled over into other Arabic-speaking Arab countries.