The bill under the drill

Bringing the issue of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands to public awareness will promote mutual understanding among multicultural descendants.

By LINDA MENUHIM
February 14, 2010 21:56
iraqi jewish storyteller

iraqi jew 88.298. (photo credit: Orly Halpern)

Last month, I went to visit Umm Rachel, an old lady who was a friend of our family in Iraq before I was born. I was shocked to see how fragile she had become; she could hardly talk. Although she receives a National Insurance allowance, it barely covers the basic requirements of old age.

As we talked, she seemed to lose interest and hope of retrieving any of her frozen assets in Iraq. She was very much offended and hurt by the misfortune that followed abandonment of her Iraqi nationality, along with around 130,000 other Jews who left Iraq between 1950 and 1951. She showed little faith in the news I brought her regarding the bill of compensation for Jews from Muslim countries which will be put to a vote in the Knesset in the coming weeks and the Conference of Leaders of Jews from Arab Countries taking place on Monday.

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The goal of the conference, according to the press release, “is to increase public and international awareness to the almost total obliteration of the hundreds of ancient Jewish communities throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and the transformation of close to one million Jews to refugees who have never received just compensation for their personal and community assets.” The original bill was submitted by Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev two years ago but has yet to move forward.

Due to a combination of international cynicism and domestic suppression of the subject, around 850,000 Jewish refugees were cut off from the Middle East narrative. The Jewish presence in the Middle East dates back almost 3,000 years, more than 1,000 years before Islam. As happens in bureaucracies, several government resolutions calling for the registration of all assets left behind in Arab countries were not carried out. In the best case, a small budget was allocated to a very small team in the Justice Ministry to accomplish this.

Meanwhile, people aged, their memory blurred and many lost their documentation. Now a new council has been established by the government, with two employees and a small budget to run a campaign to bring awareness of the registration of lost assets.

LOOKING BACK, it was essential for Israel to crystallize its narrative around Zionism as the main vehicle behind Jewish immigration. And indeed, Israel managed to absorb around 650,000 Jews from Arab countries, while the number of Palestinian refugees is still multiplying after more than 60 years.

In the eyes of the Jews from Arab countries and their descendants, the bill aims first at introducing justice both locally and internationally for the nakba – catastrophe – that befell them. They were dispossessed from flourishing businesses, orchards, a long heritage and their memories. They even had to discard the Arabic language. In short, they had to give up the culture they had cherished since birth.

After being reshaped in the Israeli melting pot, the Jewish refugees assumed responsibility for building their future in the new land, with the government’s assistance. They had to start from scratch, leaving behind assets worth $100 billion and property four times the size of modern Israel, according to the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries. While it is true that many thousands have integrated in Israeli society, thousands more are still paying a high price for being in the North or South, with no access to the national pie.

Teaching this part of history in schools is another important issue that the bill needs to address. By no means is it acceptable for the new generation to know practically nothing about the history of Jews from Muslim countries, while learning about every small pogrom that hit European Jews. Bringing this issue to the awareness of the masses will promote mutual understanding among multicultural descendants.

According to the bill submitted by Ze’ev, the government should recognize the rights of Jewish refugees from Islamic countries and seek reparation and compensation for violation of their human rights and confiscation of their assets.

Mizrahi Jews have also been frustrated due to lack of recognition in the international arena. While there were 150 UN resolutions dealing with the Palestinian problem, not one  deals with the Jewish refugees, or with assisting them.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, this bill does not affect or undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees. On the contrary, it provides an incredible opportunity to end the refugee problem on both sides. Previous governments ignored this issue, partly due to the absurd claim that it would encourage Palestinians to submit demands for compensation.

It is important to point out that in spite of the billions of dollars poured into refugee camps by UN agencies, the number of Palestinian refugees has grown steadily to more than four million. Not many are aware that the Palestinians are the only group of refugees, out of more than 100 million displaced in World War II, who  came under a special UN umbrella.

Reaching a just and lasting peace should be based on the truth, so that each party is aware of the suffering of the other. The suffering, the oppression of the weak and displacement are the common ground that enable a dialogue between two populations of refugees: Jews and Palestinians.

On a psychological level, compensation is a symbol of ending enmity. Even in Arab perception, the family of the underdog gets compensation from the perpetrators through negotiations conducted by middle men or dignitaries respected by both sides.

The idea of symmetry between two types of refugees was first born at the Wye Plantation summit with former US president Bill Clinton, who demanded compensation for all refugees in the conflict by establishing an international fund.

During the Bush administration, Congress endorsed a resolution calling for the mention of Jewish refugees every time there is a mention of Palestinian refugees.

Umm Rachel, like many old people who were displaced or fled from Muslim lands, will have to endure more suffering before achieving at least recognition from the Israeli government. Compensation will take time because of the need to establish an international fund, but in the end, it can clear the air for reconciliation, an important pillar for rebuilding confidence among nations in the Middle East.

The writer was the spokesperson for the Union of Local Authorities vis-a-vis the Arabic and Foreign Media and the former Middle East correspondent in Arabic TV with IBA.


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