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Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries

On April 1, 2008, the New York-based coalition Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) trumpeted the fact that the United States House of Representatives passed Resolution 185, a non-binding “sense of the House” resolution calling attention to the fate of 800,000 Jews who left Arab countries in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, some without their property. The resolution referred to these Jews as “refugees,” and furthermore called on the President to ensure that American representatives at meetings of the United Nations and elsewhere make specific reference to them whenever mention was made of the issue of Palestinian refugees from 1948.  JJAC hailed the action as a step towards redressing the grievances of what some Jewish activists have called “the other refugees.”

But why had JJAC, established relatively recently in 2002, suddenly become active on behalf of the rights of ex-Arab Jews – called Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews, although both terms are problematic – decades after most of them left the Arab world to build new lives in relative obscurity? And why did the Resolution fail to call explicitly for Jewish property compensation or restitution? Furthermore, why did the Resolution, which JJAC helped to write, link the fates, rights, and avenues of possible redress of ex-Arab Jews with those of the Palestinian refugees from 1948, who were not responsible for the Jews’ dispossession in the first place? Were not the mass Jewish exodus from the Arab world and the resultant property losses important enough issues to merit congressional scrutiny on their own, without reference to the Palestinians?

            In fact, Resolution 185 was not the result of efforts to demand compensation for Jewish property losses in the Arab world, but rather to assist the government of Israel to blunt Palestinian refugee claims in any final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Such claims include not only property compensation, but also what Palestinian refugees called their “right of return” to their pre-1948 homes in Israel – Israel’s nightmare scenario. Unlike the demands for Holocaust reparations, compensation, and restitution that Jewish groups and the State of Israel alike have pursued with vigor over the decades, JJAC went out of its way to state that its campaign on behalf of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent was not seeking monetary recompense for property lost at the hands of Arab governments. Why have JJAC and other groups such as the World Jewish Congress (WJC) adopted this stance toward the claims of Jews from the Arab world?

The answer lies in these groups’ zeal in supporting Israeli diplomatic tactics and weakening Palestinian claims in advance of a final peace settlement. Ever since it confiscated the property of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war, Israel has stated that it will compensate them for some of their property losses as part of a permanent Arab-Israeli peace. Starting in 1951, however, the Israelis linked these compensation obligations with the property losses sustained by tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel after the Iraqi government had sequestered their property. Eventually, over 600,000 other Jews left the Arab world during and after 1948, with some of these suffering property losses as well. Outside of some efforts to register Jewish losses in the1950s, Israel, the WJC, and other international Jewish groups did nothing to seek damages.

The onset of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1993 meant that for the first time in decades, concrete talks on Palestinian refugee claims and Israeli counterclaims might become a reality. Israel accordingly mobilized, and sought help from international Jewish groups to document losses. To arrive at concrete figures, Jewish groups like the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), as well as coalitions like the International Committee of Jews from Arab Lands, began distributing claims forms around the world starting in 1999 to collect data on Jewish losses to the Arab world. However, it soon became clear that this campaign was not working. Statistics were hard to come by, and Israeli officials admitted that what figures they were able to document were dwarfed by Palestinian compensation claims. Even with its counterclaims, Israel would owe a considerable amount of money. As a result, Israel proposed to Palestinian negotiators in 2000 and 2001 that an international fund be established, capitalized with Israeli and foreign contributions, which would entertain and pay out compensation claims from all sides to the conflict. With the compensation monkey shifted off its back to an international fund, Israel still faced another problem: the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return. Enter JJAC.

After the al-Aqsa Intifada put the peace process in deep freeze starting in 2001, the WJC developed a new strategy to prepare for the inevitable future resumption of talks. It decided to raise international awareness of the plight of the Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews by equating their experiences and claims with those of the Palestinian refugees. It began referring to the ex-Arab Jews as “refugees,” regardless of the reasons why they had left the Arab world. The purpose of such an equation was to negate Palestinian demands for the right of return by arguing that a permanent, irrevocable Jewish-Arab population transfer had occurred in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948: the Arab world’s Jews and their property for Palestine’s Arabs and their property. In the end, the WJC argued, it was an even exchange. The former Arab Jews were not demanding the right of return to the countries of their birth, so neither should the Palestinians demand the right of return to what is now Israel.

Following up on this, JJAC was established in the United States in September 2002 under the auspices of several American Jewish organizations. JJAC was, in fact, a new iteration of the same principle articulated by the WJC: support Israeli efforts to deflect Palestinian claims by enlisting the experience and losses of the Jews from the Arab world. JJAC pressed hard in its campaign to shift global thinking to accept the notion that Middle Eastern and North African Jews, most of whom now reside in Israel, were refugees deserving equal treatment and political legitimacy as the Palestinian refugees. JJAC took its campaign into the halls of power in the United States and Europe, and in March 2004, its congressional supporters first introduced a bill calling on the American administration to ensure that “any explicit reference [e.g., at international conferences] to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue is matched by a similar explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries” – an effort that eventually led to passage of House Resolution 185.

Is JJAC’s campaign likely to benefit Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews who suffered property losses when they left the Arab world? Is this even its intent? An “even exchange of populations and property” would leave claimants on all sides with nothing, except perhaps the possibility of seeking compensation from an international fund that does not yet exist. In fact, few efforts have been made over the decades by Israel or Jewish organizations to press for Mizrahi/Sephardic property compensation. This comes in marked contrast to efforts to obtain compensation, restitution, and reparations for European Holocaust survivors and heirs. In fact, individual ex-Arab Jews have on occasion sought compensation or restitution on their own, usually by appealing to Arab and foreign courts. Some in Israel have even sued their own government to force it to act on their behalf; one such case is before the High Court of Justice at this time. Throughout, however, no largely compensation has been paid, nor has any party pushed hard for Mizrahi/Sephardic compensation. Even now that JJAC and others are raising the issue of ex-Arab Jews, they, too, refrain from raising specific demands for compensation.

Is it then proper for JJAC, Israel, or any one else, to use Jewish property losses as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Palestinians instead of demanding compensation? Why have they not championed compensation and restitution, as was done for Holocaust survivors and heirs? Have the groups bothered to ask ex-Arab Jews who should press their claims, and in what manner? Such questions are not simply political; they go to the heart of healing the wounds of Mizrahi/Sephardic history. Can justice truly be served, can recognition of Jewish suffering and loss truly be obtained, and can healing and renewal truly be achieved, if Jewish claims for dispossession at the hands of Arab regimes are not laid at the doorstep of the responsible parties, but rather used to deflect the claims and narrative of a third party? And if in the end, neither Palestinians nor Jews from Arab countries receive compensation and proper recognition, but find their grievances canceling each other out by groups and negotiators, can true Arab-Israeli healing and reconciliation occur?

Whether part of Arab-Israeli diplomacy or not, whether on their own, or in groups, or through the agency of Israel and others, Jews who left Arab countries must come to feel that their grievances are heard and addressed in a way that is acceptable to them if the wounds of Mizrahi/Sephardic historical memory are to be healed. Resolving these claims and healing this memory will go far toward creating better relations between Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent and their Ashkenazic fellow citizens of Israel, between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors, and between Jews and Arabs throughout the Middle East.