For more than three decades after the creation of Israel in 1948, Samir Muallem and his parents tried to hold onto the sizable business assets of their Jewish family in southern Iraq.
In the early 1950s, many of his family members left for Israel, along with 650,000 Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries. Muallem and his parents stayed on, and were treated favorably by Iraqi authorities until 1967, when Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War sparked an outburst of hostility against the few remaining Jews in the country.
Muallem’s father was arrested and threatened with death. His uncle was forced to sign over the family-owned Technical Brick Company – one of the country’s biggest brick factories – to the government for a pittance. Upon the father’s release, they quickly fled to Iran, then headed for Israel.
“They had started rounding up Jews for interrogation and even liquidated some,” said Muallem, 55, who estimates his father’s stake in the brick company is worth $110 million today. “We just wanted to get out alive.”
Now, 52 years after Israel’s founding, the Muallem family is in the same boat along with masses of Sephardi Jews who were forced to flee following the establishment of Israel.
As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process enters its end game, their claims of property confiscation are coming up on the public agenda.
But even if peace breaks out, securing compensation from Arab countries will be no easy task, in part, say representatives of Sephardi Jews, because Israel and Jewish organizations never registered property claims properly.
President Clinton surprised many Israelis when, in an interview last month with Israel Television after the failed Camp David summit, he said the issue of compensation for Jewish refugees had been raised at the talks – and was even supported by the Palestinians.
“There is, I think, some interest, interestingly enough, on both sides, in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war which occurred after the birth of the state of Israel,” said Clinton, suggesting the establishment of an international compensation fund as a solution.
But there is a problem: When Jews arrived in Israel during the 1950s, efforts to register private property left behind in Arab lands were minimal.
“It was a very strange thing,” said Oved Ben-Ozer, chairman of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries.
He estimated that only about 5,000 files were compiled when the immigrants arrived and were housed mostly in tent camps – where surveys could easily have been conducted.
“I don’t know if it was negligence or intentional, but the government of Israel simply did not register the property left behind.”
In 1969, Israel’s Justice Ministry appointed Ya’akov Meron, a professor of Islamic law, to compile records and serve as the point man on the matter.
Meron, who still holds the position until today, says there were some records when he took the post, and he denies accusations that efforts were not made to register property.
However, in a telephone interview with JTA, Meron would neither say how many files exist today – nor what is the value of the claims.
Meron also declined to confirm reports in the Israeli financial daily Globes that there are an estimated 10,000 files, and that Jewish property left behind in Egypt and Iraq alone could be worth up to $4 billion today.
“If some day we do enter negotiations, we would not want the other side to know exactly how much we are talking about,” Meron said.
In the Arab-Israeli peace process, the issue of compensation for Jewish refugees was raised as early as the original 1978 Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt. The peace agreement included an unbinding clause calling for “mutual settlement of claims.”
But although some individual Egyptian Jews have petitioned Egypt, few succeeded and the issue was never seriously pursued by the Israeli government.
In part, explains Meron, the main difference between Israel’s efforts to secure compensation from Arab countries and efforts to regain compensation for Holocaust survivors is that countries like Germany wanted to clear their name.
“They had an interest to come toward us,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Arabs do not feel any obligation toward the Jews.”
Furthermore, since Israel still does not even have diplomatic relations with most Arab countries, it cannot approach these countries directly.
The prospect of a peace agreement with the Palestinians could change that.
However, some say that until Clinton’s remarks, the peace process did not spark Israel or Jewish organizations into action to prepare the claims.
According to Ben-Ozer, in 1995, during the Oslo peace negotiations, Israeli officials discovered that the Palestinians planned to present well-documented compensation demands and realized it was time to compile Israeli claims in response.
The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, however, was created as a political organization to counter Arab claims in the international arena, and was not capable of such a task.
Ben-Ozer accuses the Israeli government and Jewish groups of failing to provide $1 million he requested about five years ago to allow them to carry out a registration drive.
“Now, again, Clinton spoke and everybody smells money and has woken up,” he said. “What does everybody want from me? I have a tiny office and a part-time secretary.”
With no budget to carry out a door-to-door survey or an advertising campaign, the group distributed 50,000 forms last year, but received little response.
Even if claims are soon documented, Israel will probably not try to raise Jewish claims against Arab countries to offset Palestinian claims against Israel.
First, the Palestinians reject any linkage of the issues, since they have no liability for property confiscated by Arab countries.
Furthermore, since the Palestinians have well-documented claims, the outcome of this linkage would likely lower Israel’s liability – but also nullify the claims of Jews.
Although the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries and other Sephardi organizations support raising Jewish claims in talks with the Palestinians for political purposes, they reject any solution that would leave them without a claims process.
“It would be unfair and unacceptable,” said Menachem Yedid, chairman of the Union of Syrian Jews in Israel. “There should be an attempt to find an arrangement within an international framework.”
Rabbi Michael Melchior, the minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, has backed the position of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries and says Israel has a moral obligation to pursue the issue.
Melchior says every effort must now be made to document the claims, although these claims should not be used to offset Palestinian demands.
Others are more blunt.
“When it came to European Jews, Israel made sure to go and document everything and fight in the international arena,” said one Israeli official familiar with the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It is more than just a moral responsibility. These people were mistreated when they came to Israel, which tried to suppress their identity, and now it’s time to do something about it.”