Almost a million Jews from Arab countries have suffered persecution and looting of their properties before Israel was established and in its early years. But the State of Israel has never fought for their compensation. Even the US Congress had decided years ago that any compensation to the Palestinians will be conditioned on compensation to Arab Jews. In Israel, only now is a law being debated on a story about suffering and injustice that everyone felt more comfortable ignoring. Nadav Shragai reports for Israel Hayom of 8 January 2010 (Musaf Israel hashavua) :
Levana Vidal-Zamir was ten when the door of her parents' house on Mansur street in Helwan, then a lovely garden city, 25 km from Cairo, was broken down by Egyptian police officers in black uniforms. Even from a distance of 61 years, she vividly remembers the pale faces of her parents Esther and Victor, when they looked helplessly at the uniformed ransackers turning the house upside down, emptying drawers and cupboards and tearing mattresses apart. Levana remembers her uncle Habib was arrested, her brother David attacked, and her family printing business, "Imprimeries Vidal", one of the largest and oldest in Egypt, confiscated. Then their bank accounts were sequestered and their properties auctioned off.
Levana Zamir and her mother on the balcony of their house in Cairo in 1949
Within days, immediately after the declaration of the State of Israel, the Vidal family lost all its possessions. A similar fate befell thousands of Jewish families in Egypt. During the next few months, the Egyptian authorities arrested approximately 1,300 Jews, only because they were Jews, and threw them into prison. They were never brought before a court, and after a year and a half in prison most of them were deported from Egypt and put directly on to ships.
Many laws were passed against the Jews at that time in Egypt. As a result, tens of thousands of Jews were fired from their jobs, and the assets of anyone suspected of being a Zionist were confiscated. On June and September 1948 pogroms occurred in the Jewish quarter.
Mary Hajaj Lilof, now 85 years old, born in Tripoli, Libya, remembers those days when the Jews were struggling to establish their state. In November 1945, the Arabs rioted against the Jews. Her father, Moshe Falah-Kish, one of the community notables, was felled with an axe by his employees in one of the warehouses he owned. His body was trampled on and his property looted. Her husband was recruited for forced labour in the Sidi Azaz Camp.
Three years later, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Tripoli residents rioted against the Jews again. Racist laws were passed and many Jews were expelled or fled. Mary's son Jacob Hajaj-Lilof, today a resident of Be'er Sheva, was then only a boy of six-and-a-half and yet he describes the rioting on that day in 1948 as if it happened yesterday: "Hundreds besieged our house. From the second floor, I watched with my little brother the crowd shouting 'Itbah al Yehud.' We were saved only by a Jewish police officer who was passing by.
The personal stories of the Vidal and Hajaj-Lilof family were not unusual at the time. At the end of World War II the representatives of Arab countries threatened that the Partition Plan would bring the Jewish communities in Arab lands to an end. Rachel Machtiger, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, has investigated the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. She recently revealed the "Draft Law" prepared early in 1948 by the Political Committee of the Arab League. That Draft, composed by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, outlined a programme of persecution against Jews in Arab countries and the Arab intention to keep them as pawns and hostages.
The Draft items match those measures that the Arab states took in practice - systematic persecution against Jews. Some regimes initiated legislation to deprive Jews of their civil rights, their properties were confiscated and many were victims of torture and murder, arbitrary arrests and deportation. Within a few years, they were expelled, displaced, or fled the country on their own initiative: almost 860 thousand Jews were living in Arab countries in 1948. Only 7,000 still live there today.
In April 2008 the U.S. Congress recognized the Rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Congress Resolution number 185 conditioned any assistance or compensation for Palestinian refugees, to similar assistance or compensation for Jews from Arab countries, as a condition for peace in the Middle East. During the Clinton administration, the President offered to establish an international fund of 180 billion dollars in due course to compensate the refugees and victims of the conflict, both Jews and Palestinians. Even the UN, which was clearly one-sided, ruled in 1957 and 1967 that Jews who fled from Arab countries are refugees, under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Only the State of Israel remembered that later.
Who will be given compensation? After some governmental decisions, mostly declarative, over the years, a few weeks ago the Knesset passed a preliminary bill submitted by Shas MK Nissim Zeev, seeking to ensure that the government would not sign a political settlement in the Middle East without having secured the rights of Jews from Arab countries who immigrated to Israel leaving their properties behind.
The bill also states that every discussion about Palestinian refugees requires the government to compare the status of Jewish refugees to the Arabs who left their property after the State's foundation, and provide compensation for their loss of property. The Government supports the bill but, in the meantime, it has been expanded a great deal. Organizations of Jews from Arab countries and others seek to create symmetry between the Palestinian demand – which is not content with compensation for 726,000 Palestinians displaced from Israel in '48, but demands compensation for four million Palestinians and their descendants living around the world - and Israel's demands.
Organizations gathered Monday at the Museum of Libya Jewry in Or Yehuda require a much broader calculus. They claim that the new law discussed by the Ministerial committee on Sunday should also apply to the Jews expelled or forced to leave Arab countries living abroad who did not immigrate to Israel, and to their descendants who live in Israel or abroad. The Ministry of Justice is opposed. Meir Kahlon, chairman of the organization from Libya, makes it clear that he and his friends are not demanding money from the Israeli Treasury: "The money will come from external sources, as Clinton suggested. I do not want to say the State is taking care of a certain group of Jewish people only. My brother was wounded in the shoulder by Arabs who were our neighbors, the graves of my grandfather and family shovelled into the sea. Our demand for dual recognition is two-pronged: recognition in the educational system, and some day to receive compensation equivalent to the one received by the other side for its suffering. "
Rachel Machtiger notes that since 1947, 130 UN resolutions were passed dealing with Palestinian refugees' "suffering", but none of the hundreds of decisions dealing with the Middle East referred to or expressed any concern for the 860,000 Jews uprooted from Arab countries during the 20th century.
In the bilateral agreements between Israel and between the Arab countries and the Palestinians, the word "refugees" is mentioned, not "the Palestinian refugees". But, says Machtiger "until the previous Israeli government, the State of Israel did not work to promote the recognition of Jewish refugees. The narrative of the Jewish refugees, their deportation, persecution and riots against the Jews in Arab countries, is unknown in the world and in Israel. Mostly because many Jews who left Arab countries did not want to consider themselves as refugees, while the Arab world has done everything to maintain the refugee problem and use it as part of the struggle against Israel. "
Former Education Minister Professor Amnon Rubinstein reminds one that even "moderate" Tunisia was gripped by a wave of incitement against Jews and a racist denial of their rights. In Egypt government representatives openly threatened "to kill many Jews" if the Partition Plan was accepted. Rubinstein believes that even if today the Jews from Arab countries are not refugees any more, they still have to be compensated for expropriation of property and losses and for racist civil rights laws.
According to Dr. Avi Becker who was Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, "the systematic persecution and discrimination against Arab Jews in the first years of the State of Israel reminds one of Thirties Germany. Becker escorted families of old-timers from Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives. "These testimonies were heartbreaking. To this day I cannot understand the silence of the Israeli Government and Israeli society with regard to a subject which is the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and demonstrating that what happened in the Middle East was really a process of exchange of populations. The number of Jews who left far exceeds that of the Palestinians, who mostly left in response to the inciteful calls of their Arab leaders.
Change of narrative: Dr. Zvi Tzameret, CEO of Yad Ben Zvi in Jerusalem, which published a series of books about the Jewish communities in the Middle East countries, believes in a "change of narrative" and that "two groups of refugees are entitled to an equivalent treatment. It is about time we entrenched this idea in Israel, in the political, academic educational sphere and the media.
Zvi Tzameret notes that "the idyllic description in Israel about how well Jews lived for generations in Muslim countries, how they enjoyed decent relations and economic and social welfare, is partial and distorted. Various racialist laws, including the obligation to wear the yellow star, were customary in Arab countries long before the Nazi racial laws." Professor Irwin Cotler, Former Canadian Minister of Justice, who worked hard on the U.S. Congress resolution on the issue, is now helping the Organization's leaders in Israel, and says that the Arabs had the right to vote against the UN Partition resolution, but they had no right to start a war against the Jewish state and certainly not to harass the Jews in their countries in the way they did. "The result of these two aggressive initiatives - the war against the Jewish state and the harassment of the Jews – was the creation of two groups of refugees: Arabs and Jews. When all over the world people talk about Israel's ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948, I tell them of the ethnic cleansing that the Arab states performed against the Jews, and they are amazed. There are huge gaps in knowledge even in Israel. Outside Israel, they are more aware. "
Zvi Gabay, from the Heritage Center of Babylon (Iraq), and former deputy-director of the Foreign Ministry, knows the issue from both sides, and he accuses the governments of Israel, since the founding of the state, of, until now, neglecting the issue of Jewish refugees and their compensation. "This is a first-degree national issue, and as Professor Cotler says, they are more aware of it outside than inside Israel."
The State of Israel has done very little today with Arab countries on this issue. The Ministry of Justice opened a special department (headed by Dr Jacob Meron), who gathered information on claims and documents on private and communal property. So far about 20,000 families only have registered. The previous Israeli Government appointed Minister Rafi Eitan, Minister of Pension Affairs, to deal with this issue. Rafi Eitan was recently appointed again by the current government as chairman of the National Advisory Council for the restoration of Jewish property rights. The registration of Jewish property in Arab countries has been delegated to Mr. Aaron Moore, Director of the Ministry for Pension Affairs.
Moore reported several weeks ago, at the Committee of Immigration and Absorption of the Knesset, that very soon it will appeal to the Israeli public to register their property on an Internet database. However, the organization JJAC (Justice for Jews from Arab countries), a coalition of Jewish organizations from around the world, says that the State of Israel must take responsiblity for evaluating properties, worth many billions, and not rely on the memory of older people or their descendants who were born in the country.
From the perspective of those organizations, Israel failed in its first real test, during peace talks with Egypt. The Israeli High Court then rejected a petition presented to the State of Israel, requesting that the oil fields in Abu Rodeis (Sinai) not be returned to Egypt until a compensation agreement was reached with Egypt for those Egyptian Jews expelled or forced to leave Egypt.
The Israel-Egypt Peace agreement states that an Israeli-Egyptian committee will be set up to examine mutual financial claims, but this Committee was never established. The former Attorney General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dr. Meir Rosen denies any tacit understanding of Egypt concessions to Israel in exchange for Israel's oil exploitation in Sinai. But he admits that "most Israeli politicians remembered Jewish property left behind in Arab countries only on the eve of elections."
Rosen's words are reinforced by a document written to the Prime Minister and to Senior Ministers by the heads of the Movement for Quality in Government. In this document, they list those government decisions aimed at demanding the rights and properties left behind in Arab Countries, private and communal. Those decisions were never implemented, or poorly so. JJAC seeks to highlight that the bill which will be discussed by the Israeli Ministers Committee of Laws on Sunday (January 10, 2010) is not intended to harm the peace process,' and that the mutual compensation claim, which will be covered by the International Fund, will only strengthen popular support on both sides for peace, not weaken it.
My comment: With this groundbreaking article by the well-respected journalist Nadav Shragai in a publication with a mass circulation of 225,000, triggered by the introduction of the draft Knesset bill on Jewish refugees, we are reaching a watershed. Hopefully the issue of Jewish refugees is poised to become a central topic of the political conversation in Israel.
Those who insist on incorporating in the bill the rights of Jews from Arab lands now living outside Israel are right: the Palestinians include those refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza in their calculations. As for descendants, let's have symmetry too.
But I am mystified by this Israeli obsession to play catch-up with the Palestinians - to end up with 'equivalent' compensation. Why equivalent? Jewish losses far outstrip Palestinian losses. And if this matter is to promote peace by being an instrument for reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, then it is imperative that the Arab states recognise their responsibility for Jewish, as well as Palestinian suffering - even if the compensation will not be coming out of their own pockets.
Read original article (Hebrew - pps 18 - 19)