Jews who fled Arab countries following the creation of the State of Israel have taken their demands for restitution to the European Union. More than 20 delegates from Jewish communities in seven countries gathered in Brussels on Sunday and Monday under the auspices of the International Rights and Redress Campaign, meeting members of the European Parliament to discuss their demands.
The global campaign aims to raise international awareness of the heritage of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and to document human rights violations and loss of assets.
The campaign’s official launch had been due to take place during Passover, but the sudden incapacitation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in January and Israeli elections delayed the launch until November.
Organizers hope to bring worldwide attention to the issue in November through media, politics and education.
The campaign was launched by the U.S.-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, in conjunction with the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries.
“We want to underscore the fact that Jews were also victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict and should be recognized as such,” said Stanley Urman, the campaign’s director. “It’s an injustice to recognize one victim population but not another.”
At least 850,000 Jews lived in Arab countries in 1948, but fewer than 8,000 remained by 2001. Two-thirds were absorbed into Israel, while some moved elsewhere.
Most fled or were forced to leave their homes after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, receiving little or no compensation from Arab governments for their considerable assets.
The campaign seeks to register all these refugees and to preserve their testimony at a special unit of Israel’s Justice Ministry.
Organizers are targeting the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union — the four members of the diplomatic “Quartet” working for Israeli-Palestinian peace — to put the issue on the international agenda before the campaign is officially launched.
Frederique Ries, a member of the European Parliament, met delegates in Brussels on Monday and said she would work to put the issue on the E.U. agenda.
“Although this was not a new issue to me, most” Parliament members “will be unaware that there were in fact more Jewish refugees than Palestinian refugees,” Ries said. “This is a question of justice, and I welcome the representations that have been made to put this on the agenda.”
Urman said the campaign was focusing for now on securing international recognition that there were Jewish refugees from the Arab world, and that human rights violations took place.
Next month, a bipartisan resolution will be proposed to both houses of Congress requiring all U.S. officials to make references to Jewish refugees alongside Palestinian refugees whenever the issue is raised in an international settings.
Organizers have held preliminary talks with Russia and are hoping to meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the near future.
Nessim Hamaoui, who was forced to leave Egypt in 1958, traveled to Brussels from his home in Sao Paulo.
“I’m here not just for myself, but for the 1 million other Jews who were expelled from their homelands after 1948,” Hamaoui told JTA. “We had our homes, our hopes and our dreams there. All that vanished, and it’s time to bring justice to the refugees.”
The International Rights and Redress Campaign is supported by Jewish communities in 33 countries.
Julien Klener, president of the Consistoire, an umbrella organization for religious Belgian Jews, welcomed the meeting in Brussels.
“Somehow the existence and history of Jewish refugees has been forgotten over time, and the Palestinian issue has been overstressed,” he said.