New office begins investigating lost property of ME Jews

ByBENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT/ THE MEDIA LINE
July 28, 2010 02:26

Pensioners Ministry: Jewish property in Arab countries valued in billions, and is worth 50% more than the property of Palestinian refugees.




This Nov. 15, 2009 photo shows an employee of the

iraq jewish archive 311 ap. (photo credit:AP)

A new department set up by Ministry of Pensioners Affairs to manage the legal claims of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent who lost their property when they left countries throughout the region has begun collecting information.

The office will help identify, locate and seek compensation for the assets of the more than one million Jews who came to Israel from Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.

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The initiative follows a law approved earlier this year by the Knesset requiring the compensation of Jews from Arab countries and Iran to be included in any peace negotiations.

“The Palestinians have been collecting evidence of their losses for many years,” said Yoni Itzhak, a spokesman for the Pensioners Affairs Ministry.


“So we are not waiting until there is a negotiation for a peace accord. We need to be prepared, so that if there are negotiations and the Palestinians say, ‘We are owed a few billion dollars,’ We will say, ‘OK, no problem,’ and be ready with a much higher figure of what we are owed.”

The ministry says that as of 2007 “the estimated value of Jewish property in Arab countries is 50 percent more than the value of the property of Palestinian refugees and is valued at billions of dollars.” The ministry did not provide specific figures.

Following the establishment of the state, most Muslim states declared or supported war against Israel, and the status of Jews in these countries became threatened.

According to estimates by the United Nations and a number of civil society organizations, during Israel’s first decade about 265,000 Jews left Morocco, 140,000 left Algeria, 135,000 left Iraq, 120,000 left Iran, 103,000 left Tunisia, 75,000 left Egypt, 63,000 left what is now Yemen, 38,000 left Libya, 30,000 left Syria and 5,000 left Lebanon. More than half a million additional Jews have left these countries since.

Most of the emigres headed to Israel, and just a few thousand Jews remain in the Arab world today.

“People often forget that there is also the Jewish side to the refugee story in the Middle East,” Itzhak said. “Almost every Jew who left Iran or an Arab country can tell you a whole story about what they left. These people left their things, their houses, their institutions – in some cases because of threats and laws that forced them out. So just like the Palestinians tell everyone that they have the keys to their old homes, we have our keys as well.”

The government refers to Jewish emigres from Middle Eastern countries as “refugees", but whether these Jews emigrated for economic or ideological reasons, or were pushed out of their home countries by anti-Semitic and political persecution, is a matter of debate.

What is clear is that Jews who emigrated from Muslim countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa left extensive assets in their home countries, from houses, stores and businesses to land and bank accounts. Estimates of the total value of Jewish personal and communal assets left in Muslim countries range from $1 billion to more than $100b.

Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent have been asked by the new department to report the details of their lost assets.

“We have already collected evidence from a few thousand people, but it was being done by a tiny branch of a small department,” Itzhak said.

“Now we have set up an entire department to deal with this issue, and we are putting the pedal to the metal are in the process of identifying, registering and assessing the value of everyone’s lost assets.”

The ministry is also searching public archives for documentary evidence of Jewish communal assets, such as synagogues, hospitals, event halls, retirement homes and ritual baths, which were abandoned when Jews left for Israel.

The new department is also preparing a case to demand damages for discrimination against Jews in the Muslim countries, such as Jews who were prevented from entering educational institutions, Jews who were stripped of their citizenship or other freedoms, and Jews who endured pogroms.

The department plans to collect compensation for Jews of Middle Eastern descent who were never paid their pensions, purchased plots in graveyards, anti-Semitic dismissals, etc.

Once all the evidence is collected, the ministry plans to prepare a legal case for each Jewish Israeli individual of Middle Eastern descent to demand compensation through a process of indirect negotiations with the relevant countries, almost none of which have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The initiative comes against the backdrop of longstanding and extensive Palestinian claims regarding their losses in the War of Independence. The degree to which these Arab fled voluntarily or were driven out by pre-state Jewish forces is a matter of extensive debate among Israeli, Palestinian and international historians.

Following the War of Independence and the subsequent establishment of the state, the Arab refugees were not allowed to return and the government took control of somewhere between 2,000 and 16,500 square kilometers of abandoned or confiscated land, according to differing government estimates at the time.

Following the passage of the nonbinding UN General Assembly Resolution 194 calling for Palestine refugees wishing to “live at peace with their neighbors” to be allowed to return to their homes, Israel passed a series of laws to formalize state ownership over absentee land and property.

“Palestinian refugees’ rights, including the right of return, is absolute and recognized under international law,” said Nasim Ahmed, senior researcher at the London-based Palestinian Return Centre, which advocates for the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

“We believe the right of return and claims for compensation by Palestinian refugees is exclusive and cannot be compromised by another claim. We also believe that to dissolve the Palestinian claim is a political tactic which undermines international law.”

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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