Monday, January 11, 2010

Legislation committee puts pedantry above reason

No compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries living outside Israel. No compensation, even, for the descendants of Jewish refugees in Israel: that's the conclusion reached by a legislative ministerial committee, which yesterday deliberated what the scope of a new Knesset bill on the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be.

The bill, inspired by a US Congress resolution passed in April 2008, conditions a peace settlement between Israel and Arab states on the safeguarding of the rights, namely to compensation for seized property, of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The question is, which refugees?

The ministerial committee has come down in favour of the narrow terms of the original draft, vetoeing its extension to cover compensation to the 300,000 refugees who did not end up in Israel. There is no provision made for compensation for suffering as a result of human rights abuses.

As barely 10 percent of the original refugees are thought still to be alive, that means just 60,000 people might be eligible for compensation. Given that the Jewish refugees could have had as many as two and a half or three million descendants, that would leave a great many disappointed Israelis.

Furthermore, the ministerial committee has recommended that some countries like Iran be excluded, because they were not at war with Israel in 1948.

The ministerial committee's recommendations have been greeted with everything from disbelief, to anger, to embarrassment, by the representatives of the organisations of Jews from Arab Countries.

Many of those would, under the terms of the present bill, themselves be ineligible to receive compensation for property and assets owned by parents long since dead. Particularly hard to bear is that the committee vetoed their recommendation that the bill require the narrative of the Jewish refugees to be taught in Israeli schools. This, it feels, is already being done.

The committee sought to exclude descendants from the bill because Israel has never like the fact that the Palestinians not only include refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza, but successive generations enjoying inherited refugee status - some four million. But as long as the Palestinians stick to their definition, leaving Jewish descendants out of the bill hardly makes for a level playing field, and would put Israel at a negotiating disadvantage.

Jewish refugees outside Israel excluded from the bill may need to look to the World Jewish Congress to represent their rights. Those concerned also need to examine what mechanism was used in the case of Holocaust survivors, many of whom managed to obtain compensation without having to apply through Israel.

The bill does not mention President Clinton's 2000 suggestion of a Fund to compensate all Refugees.

Some believe it might be best to go along with a narrow-based bill with a good chance of passing into law, and then work to enlarge its scope later.

So far the bill sacrifices common sense to pedantry. However, it is early days yet and many issues still need to be clarified. For instance, a descendant may still have property inheritance rights without inheriting refugee status.

The battle has just begun. There will be many more Knesset committee meetings to come. But it's going to be a long and bumpy road. Watch this space for further updates.

Essential background reading:

The forgotten narrative of the Jews from Arab Countries by Avi Beker

The Palestinian refugee issue: rhetoric versus reality by Sidney Zabludoff


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The incapacity of entrenched officials in Israel's govt to listen either to reason or to public sentiment is one of our problems. This is another very egregious case of that problem.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The problem also has to do with the overpowering impulse among some officials to do all possible to promote the "peace process."

bataween said...

You are right on both counts, but it is extraordinary how Israelis are willing to shoot themselves quite so spectacularly in the foot in this way. Why could they not have gone for a generalised draft like the US resolution, instead of trying to get into the minutiae and the specifics. They may be good lawyers, but they are terrible politicians.
However, this is just the start of the legal process and things can still change for the better. I hope they do, as there is already overwhelming consternation both in Israel and the diaspora at the committee's recommendations.