Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa

Part of Modern Slavery Act: Independent Review – in Westminster Hall at 5:17 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 5:17 pm, 19th June 2019

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Many in the House will know that I have a deep personal connection to this issue. I very much wish that my grandfather, Renato Halfon, had been alive now to see the demise of Muammar Gaddafi. In 1968, my grandfather was forced to leave Libya because of pogroms targeting Jews and, as an Italian Jew, he fled to Rome. He had owned a clothing business, and planned to return to Tripoli once the pogroms had subsided, but when Colonel Gaddafi took power in 1969, all Jewish businesses were seized under the new regime. In the beginning, Gaddafi was seen as a saviour, yet, as we know, he became a murderous dictator.

My grandfather, like thousands of other Jews from Libya, had nothing to return to—no home or business. On top of oil money, Gaddafi had bought the loyalty of his supporters by giving them all the property seized from the Jews and Italians. Gaddafi’s rule was driven by the conviction that foreigners were still exploiting Libya, and the eviction of Jews and Italians was made a hallmark of his regime.

Fortunately, my grandfather had seen Gaddafi coming. He sent my father, aged 15, to England in the late 1950s. After a short stint in Rome, my grandfather joined him in north London, where he spent the rest of his life. It is a great sadness that, by the end of 1970, nearly all Jews and Italians had left Libya. Jews had lived in Libya for more than 2,300 years and had a thriving culture. The population numbered more than 38,000 by 1948.

Today, Jewish communities all over the middle east and north Africa have been almost entirely erased. The flight of historic Jewish communities has altered the shape and face of the region forever, but that is rarely recognised or spoken about on the international stage. As I mentioned to my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers, the UN has passed 172 resolutions specifically on Palestinian refugees, but nothing on Jewish refugees. It must be noted that Israel, despite being in its infancy as a country and under attack from six Arab states in 1948, did its best to integrate Jewish refugees. In comparison, many Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan and a few others, turned their backs on the displaced Palestinians.

I am proudly British. I feel a deep attachment to my heritage. I do not want a right of return. I only wish to go to Tripoli to retrace my dear grandfather’s footsteps. I urge the Minister to give the immense suffering of Jewish refugees international recognition and equal prominence to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. All their stories deserve to be told.