Bill Mandates Discussion of Sephardi Refugees

U.S. Would Link Palestinian and Jewish Refugee Problems

Seeking Refuge: Yemenis gather around the ruins of buildings in the Jewish quarter after riots broke out. A new bill seeks to link any discussion of the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews driven from Arab lands.
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Seeking Refuge: Yemenis gather around the ruins of buildings in the Jewish quarter after riots broke out. A new bill seeks to link any discussion of the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews driven from Arab lands.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 12, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
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In a rare show of pre-election bipartisanship, lawmakers from both parties are sponsoring a bill that would link the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews from Arab countries.

The legislation would require the administration to include mention of the need to resolve the issue of Jews who were expelled from their homes in Arab countries in diplomatic discussions about Palestinian refugees. The bill specifically cites talks that take place within the framework of the so-called Middle East Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.

The bill marks the most far-reaching attempt to date to couple Jewish and Palestinian narratives of displacement, and as such it has earned varying responses.

Some advocates of Jews from Arab countries see tying together the two groups’ national histories as an important step toward recognizing the plight of Jews who long lived in the Middle East. The history of their expulsion and dispossession from Arab countries after the establishment of Israel in 1948 has often been overshadowed by the tragic record of Eastern European Jewry. Opponents, on the other hand, view the proposed legislation as no more than a cynical attempt to use the hardship suffered by these Jews, often referred to as Sephardim, as a counterweight to Palestinian claims raised at the negotiation table.

The legislation is co-sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans, including Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Other sponsors include Democrats Jerrold Nadler and Joseph Crowley from New York, and Republicans Ted Poe of Texas and Bob Turner of New York.

The proposed bill expands on a previous resolution passed in 2008 and includes, for the first time, practical measures. It requires the president to report to Congress within one year on actions he has taken “to use the voice, vote and influence of the United States to ensure” that any international discussion on Palestinian refugees “must also include a similar explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” The bill purposely does not specify what the preferred resolution for any of the refugee problems should be—a deliberate omission, according to a staffer for one of the members of Congress involved in the bill.

Given the upcoming elections, it is not likely that the proposed legislation will come to a vote before Congress adjourns. Its advocates nevertheless see the bill’s strong bipartisan sponsorship as an important advance.

“We want it to be on the Middle East peace table; that’s all we’re asking for,” said Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews From Arab Countries. The group, a coalition founded by several Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American organizations, has been promoting the call for recognition of rights of Jews from Arab lands. “If there will be a discussion on redress for Palestinian refugees,” said Urman, “there should also be redress for Jewish refugees. This should all be on the table.”


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