Friday, February 27, 2015

Uri Orbach z"l raised refugees' profile

Point of No Return salutes Pensioner Affairs (Senior Citizens) Minister Uri Orbach z"l, who died  aged 54 some 10 days ago. The minister was responsible for the campaign for justice for Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

 Orbach died after fighting an unspecified blood illness.

Representing the Jewish Home party, Orbach took a break from political life last month to receive treatment and was hospitalized in Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek hospital, where doctors said they were fighting for his life.

While he held the ministerial portfolio, he helped raise the profile of the Jewish refugee issue. His ministry ran a radio advertising campaign in 2013.

The project was called “V’higateta l’bincha”: 'And you will tell your children'. The saying comes from the Passover Haggadah: and enjoins  Jews to pass on the story of their exodus from Egypt to succeeding generations.

Under Orbach's direction,  the Ministry of Senior Citizens had a key role in documenting and computerising data pertaining to Jews from Arab countries and their lost property. The purpose was to collect testimony of how life was for the Jews in Arab lands and what happened there while the people who remember it are still alive.

Orbach had been quoted as saying that collecting information "is important because of these people's right to their lost property, but the chances of receiving compensation are small…I don't want to commit to missions that we may not be able to handle, but we will up the pace of the documentation," he said.

However, the Pensioners' Affairs Ministry Director-General Gilad Smama said that his budget was too low for the project. By the end of 2014, Smama expected the ministry to gather testimony from 3,000 people. 

“There is no more just compensation demand that the one by Jews who emigrated from Arab countries,” Orbach wrote on his Facebook page. “Many were forced to leave their homes in the early 1950s after ongoing harassment and persecution,” he wrote, adding that his own Ministry had recently embarked on a project to categorize and list the lost property.

However, he cautioned against a  proposal floated by the US in 2014 for compensation for Jewish refugees to be included in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.  “The compensation component, justified as it was, was thrown into the agreement to convince Israelis to accept the proposal, as if to say that the more territory we give up, the greater the compensation," he warned.

“We must remember that Jews, unlike the Palestinians, did not threaten the existence of their homelands or anyone else,” Orbach wrote. “They did not declare war on Iraq, Yemen, or Egypt. They left with nothing because of pressure and danger. They must go on demanding their rights, not as a way to prevent or encourage a diplomatic agreement, but because it is a matter of justice.”

Just  two months before his death, Orbach was embroiled in a controversy over the appearance of singer Amir Benayoun at a ceremony held at the President's residence to mark the first ever Day of Remembrance for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. President Rivlin cancelled Benayoun's appearance over a song he had written which Rivlin esteemed was racist towards Arabs. Orbach, said that he would cancel his own appearance at the upcoming event out of deference for Benayoun's rights.

"The cancellation of singer Amir Benayoun's concert at the President's house, marking the expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran, contradicts our position," Orbach stated. Orbach added that while he respected Rivlin, he viewed the cancellation as an infringement on freedom of expression.

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