The Pensioners Affairs Ministry has created a new department over the past two weeks that will begin to collect specific claims by Jews who lost their property when they left Arab countries during the 20th century.
More than 850,000 Jews fled or were expelled from Arab lands and Iran, most after Israel's founding in 1948. Estimates of the value of the property they were forced to leave behind are hard to come by, ranging from as low as $16 billion in known assets to as high as $300b. when estimates of the value of their abandoned real estate are included.
"Israel has talked about this on and off for 60 years. Now we're going to deal with it as we should have all along," said Dr. Avi Bitzur, director-general of the Pensioners Affairs Ministry.
The ministry established a department with an initial staff of five to begin to collect the claims of the Jewish refugees, about 80 percent of whom settled in Israel. Bitzur will host a panel on the issue at next week's Herzliya Conference, and over the next two weeks hopes to pass a decision through the cabinet mandating discussion of Jewish refugees whenever the question of Arab refugees are raised in peace negotiations.
According to Bitzur, who is also a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, the new effort comes to fill a gap in awareness both in Israel and abroad. "The UN has dealt at least 700 times with Arab refugees and their property, but not once with the issue of Jewish property," he says.
It's also time for Israelis to get to know better the history of the Jews of Arab lands, who make up some 60% of the ethnic ancestry of Israeli Jews.
"It's time to deal with this amongst ourselves," says Bitzur. "I say that as a citizen, as a father and as an academic. We should know the history of the pogrom in Baghdad in 1941, of the Lybian Jews who ended up in Bergen Belsen. It's time for people to know that there was this part of the Jewish people and its history was brought to an end."
In late 2007, Baghdad-born American Jew Heskel M. Haddad, representing the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, called on the Israeli government to begin to seriously examine the issue of Jewish property left behind in Arab lands.
At the time, Haddad told The Jerusalem Post that WOJAC had a staggering 100,000 square kilometers in property deeds.
Yet it is uncertain whether the recent initiative can survive after the February 10 Knesset elections. The Pensioners Affairs Ministry was established as part of a coalition deal with the Gil Pensioners Party in 2006. With the Pensioners currently polling below the threshold to return to the Knesset, would the ministry - and with it the newly-formed department - survive in a new coalition?
According to Bitzur, emphatically yes. "The department was formed by a government decision which continues to be in effect after the elections. The department has been approved and funded by the Finance Ministry, and its workers are government workers with all the implied protections," he explains.
Internationally, too, the project has support. "The US Congress [in mid-2008] decided that any discussion of refugees in the Middle East must include the Jewish refugees from Arab lands. The current presidency of the EU, the Czech Republic, agrees with this position," he says.
Etgar Lefkovits contributed to this report.