Jews Displaced From Arab Lands Finally Recognized

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 10, 2010, issue of March 19, 2010.
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For the first time since they came to Israel, all 10 Jewish communities displaced from Arab countries have agreed on a course of action to address their grievances — and triumphed in the political arena.

The plight of the estimated 856,000 Jews who were forced to leave Arab countries after the establishment of the State of Israel has played a minimal role so far in negotiations for Middle East peace. But on February 22, the Knesset adopted a law under which any Israeli government entering into peace talks must use those talks to advance a compensation claim for those who became Israeli citizens.

The impact on the Middle East peace process is unclear. But according to the law’s supporters, its implications for Jews from Arab countries is substantial.

“This is a historic decision that will make peace in the Middle East about justice for everyone,” said Isaac Devash, the lobbyist who brought the various communities together around the legislative proposal and then took it to the Knesset. Devash, a Tel Aviv businessman and child of Libyan Jews, is a volunteer with the New York-based group Justice for Jews From Arab Countries.

Supporters of the new law say that its passage also shows that Israel today is more accepting of Sephardic discourse than it has been in the past. It illustrates “that we suffered as well as the Jews from Europe, and this is important,” Nachum Gilboa, a leader of the representative council for Libyan Jewry, told the Forward.

The United Nations estimates that, upon the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, 726,000 Palestinians became refugees. JJAC estimates that at the same time, Arab states displaced 856,000 Jewish citizens, in many cases seizing their personal and communal assets. Around two-thirds settled in Israel, and the rest went elsewhere, mostly to France, the United States and Canada. There is no agreed-upon estimate of the assets these Jews lost, though Sidney Zabludoff, a former CIA and Treasury Department official, used data on Palestinian losses to extrapolate some $6 billion in lost Jewish assets.

Until the new law passed, members of the displaced communities had more success in the Diaspora political arena than in Israel. In April 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution urging that every reference to Palestinian refugees raised in international forums be matched by a similarly explicit reference to the uprooting of Jewish communities from Arab countries.

Some Israelis have voiced reservations about efforts to advance the cause of displaced Jews from Arab countries. On the right, critics argued that talking about them as refugees undercut the Zionist case that those who settled in Israel were in fact returning to their own homeland. On the left, there has been concern that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are complicated enough without factoring in a situation for which Palestinians themselves are not responsible, and that doing so could hold back the chances of peace.

Some critics have warned that Palestinians could use the issue to demand quid pro quo compensation of their own.

Gadi Baltiansky, an expert on the peace process, said that the law created an “artificial” connection between the Palestine refugee problem and that of Jews from Arab lands. The issue of Jews from Arab lands should “not be part of the Israeli-Palestinian process,” which must be bilateral, said Baltiansky, director general of the Geneva Initiative, which produces detailed proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

But Devash managed to secure broad consensus for the law in the Knesset. The proposal’s sponsor was lawmaker Nissim Ze’ev of the right-wing and Hareidi-oriented Shas party, whose main followers are Jews from Arab countries and their descendents. All Zionist parties, including Labor and Meretz on the left, supported the measure.

Still, the law’s diverse backers seem to have different views on the outcome of the process. Ze’ev has said that he is open to the idea of the displacement of Palestinians and Jews being classified retroactively as a “population exchange.” Mor Bitan, spokeswoman for Meretz leader Haim Oron, said that her party opposes this course but believes it’s a moral imperative that Jews from Arab lands have their grievances addressed. Meretz “does not think that it will be a barrier to the peace process,” Bitan said.

Devash views the law as the missing link in the peace process. Back in 2000, President Clinton mooted the idea of establishing an international fund to compensate both Palestinian and Jewish refugees. Devash wants to see such a fund established, and wants Israel, Arab countries and international donors such as the United States to contribute to it.

“It creates in Israel a huge pool of stakeholders in the peace process,” he said. “Now you have 2 million to 3 million Israelis who are going to be stakeholders in the process and 4.5 million Palestinian refugees who are also stakeholders.”

Devash wants to see Israel adopt the Saudi Initiative, produced by Saudi Arabia and agreed to unanimously by other Arab League members in 2007. The plan would normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world in return for a withdrawal by Israel to pre-1967 borders and a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees. Devash’s hope is that the new law will lead to Israel demanding the international fund. This would “help make the Saudi Initiative an initiative that can be accepted by the population of Israel,” he said.

Ada Aharoni, another child of uprooted Jews, considered this hope farfetched. Aharoni, a former Haifa University academic and author of several books on Jews from Arab Lands, said that given the poor economic situation in many Arab countries, any demand for compensation would be “like taking money from a beggar.” But she believed that simply raising the profile of what happened will become a “tool for peace” as Palestinians realize that Jews also suffered in 1948.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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