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With Report, Group Highlights Flight of Jewish Refugees from Arab World

June 25, 2003
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Maurice Soussa was a high school student in Baghdad when Iraq’s most prominent Jew was brought down in a ferocious frenzy.

Shafiq Adas was charged with spying for the new Jewish state, Soussa said. The Ford dealer, whose five partners were all Muslim, had his property, worth an estimated at $100 million at the time, confiscated.

Since no lawyer would defend the Jew, the case was heard in a military court. The next day, Adas was hanged in his own courtyard.

Crowds came to Adas’ estate to gawk at the dead Jew, Soussa says. It all happened in the summer of 1948.

Fifty-five years later, Soussa relayed the story at a press conference here on Monday to release a document charging Arab countries with systematic persecution of Jews amid the creation of the State of Israel.

The document, published by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries — a group formed in September by a coalition of Jewish organizations — lists human rights violations in several Arab countries where Jews lost the right to vote or even their citizenship and suffered pogroms, confiscations and intimidation.

Leaders of the Justice for Jews group flew to Israel to hand the report to President Moshe Katsav on Tuesday. The group will meet with Israeli government ministers later in the week.

Through quotes from Arab leaders on the partition of Palestine and newspaper articles around 1948, the document builds the case that Arab countries colluded in their persecution of the Jews, hoping to force them to emigrate and steal their property.

“From the sheer volume of such state-sanctioned discriminatory measures, replicated in so many Arab countries and instituted in such a parallel fashion, one is drawn to the conclusion that such evidence suggests a common pattern of repressive measures, if not collusion, against Jews by Arab governments,” the report states.

More than 850,000 Jews left Arab countries after the 1948 Arab-led war on Israel. Similar numbers of Arabs fled Israel around the same time.

While Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees, Arab countries kept the Palestinians in camps and refused to give them citizenship, using their plight as a weapon in the political struggle against the Jewish state. Today, the number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants tops four million, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides them with services.

Palestinians demand that the refugees and their descendants be granted a “right of return” to the homes they fled inside Israel. Israel, which has indicated that it would offer the refugees compensation, sees that as tantamount to a call for the Jewish state’s destruction, since the influx of so many Arabs would negate Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.

Peace negotiations broke down over the right of return issue in 2000. Now, some feel that Israel should use the claims of Jewish refugees as a bargaining chip in future negotiations.

Jewish groups recently have begun highlighting the issue, hoping to seek redress if peace talks resume.

Last spring, then-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 had partnered with the American Sephardi Federation, a co-founder of Justice for Jews, to collect claims from Jewish refugees.

Now Justice for Jews is hoping the evidence compiled in the 39-page document will advance their cause.

It marks the “opening of the second stage” of a campaign — which began last year with the group’s formation — to highlight the Jewish refugee issue, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which helped found Justice for Jews.

The group will be “taking the report to the White House, leaders in Congress, the State Department, as well as to leaders in Britain, Israel and Canada in the next few days,” Hoenlein said. “We have a commitment that there will be hearings in Congress based on the report.”

Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, which also co-founded the group, delivered testimony on the subject in Congress earlier this month.

The document is “clear evidence that there was really a systematic effort to expel Jews from Arab countries and to take their rights as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Beker said.

Irwin Cotler, a member of Canada’s parliament and honorary chairman of the group, accused Arab countries of “a pattern of ethnic cleansing.”

Beker, whose group will hold a conference on the issue this weekend in London, added that Justice for Jews got a jolt of prestige from honorary chair Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“In this particular part of the world, almost all of the attention has been devoted to one side,” Holbrooke said at the press conference, staged across from the United Nations. “Let’s remember that there were refugees on both sides.”

Some left-wing Jewish groups also are attentive to the issue: The Tikkun Community articulated a similar message in a Middle East peace resolution the group submitted to members of Congress.

The resolution calls for reparations for both Jewish and Palestinian refugees “to make it fair and to make it clear that the peace process is not only about making things good for Palestinians. It’s also about making things good for Israelis,” said Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and national chairman of the Tikkun community.

But Lerner said it’s important that Jews not use the Jewish refugee card as a way of dismissing Palestinian claims.

Jewish assets confiscated by Arab countries are estimated at more than $100 billion, according to Justice for Jews. While the United Nations has devoted 101 resolutions to the plight of Palestinian refugees, none has dealt with Jewish refugees, the group’s report states.

“The legal case of displaced Jews to redress is as strong as, if not stronger than, the case of Palestinian refugees,” the document states.

“Justice in the Middle East requires acknowledgment of the historical narrative and rights of Jews uprooted from Arab countries,” it says, listing possible remedies such as litigation in countries where Jews were displaced or a compensation fund established under an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.

“There is no way to have a peace in the Middle East if the Palestinians and the Arabs are to continue to demand a ‘right of return,’ ” said Beker, whose group has followed the issue for a decade but intensified its work in the last few years.

There was an “exchange of population in the Middle East, and the Arabs are responsible for the two refugee problems,” Beker told JTA, blaming the Arab countries for ejecting their Jews and for keeping the Palestinians as perpetual refugees.

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