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Sephardi Jews to Sue Arab League to Counter Palestinian Refugee Claims

June 19, 2002
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Jews who once made their homes in Arab nations are planning to sue the Arab League for lost and stolen property.

Some 800,000 Jews fled Arab lands in the aftermath of Israel’s creation — roughly the same number of Palestinians who became refugees in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence.

Their claims are regarded as a pivotal bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Palestinians.

The suit, considered more symbolic than likely to reap any reparations, was the idea of Amram Attias, a Moroccan- born Jew who lives in New York.

Attias, whose International Committee of Jews from Arab Lands is part of the American Sephardi Federation, won approval for the suit at a meeting of the World Sephardi Federation, an umbrella group for organizations of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African nations.

The group met Monday in Jerusalem in conjunction with the World Zionist Congress gathering.

The plan to sue comes amid a broad resurgence of activity on the issue, which gained credibility after former President Clinton acknowledged refugees on both sides at the Camp David peace negotiations in July 2001.

But not all the parties engaged in the issue are pleased with the news of the first collective claim against the 22- nation league.

Israel’s Moroccan-born justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, who last month unveiled a major partnership between his department and the American Sephardi Federation to preserve, collect and computerize claims of Jewish refugees, said the lawsuit diverges from his ministry’s goal.

“Every organization can act independently as it feels fit,” Sheetrit said on learning of the lawsuit from JTA.

But “the goal of the Ministry of Justice is to gather information regarding the loss of Jewish property in the Arab states” to counter Palestinian claims to lost property in future negotiations, he said.

“Israel is not going to take this issue to court,” said Sheetrit’s spokesman, Yonatan Beker. And to do so is “premature,” not to mention that they have only begun the process to collect and calculate claims.

The lawsuit does not estimate a financial figure, but is seeking restitution for 200,000 houses, 6,000 synagogues, and hundreds of schools, cemeteries and other assets confiscated from once-thriving Jewish communities across the Arab world.

Attias, who drafted the resolution, doesn’t expect compensation.

“Knowing the culture,” said the 63-year-old Attias, “I do not believe” Arab nations will “give us anything whatsoever.”

Past claims by individuals have all been ignored, he said.

In fact, money isn’t the point, he said.

The lawsuit, he said, is a strategy to raise awareness of the issue to “counterbalance” the Palestinian proposal for a right of return to Israel and alleviate pressure on Israel to accept it.

Calls to representatives of the Arab League were not returned.

The Palestinian claim of a “right of return” is rejected by virtually all Israelis and Jews, who agree that such a move would vanquish the Jewish character of Israel.

It is widely believed that any final agreement with the Palestinians would include some sort of financial compensation for those who lost their homes.

Still the issue was seen as a primary reason for the collapse of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David.

Attias would not say when the lawsuit would be filed, but that it would be soon and that there would first be consultations with major Jewish organizations.

Indeed, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said he is concerned about the nature of such a lawsuit.

Hoenlein, whose organization has been preparing extensive legal briefs on the issue for use either in court or in negotiations, said he was not aware of the proposed lawsuit, but warned that if it was not “properly prepared,” it could “undermine the credibility of the whole case.”

Sheetrit’s spokesman, Beker, was more blunt. The issue should be left for the negotiating period with the Palestinians, “and not before.”

The claims are a “diplomatic tool” for use in the discussion of compensation of refugees and to show that “if anyone is wrong, they have done it before and in larger quantities,” Beker said.

Attias said in the face of strong objections by Israel, he would consider postponing the lawsuit.

The Justice Ministry is sifting through more than 10,000 claims, yellowed with age from decades of collecting dust in the department.

The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands has seen unfruitful fits and starts since the creation of Israel.

Attias said part of the problem is that it was submerged under the deserved attention and reparations paid to Holocaust victims.

He also said Jews were eager after the Holocaust to erase any sign of living as refugees.

But Clinton’s reference to the issue at Camp David gave it new prominence.

“There is 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 Israel,” Clinton stated in an interview on Israeli television shortly after the Camp David negotiations.

“Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land,” he added.

For the last 1,400 years, or since the dawn of Islam, Jews in Arab countries endured the dhimmi laws, rooted in the Koran, which discriminated against but tolerated Jews and Christians as “people of the book,” said Maurice Roumani, a professor of political science and Middle Eastern studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

These laws required Jews to pay special taxes and live separate from Muslims. And in some cases, they were subjected to humiliating laws.

While the situation varied from one country to the next, anti-Jewish violence escalated in many Arab countries throughout the 1930s and 1940s, coinciding with the rise of European anti-Semitism and World War II.

After the war, the vehement Arab reaction to the 1947 U.N. plan to partition Palestine and to the establishment of the Jewish state the following year prompted widespread insecurity and a mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands.

Many of the Arab states made it difficult for Jews to emigrate, forcing clandestine operations or in the case of Iraq, stripping the departing Jews of all their assets and possessions.

Sheetrit’s project to assemble the claims of refugees and their families is intended for historical preservation as well as political leverage and individual compensation, he said.

The project is expected to cost more than $1 million and take between six and eight months.

“The world needs to understand” that the number of Jewish refugees exceeds the number of Arab refugees, who are “exploited by their brethren,” said Sheetrit, referring to Palestinians who have been mired in refugee camps since Israel’s independence.

Meanwhile, Israel has absorbed 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries — and their case is one of the most “neglected areas” in Israel, Sheetrit said.

Indeed, the trauma of displacement of Jewish refugees has left scars in Israel today, according to Vivienne Roumani-Denn, national executive director of the American Sephardi Federation.

The social rift between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel may be related to their beginnings in the Jewish state.

“There were those from Eastern Europe working to establish the land that felt Jews coming from Arab lands were causing a bit of a drain because of poverty,” said Denn, herself an immigrant to the United States from Libya.

“I’m sure if they came with their resources, we would have seen a very different picture.”

They “had to leave during the night in some cases; they had to leave without anything. Sometimes even a gold chain that they were wearing was taken away from them,” she said.

“Completely uprooted from” their culture and tradition — and with “memory taken away from us and destroyed,” she said, Sephardim had to “learn from scratch, without any resources.”

Exemplifying the fallout, Denn said, Israel’s vocational alternative to the army is filled with teens with psychological problems, many of whom are Sephardi and whose problems may stem in part from their families’ acclimation in Israel a generation or two ago.

“Israel had to absorb the material, psychological and social problems” of this segment of society, she said.

In fact, “the Jewish refugee problem in one way or another still exists.”

Terror attack, controversial remarks

disrupt gathering of Zionist Congress JERUSALEM, June 18 (JTA) — The opening of the 34th World Zionist Congress didn’t turn out exactly as expected this week, as elections for officers and debates regarding Israel as a Jewish and democratic state were put on hold when a bomb exploded on a crowded Jerusalem bus.

Neither did remarks by Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, who sparked a furor Tuesday when he said he prefers an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who might not be Jewish according to Jewish law than “to someone who prays three times a day but stays in Brooklyn.”

“It was a slap in the face,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of World Mizrachi, as well as the head of the delegation of the Religious Zionists of America.

“It was inflammatory and cruel, and the worst part is that this isn’t the time to be throwing bricks at each other,” said Ganchrow, who was among those who rushed the convention center stage in protest after Chesler’s remarks. “Not when we’re being blown up on buses.”

The news of Tuesday’s suicide bombing, which killed at least 19 Israelis, clearly rattled the delegates to the Zionist Congress, which is touted as the parliament of the Jewish people, bringing together delegates from all over the world.

But so did Chesler’s remarks, which many saw as inappropriate given the sense of Jewish unity the congress was trying to promote.

The 750-seat congress convenes every four to five years to negotiate the policy of the World Zionist Organization, which makes up half the decision-making power of the Jewish Agency.

That means influence over the agency’s $350 million budget, which focuses on immigration and absorption, as well as worldwide religious, political and educational programs.

In addition to discussing Jewish solidarity with Israel, a major debate was expected over whether and how to forge consensus over a resolution about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Some saw the opportunity to push for the acceptance of religious pluralism and the acceptance by Israel of non- Orthodox religious streams.

Against this backdrop came Chesler’s remarks, which were critical of Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s handling of converts and Russian immigrants who come to Israel under the Law of Return, which enables citizenship for anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

“We should salute each and every immigrant who comes to Israel under the Law of Return and we must battle against the discrimination of the Jews from Russia who are being transformed into second-class citizens,” Chesler said.

His remarks caused an immediate uproar, prompting him to issue a statement, saying, “I do not seek argument but rather cooperation between the religious streams.”

He added: “The Zionist movement must be progressive, open, liberal, and unite everyone together around it. Arguments are entirely legitimate, but we must ultimately all work together.”

A national officer of the American Zionist Movement said he believed Tuesday’s actions, both on the streets and in the convention center, would not affect the central debate over pluralism.

“Pluralism is a word which has created differences in the American community,” Isaac Blackhov said. “Israelis do not understand it the same way as Americans, and it has an entirely different connotation.”

Blackhov said he believed the word pluralism would be deleted from almost every resolution the Congress debates, because of its ambiguity.

But for Rabbi Uri Regev, the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents the Reform movement in Israel, the fact that the largest number of Congress delegates come from synagogue-related organizations could mean that religious pluralism is the burning issue that must be discussed.

The Chesler comment created a “raucous” scene, he said, but raised the one issue that is critical to Israel’s future character.

“This isn’t just about raising money for kindergartens, and trauma centers and ambulances,” Regev said. “We’re trying to discuss and discover and ultimately decide Israel’s future.”

Bonnie Lipton, national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said she had hoped Tuesday’s suicide bombing attack would unite the organization.

“There still was an outbreak of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior,” she said, referring to Chesler’s comments. “It’s made even more offensive, given the terrible tragedy.”

Elana Gershen Finkelstein, a New Jersey delegate for Mercaz USA, which represents the Conservative movement, said she believed Tuesday’s attack “quieted the whole conference down.”

“There are differences, but the background in which we have these discussions changed,” she said, seated with her mother before a memorial service to victims of terrorism, planned before Tuesday’s attack.

“There are life-and-death issues.”

WZC delegates had hoped to visit the site of the attack, but were stopped for security reasons. While some people expressed anger at being turned away, others said they understood the inconvenience of having busloads of people at a crime scene.

Lipton, who was at one of Hadassah’s hospitals in Jerusalem when victims of the suicide bombing were brought in, said she believes delegates may have a delayed reaction to the attack.

She said he hoped that future sessions would be more unified.

“There is an intense need to try and bring the Jewish people together,” she said. “There is impatience and frustration over the way we focus on our differences, rather than concern ourselves on what we have in common, which is survival of the Jewish people.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed.

“The real issue is the security of the Jewish people, and the answer is Jewish unity,” Hoenlein said. “If you lose sight of the critical issue, then all this is counterproductive.”

Ganchrow said the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, told him two weeks ago that the congress would reaffirm Jewish unity and solidarity, without raising “all that pluralism nonsense.”

“We come here to be a part of the Jewish people,” he said. “We know there are things that divide us. Let’s not debate what’s irreconcilable.”

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