According to the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries, the Jews of Arab lands left behind assets worth up to $300 billion and 100,000 square kilometres of deeded property - five times the size of Israel. Must-read interview in The Jewish Press with Dr Heskel Haddad, the organisation's president.
"Eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab countries shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, leaving all their wealth behind. The world, however, neither remembers their plight nor demands their compensation.
If president of WOJAC (World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries) Dr. Heskel Haddad has his way, though, that reality will change. In addition to his activism, Dr. Haddad is professor of Ophthalmology at New York Medical College, a practicing ophthalmologist and author of the autobiographical account, Born in Baghdad. The Jewish Press recently spoke with Dr. Haddad.
The Jewish Press: What happened to Jews in Arab countries after Israel was declared a state in 1948?
Dr. Haddad: "A dark curtain descended. In Iraq, for example, the government imposed a tax on every Jew to liberate Palestine. Jewish merchants were not allowed to do business without a Muslim partner, Jewish employees in the government were fired, about 10,000 Jews were put in an internment camp and another roughly 10,000 Jews were put in jail, accused of Zionism, communism, and other frivolous accusations.Then, suddenly the government said, “You can leave Iraq.” Almost all the Iraqi Jews did, but their property was confiscated. They came to Israel penniless.
What is WOJAC’s main purpose?
To ask for compensation for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Former President Clinton in the Camp David II negotiations suggested creating an international fund to compensate the refugees, both Jewish and Arab. But from the political point of view, we also want to counter the demand for the return of the Palestinian Arab refugees. In 1949 the Arab League passed a resolution to prevent Arab governments from giving citizenship to the Palestinian Arab refugees. Because of that resolution, the Arab refugees today in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, etc. don’t have citizenship in those countries. The Palestinian Arab refugees should be settled in their countries just as Israel settled the Jews from Arab countries in Israel.
WOJAC registers property claims of Jews from Arab countries. How many of these claims does WOJAC currently possess?
Ten thousand. We are trying to get about 100,000. There are two purposes: One is to document what happened to the Jews in Arab countries just like they did for the Holocaust – for history’s sake. And the second is to have an idea when we sit down to talk about compensation what magnitude of figures we are talking about. And what magnitude of figures are we talking about?
Iraq and Egypt had the highest amount of property and money confiscated. You take the Libyans and the others, much less. I would say around $200 to $300 billion – in today’s money – would be an adequate figure.
Two-hundred to three-hundred billion!?
Iraq had the wealthiest Jewish community in the world per capita, including the United States. All the land that produced rice in Iraq was owned by Jews. In Egypt, for example, $100 billion worth of property was confiscated from the Jews between 1950 and 1956. Look, all of Israel is 20,000 square kilometers. We left 100,000 square kilometers of deeded property in the Arab countries.
Why were you in Iraq in 2004?
I was invited by the Iraqi minister of health to inspect their eye department. But I also wanted to see my father’s house and the synagogues. My heart was broken. The synagogues either were destroyed or made into factories or something like that.
I also went to see the grave of Navi Yechezkel, which became a mosque, and of Ezra HaSofer. Muslim women who cannot become pregnant go to Navi Yechezkel’s grave to pray because they believe in the prophet and his power.
Why is Ezra buried in Iraq if he was the one who brought the Babylonian Jews back to the land of Israel?
Because he came back to get the Jews of Yemen to go to Israel. They told him they don’t want to go. So he cursed them, “May you always be poor,” and they cursed him, “May you not come back to Jerusalem.” On the way back up the Tigris River he died, and he’s buried on that spot, Al-Ezair.
Are there any Jews left in Iraq?
There are only five Jews in Iraq, most of them over 70 years old. They’re too old and don’t feel like leaving.
Many people claim the Israeli government discriminated against Jews from Arab countries when they came to Israel. Can you comment?
When these Jews came to Israel, the government put them in towns around the border so that they would not see them. They thought they were lower class. They gave them a ration of potatoes and herring. Now the Jews from Iraq, for instance, don’t eat potatoes or herring. The Israeli government was an Ashkenazi-dominated government. When a Jew from an Arab country complained, they said, “Why did you come here?” That’s exactly what they told me. Look, there’s also the lack of Yiddish, which was very dominant at that time. For example, my father had the biggest contracting company in plumbing in Iraq. He built hospitals in Iraq, he built the palace of the king. But when he came to Israel, they put him in the lowest rank because he didn’t speak Yiddish (although he did speak Hebrew and Arabic). His foreman from Romania used to ask him questions about what to do.
Does this insensitivity still exist today?
Yes, because they are not really exposed to that culture. You know, I was invited to meet Anwar Sadat in Cairo in 1978 after he came to Jerusalem. He said to me, “How come Menachem Begin comes with all his advisers and nobody speaks Arabic?” They probably would have been able to get more out of Sadat in negotiations [if they had] because when you speak in Arabic, you know the nuances of these people, what they want.In the foreign ministry there should be somebody who can speak Arabic who can go to these meetings, but nobody pays attention."
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