In a major victory for their advocates, twin congressional resolutions were introduced this week urging the president to raise the issue of the plight of some 900,000 Jews who left Arab countries 50 years ago in future Middle East peace talks.
The parallel measures were introduced in the Senate by Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican, and in the House by Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.
“It is important to make sure the concerns about all refugees are represented in U.S. Middle East policy,” Santorum told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday.
The twin resolutions contend that “any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement… must address and resolve all outstanding issues, including the legitimate rights of all peoples displaced from Arab countries.” They urge the president to instruct American diplomats to ensure that “any explicit reference 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.”
In a separate initiative, 41 members of the House sent a letter to President Bush this week urging him to place the plight of Jewish refugees from Libya on the agenda in any upcoming negotiations with Libya. The bipartisan letter follows recent statements by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and his son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi indicating that Libya is willing to discuss compensation for Jews who left under duress and lost property. The broader effort to win recognition of refugee status for Jews from Arab countries appears to represent a more uphill battle. The twin congressional resolutions introduced this week are the product of a campaign launched in early 2002 by a group called Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, initiated by a New York-based coalition of Jewish organizations.
Last fall, Nadler, together with New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone and Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, sponsored a resolution recognizing the plight of the 900,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries and urging the U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees to resettle them. That initiative appeared to be linked to efforts by the World Jewish Congress.
Justice for Jews From Arab Countries and its congressional supporters have presented their case to top officials at the White House and State Department and are now hoping to attract co-sponsors and eventually hold hearings.
While Stanley Urman, the executive director of the group, said the advocacy campaign was well-received, Santorum said he would not be surprised if there was some “suspicion” about the initiative, especially at the State Department. He refused to elaborate on the reasons for such a stance.
Two State Department officials said they would not comment on draft legislation.
The group is also planning to introduce the issue at the United Nations General Assembly next fall.
In addition to obtaining Jewish communal support through the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the coalition on Jewish refugees has also received the active backing of the Israeli government after years of benign neglect of the issue.
An Israeli cabinet resolution passed two years ago revived efforts to gather evidence of past persecutions. Last month, the Israeli Foreign Ministry distributed guidelines on the issue to its diplomats, urging them to raise the point during discussions about the Middle East.
Israeli interest in the issue has fueled speculation among critics that the advocacy campaign, while officially seeking justice for all those displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict, is in fact an attempt to neutralize the controversial Palestinian refugee issue.
Urman claims the group is not acting against Palestinian refugees but is merely trying to level the playing field by defending the rights of Jews who were discriminated against and often fled their countries, leaving property behind.
Both Santorum and Nadler insisted on the need for “balance” and “parity” in justifying their backing of the measure.
Some Israeli critics have argued in recent months that seeking refugee status for Jews from Arab countries undercuts the Zionist case that those Jews who settled in Israel were in fact returning to their own homeland. Nadler, however, stressed that such ideological distinctions should not preclude victims of rights violations from seeking justice.
Urman acknowledged that, since they were resettled, Jews from Arab countries are not refugees according to international law. He maintained, however, that the massive exodus of Jews from Arab countries during the 1950s and 1960s was driven not only by the attraction of Israel but also by state-sponsored discrimination and persecution.
The group contends that the number of Jews uprooted from Arab countries, about 850,000, exceeded the number of Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the Israeli-Arab conflict, some 726,000. Roughly two-thirds of those Jews resettled in Israel and the rest went elsewhere, mostly France, the United States and Canada.
An Egyptian diplomat refused to comment on the congressional resolutions, stressing only that the rights of Jews as well as other minorities were protected in Egypt.
The estimated Jewish population of Egypt is currently 100, down from about 75,000 in 1948.
While Urman explained that the group was not seeking compensation or other forms of redress, he added that individuals had a right to redress, which could take the form of legal action.
While he said no lawsuit had been filed yet, he noted that some Iraqi Jews in New York and London were considering such a possibility.
They have found encouragement from Iraq and Libya. In addition to declarations by some members of the Iraqi governing council about eventual redress, the new interim constitution seems to allow such a possibility.
Libyan leader Gadhafi made statements in January that indicated a willingness to discuss the claims of Jews who left Libya. Earlier this month his son told the Al-Jazeera news network that the 30,000 Libyan Jews who had left the country were entitled to compensation.
The offer was seen as part of Tripoli’s effort to restore relations with the Western world following its agreement to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs.
Iraq and Libya’s overtures are mentioned in the congressional resolutions, and Jewish communal officials have recently met with Iraqi and Libyan officials.
Another target of the lobbying efforts is the Canadian government, which chairs a multilateral working group on refugees set up at the 1991 Madrid conference on Middle East peace.
Although the working group has been dormant for years, Urman claims it might spring back into action when the issue of compensation for refugees eventually comes up in the context of a final peace settlement.
Urman’s coalition has one strong ally within the Canadian government: Justice Minister Irwin Cotler is one of its honorary chairs.