Michael Fischbach made his name with several exhaustive studies of the claims of Palestinian refugees. In his latest work, he turns his attention to Jewish property claims against Arab countries.
For this book Fischbach, a US history professor, has conducted impressive archive research in Israel, England and the US. But with the exception of Jordan’s, the archives of Arab states remain firmly closed, inevitably leading to a partial picture. Nevertheless, Fischbach’s trademark meticulousness is in evidence. He surveys how far Jews living in Arab countries were deprived of their assets and property, turning up some interesting nuggets - for instance Jewish landholdings in Jordan and Syria before 1948.
The JNF purchased hundreds of individual parcels of land in and around Jerusalem during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In total 145,976 dunams of Jewish land is said to have come under Jordanian control.
Another 16,684.421 dunams of Jewish land in the rural West Bank - including the Gush Etzion settlements, land between Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, and in Bethlehem and Hebron - were seized by the Jordanians after 1948.
The Golan Heights are almost universally considered 'Syrian' territory and yet the JNF lays claim to 73,974 dunams in southern Syria ( p36). The earliest purchase was made in the 1880s.Fischbach navigates through the twists and turns of the stop-start official Israeli policy on Jewish refugees. He concludes that Israel has been ‘saving up’ Jewish property claims for linkage with Palestinian claims in final status talks. He thinks this policy is misguided for the following reasons:
1. It is an attempt to blunt Palestinian claims by reducing what Israel owes them. Fischbach’s underlying assumption throughout, based on the woefully small number of claims registered by Jews from Arab lands in Israel (fewer than 6 percent), is that Palestinian exceed Jewish losses by 22 to 1. But Sidney Zabludoff ,in his report, estimates that Jewish losses at $6 billion amount to twice Arab losses. Heskel Haddad of the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries suggests that Jews lost deeded land equivalent to 4 -5 times the size of Israel.
Claims registration drives in Israel have been unsuccessful because fleeing Jews were unable to take property deeds with them; they did not fill in forms out of cynicism that they would ever see a penny’s compensation.
2. Morocco, Tunisia and Libya were not independent and did not take part in the war against Israel in 1948. Fischbach implies that these countries were not responsible for whatever bad things happened to the Jews before they gained independence. But Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian Jews mostly left after independence, because they had long memories of pre-colonial dhimmitude and feared their rights would not be protected. Their fears were borne out.
Fischbach is right to infer that the picture across 10 Arab states is varied and muddled. Some Jews were refugees who lost property, others were not. Yet he takes Arab claims at face value. The picture was also muddled for Arab refugees: some left at the behest of their leaders; others were expelled.
Apart from the 19,000 Jews directly expelled from Jerusalem and the West Bank in the fighting, Jews in all Arab lands suffered simply for being Jews. Persecution intensified when Morocco, with its 260,000 Jews, became independent and joined the Arab League. Colonel Gaddafi expelled Jews and seized their property after 1967. There is no statute of limitations on the rights of Jewish refugees although their exodus spanned several decades. Also, Fischbach does not consider that many Jews would have left earlier if they had not been kept as virtual hostages.
3. Palestinians had no part to play in the dispossession of Jews from Arab countries.
This statement is pure revisionism. The Palestinian leadership is guilty of inciting much of the anti-Semitism sweeping Arab lands from the 1920s onwards.It entered into an alliance with Nazism and dragged the Arab League into invading the nascent state of Israel in 1948. An exchange of refugee populations followed.
Fischbach believes the key to true reconciliation lies in Jews pursuing individual claims against Arab governments ( though suing in court is generally a luxury only the rich can afford). Here Fischbach takes his cue from the radical professor Yehouda Shenhav, not known for sympathy with Zionism. Shenhav resents any suggestion that Israel should reap any moral or political advantage from the conflict (while expressing no such qualms about Palestinian claims). His thinking appears to have heavily influenced Fischbach.
Fischbach asks why the main lobby group spearheading the campaign for the rights of Jewish refugees, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, has not singlemindedly pursued claims registration. But the truth is that compensation became secondary to recognition once president Bill Clinton had proposed an international fund to compensate refugees on both sides at the Camp David talks in 2000.
But Fischbach undermines his argument by failing to record a single case where Jews who resettled in Israel – the majority - have ever successfully brought a class action or individual lawsuit against an Arab government. The Cecil Hotel case stands out as the only instance of property restituted to the Jewish Metzger family by Egypt - and because Patricia Metzger was British. Other lawsuits have been brought against non-Arab interests (the Bigio case). Jews holding foreign nationality managed to obtain compensation from the French and other western governments.
Even Colonel Gaddafi,’s initiative to compensate Libyan Jews in 2003 – which Fischbach hails as a turning point - broke down after Gaddafi refused to have any dealings with Libyan Jews now living in Israel. Similarly, the Property Claims Commission set up by the new Iraqi government purposely excludes claims by Jews dispossessed in the 1950s. It will only honour claims for property seized by the Baath regime: to-date, there has been a single case of restitution to a Jewish woman from Baghdad, though even this ruling is rumoured to have been reversed.
Fischbach never gets to grips with the extent to which, unlike Germany which admitted responsibility for Holocaust claims , Arab states are in denial that their Jewish citizens left as refugees entitled to compensation. Many espouse the propaganda argument that the Jews left of their own free will or because Zionism encouraged them.
On the other hand Fischbach is right to criticise Israel’s chaotic and pusillanimous policy on Jewish refugees, whose claims, he argues, it was ‘saving up’ for talks with the Palestinians. Article 8 of the 1979 Israel- Egypt peace treaty , which provided for a Joint Claims Commission, was the first true test of Israel’s intentions. The Commission was never set up. Some say that it was because Israel (mistakenly) linked Jewish claims with Egypt ‘s claims for Israel’s use of oil from the Abu Rudeis fields in Sinai.
Others, like a source quoted in Itamar Levin’s book Locked Doors, felt that, were Israel to pursue Jewish claims, ‘Egypt would be stripped bare’. It is a pity that, since Fischbach operates on the flawed premise that Israel owes more to the Arabs than they owe to the Jews, this is not an argument he even considers.
Jewish Property Claims against Arab Countries by Michael R. Fischbach. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pps 317, bibliography, index. ISBN 978 -0-231-13538 -2 (Cloth) ISBN 978-0-231-51781-2 (ebook)