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FOCUS ON ISSUES Sephardim gauge financial losses during exodus from Arab countries

WASHINGTON, June 20 (JTA) — More than 50 years after Islamic countries began expelling Sephardi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, Jewish officials are mounting a massive campaign to document financial losses that could total billions of dollars worth of property and seized assets. The politically contentious effort, which could carry important ramifications for the Middle East peace process, comes on the heels of successes in recent years in recovering missing Holocaust-era assets from European countries. But unlike that undertaking, which is likely to yield Holocaust survivors billions of dollars in coming years, winning restitution from the Arab world is not the overriding goal. In fact, officials with the American Sephardi Federation and the World Jewish Congress, which are cooperating on the campaign, doubt any significant amount of money can be recovered. What is more important, officials say, is drawing attention to the total destruction of Jewish life in Arab countries and preserving the rapidly fading history of Jewish cultures that thrived in that part of the world for 2,500 years. In the years following Israel’s independence in 1948, nearly 1 million Sephardi Jews were driven out of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco “if not by the barrel of a gun, then certainly by social pressures,” said Marc Mishaan, co-chairman of an international restitution committee working on the issue. “This effort will go beyond a simple inventory of what was taken and will energize the Jewish world as a whole to look at our history from that part of the world,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, which has been at the forefront of the drive to seek restitution for Holocaust survivors. On a more practical level, though, the information will be used in final-status talks with the Palestinians, who are expected to provide a detailed accounting of Palestinian property they claim was expropriated by Israel. By quantifying Jewish losses, Israel would hope to counter, if not blunt, Palestinian claims to property now within Israel’s borders, arguing that the Palestinians and Arab countries bear joint responsibility for Jewish material losses. “We have lost much more than we’ve gained in terms of physical presence in the Middle East. Billions of dollars were taken — businesses, homes, synagogues, culture and a way of life. You can’t put a sum on that,” Mishaan said, adding that $100 billion would be a conservative estimate. Compared to the losses Palestinians suffered, “it’s just such an outrageous difference, and the world doesn’t talk about it,” he added. Leon Levy, president of the American Sephardi Federation and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Palestinians “are way ahead of the Israelis in quantifying their losses. “They’ve been going house to house in east Jerusalem with telephone books from before 1948, identifying exact locations of where Arabs lived.” For Amram Attias, who said he was forced to flee his native Morocco in 1963, the drive for recognition and restitution from the Arab world evokes painful, even shameful memories. “We were kept for 1,300 years in virtual slavery,” said Attias, chairman of the International Committee of Jews From Arab Lands and one of the leaders of the campaign. “We were destitute, our houses and synagogues were burned, they raped our children, they forced us in many cases to embrace Islam or to die, we were deprived of all human rights. “After 50 years of rebuilding ourselves from nothing, it’s time to reclaim what is rightfully ours.” Seeking to document Jewish losses as accurately as possible, the American Sephardi Federation has already distributed nearly 75,000 questionnaires to Sephardi Jews living in Israel and the United States and hopes of contacting thousands more around the world by the end of the summer. Although the campaign is in its nascent stages, Jewish officials are holding out the possibility of eventually pursuing the issue through many of the channels used in the Holocaust restitution battle, including class-action lawsuits, congressional hearings and diplomatic efforts. The WJC executive is slated to discuss the issue with Israeli officials when it meets in Jerusalem on June 24 and is expected to adopt a resolution formally sanctioning the recovery effort. Israel has taken a deliberately low profile on the issue, although one Jewish official said the effort was launched earlier this year at the behest of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. A spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to say whether the government had authorized the campaign, saying only that financial compensation should be considered for Jews alongside any claims made by Palestinians in final status talks. While officials acknowledge there are no real prospects of recovering the lost assets — most Arab nations do not share the worries of countries like Switzerland and Germany about Western opinion — some said there might be a possibility of winning restitution from a country such as Egypt. As a recipient of more than $2 billion in U.S. foreign aid each year, Egypt is “obviously attuned to the way the West feels about how they deal with questions of justice and history,” Steinberg of the WJC said. Depending on how the effort progresses, the U.S. Congress could decide to condition foreign aid on Cairo’s handling of the issue. Meanwhile, a decidedly different mentality persists elsewhere in the Arab world, with leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi unlikely to pay credence to Jewish demands. Still, Jewish officials are determined to press forward in the interests of confronting the Arab world with an aspect of its history that these nations would just as soon forget. Otherwise, Mishaan said, “Thirty years from now, Arabs born in Syria will not know that a Jew ever lived there.”