Monday, August 09, 2010

Time to acknowledge the Jewish Nakba

The drive to register the assets of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran, launched last week by the Israeli Ministry of Pensioners' Affairs, is the key to truth and reconciliation. But it may be too little and too late unless it frees itself from the bureaucratic inertia of previous campaigns, has a proper budget and cooperates with well-established immigrant associations, Linda Menuhin writes in Middle East Forum.

The new council, established under the umbrella of the Ministry of Pensioners, lately released a press release about the imminent campaign of awareness for the registration of lost Jewish assets in Arab and Islamic countries.

Almost six months have elapsed since the Knesset endorsed the bill for reparations and compensation to Jews from Islamic countries, initiated by relentless Shas MK, Nissim Zeev, two years ago. Accordingly, the Israeli government should recognize the rights of Jewish refugees and seek reparations and compensation for violation of their human rights and confiscation of their assets.

Pace of a tortoise: Due to a combination of international cynicism and domestic suppression of the subject, around 850,000 Jewish refugees were cut off from the Middle East narrative. The Jewish presence in the Middle East dates back almost 3,000 years, more than 1,000 years before Islam - a fact recognized by Arab intellectuals.

As happens in bureaucracies, several government resolutions calling for the registration of all assets left behind in Arab countries were not carried out. In the best case, a small budget was allocated to a very small team in the Justice Ministry to accomplish this mission. At least two big organizations made implacable efforts to bring the subject to the international public arena: WOJAC- World Organization of Jews from Arab countries and JJAC - Justice for Jews from Arab countries.

Too late and too little: This campaign is designed to collect as many testimonies and certificates as possible to establish a portfolio of the lost assets of Jews estimated at $100 billion.

Meanwhile, many people passed away, others aged, their memory blurred and many even lost their documentation, not to mention those who lost interest and hope in retrieving their assets.

These are only part of the challenges the new campaign has to address, in order to encourage registration of lost assets. Given the small budget and limited human resources allocated to the project, the council will have to leverage its work with all the organizations representing Jews from different countries in the Middle East. These organizations are well embedded in Israeli society, and excellent at networking, due to ongoing activities, aiming at cherishing their previous identity as part and parcel of their new Israeli identity.

Looking back it was essential for Israel to crystallize its narrative around Zionism as the main vehicle behind Jewish immigration. And indeed, Israel managed to absorb around 650,000 Jews from Arab countries, while the number of Palestinian refugees is still skyrocketing after more than 60 years.

Mahmoud Darwish, the national Palestinian poet who wrote the (Palestinian) Declaration of Independence, expressed the feeling of a refugee in a poem: My homeland is not a suitcase and I, myself, am not a passenger. Jewish refugees can equally identify with Palestinian refugees regarding Darwish's lyrics. In the eyes of the Jews from Arab countries and their descendants, it is time to acknowledge both locally and internationally the injustice they witnessed, the Nakba – catastrophe – that befell them. They were dispossessed from flourishing businesses, orchards, a long heritage and their memories. They even had to discard their Arabic mother tongue. In short, they had to give up the culture they had cherished since birth.

After being reshaped in the Israeli melting pot, the Jewish refugees assumed responsibility for building their future in the new land, with the government’s assistance. They had to start from scratch, leaving behind assets worth $100 billion and property four times the size of modern Israel, according to the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries. While it is true that many thousands have integrated in Israeli society, thousands more are still paying a high price for being in the north or south, with no access to the national pie.

Bringing this issue to the awareness of the masses locally will promote mutual understanding among multicultural descendants, not less in the international arena where Jewish refugees have also been frustrated due to lack of recognition. While there were 150 UN resolutions dealing with the Palestinian problem, not one dealt with the Jewish refugees, or with assisting them.

Most importantly, this process does not affect or undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees. On the contrary, it provides an incredible opportunity to end the refugee problem on both sides. Previous governments ignored this issue, partly due to the absurd claim that it would encourage Palestinians to submit demands for compensation. Meanwhile Algeria was the first Arab country to announce its refusal to compensate Jews.

It is important to point out that in spite of the billions of dollars poured into refugee camps by UN agencies, the number of Palestinian refugees has grown steadily to more than four million. Not many are aware that the Palestinians are the only group of refugees, out of more than 100 million displaced in World War II, who came under a special UN umbrella.

Reaching a just and lasting peace should be based on the truth, so that each party is aware of the suffering of the other. The suffering, the oppression of the weak and displacement are the common ground that enables a dialogue between two populations of refugees: Jews and Palestinians.

On a psychological level, compensation is a symbol of ending enmity. Even in Arab perception, the family of the underdog gets compensation from the perpetrators through negotiations conducted by middle men or dignitaries respected by both sides.

The idea of symmetry between two types of refugees was first born at the Wye Plantation summit with former US president Bill Clinton, who demanded compensation for all refugees in the conflict by establishing an international fund. During the Bush administration, the US Senate endorsed a resolution calling for the mention of Jewish refugees every time there is a mention of Palestinian refugees.

While the whole world is looking forward to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab peace initiative looks the most comprehensive plan around, still untapped. Until then, more suffering awaits both refugee populations, Jews and Palestinians. Compensation will take time because of the need to establish an international fund, but in the end, it can clear the air for reconciliation, an important pillar for rebuilding confidence among nations in the Middle East.

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