Jewish refugee issue heats up

The creation of a group called Justice for Jews From Arab Countries is announced Sept. 30 in New York. (Conference of Presidents)

The creation of a group called Justice for Jews From Arab Countries is announced Sept. 30 in New York. (Conference of Presidents)

NEW YORK, Sept. 30 (JTA) — An initiative seeking compensation for Jews forced to flee Arab countries during the creation of the State of Israel is gaining steam. Justice for Jews From Arab Countries was launched Monday to publicize the “historical truth” of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, said Monday. The group claims that roughly 865,000 Jews were forced to flee Arab and Muslim lands because of hostility surrounding the formation of the State of Israel. That’s more than the number of Palestinian refugees — some 750,000 — who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 War of Independence. Many of the Jewish refugees were stripped of their property when they fled. The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has been swept under the “Persian carpet,” joked Holbrooke, who is an honorary chairman of the new organization, along with Lord George Weidenfeld of Great Britain’s House of Lords. Also taking leadership roles are Canadian legislator and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler and former Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel, who helped some 100,000 Jews leave Iraq just after Israel’s War of Independence. The new group was created by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Sephardi Federation and the World Jewish Congress. The coalition seeks “redress” for Jews displaced from Arab lands. Exactly what form that will take should be determined in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the group says. “We don’t want to prejudice the outcome. If the Palestinians will be getting financial restitution, then we believe Jewish refugees will be getting financial restitution,” said Stanley Urman, the director of the Washington-based Center for Middle East Peace and the coordinator of the new group. “We want to make sure that every time the issue of refugees is discussed within the context of the Middle East peace process, then the rights of former Jewish refugees will also be addressed,” he said. “We’re just saying this issue must be dealt with appropriately, both as a matter of law and a matter of equity.” The group said it plans to coordinate a campaign to collect claims from Jewish refugees, develop a legal committee to document such claims, lobby heads of state and international bodies, mobilize Jewish communal support and back a public education project. The birth of the new coalition comes five months after Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit announced that his ministry was preserving and computerizing more than 10,000 claims from previous compensation initiatives that had been abandoned. The ministry has partnered with the Sephardi Federation, which has been publicizing the effort and seeking new claims from Jews around the world. The ministry’s goal is to gather information on Jewish property in Arab states to counter Palestinian claims to lost property in future negotiations, Sheetrit told JTA in June. Most of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands moved to Israel, where the nascent state undertook a massive effort to absorb and settle them. Today they and their descendants make up about half of Israel’s Jewish population. In contrast, Arab states largely refused to settle Palestinian refugees, denying them citizenship and forcing them into squalid camps to keep the conflict with Israel alive. Israeli and Jewish leaders believe that any final agreement with the Palestinians will include financial compensation for Palestinian refugees. But they reject the idea that refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to Israel, seeing it as tantamount to the demographic destruction of Israel. Palestinian leaders, however, continue to insist on the “Right of Return.” The issue was a main factor in the collapse of the July 2000 Camp David summit and subsequent peace talks. The impetus for the new coalition, Urman said, is the prospect of future peace talks, the Justice Ministry push for documentation and the fact that Jewish refugees with first-hand knowledge of their property claims in the Muslim world are dying off. Until now, Jewish groups and individuals have crusaded for the cause with little support or success. Israel has been too “overwhelmed” fending off Arab aggression to concentrate on compensation, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Lancry, told JTA. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, until now there was no “vehicle for doing this on a sustained basis or where this could legitimately find expression.” “The U.N. wasn’t taking it up,” he said. Justice for Jews From Arab Countries does plan to bring the matter to the United Nations, however, asking both formal U.N. delegations and Jewish groups with consultative status to broach the issue. One basis for the group’s diplomatic efforts will be U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which since the 1967 Six-Day War has served as the basis for land-for-peace negotiations. That resolution also seeks to settle the refugee problem — without specifying which refugees. At the least, Jewish officials say, the group will ensure that Israel has the relevant data if peace talks resume. “We have to be prepared,” Lancry said. “It will help us to reduce the pressure exerted” by the Palestinians on the refugee issue. The new group is not interested in a lawsuit against the Arab League proposed in June by Amram Attias, president of the International Committee of Jews From Arab Lands, which is under the aegis of the American Sephardi Federation. “Our priority is to engage in political discussions,” Urman said. “We will not be filing legal claims against any Arab government.” Attias insisted that his group is still examining the grounds for a lawsuit, but that he would defer to the new coalition. “Right now, we want to talk in one voice,” he said. The new group is mounting a campaign to find aging Sephardi Jews, hoping to document both their life stories and their property claims. “The living testimony, as well as the information essential to making the case, are being lost by the fact that people are dying and it’s harder to trace them, and that documents are disintegrating or being lost,” Hoenlein said. Holbrooke emphasized the scope of the Jewish exodus from Arab lands and the risk that the story might be lost to posterity. “Anyone who knows history knows there were great Jewish communities in Arab countries.” he said. “What people don’t know is that these people were driven out” and communities lost forever. Previous efforts haven’t had the necessary follow-through. But this time, Urman said, there’s a “commitment by everyone involved to make sure the issue doesn’t fall by the wayside.”

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