More than just personal and communal assets, it is also about national assets
In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet encourages the Babylonian exiles by telling them to “seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in the peace thereof you shall have peace.”
This precept eventually became known as dina demalhuta dina (“the law of the land is the law”) in the Babylonian Talmud, and it basically inures the Jewish people’s loyalty to the nation in which they reside.
This has been true of Jewish communities across the world throughout the Diaspora, and nowhere more so than in what is now known as Iraq, where Jews lived longer than any other Diaspora and contributed massively to its economy, polity, culture and governance.
Unfortunately, all of this ended in the 20th century, when its Jews, and the Jews of the entire Arab world fled or were expelled from their homes and communities, frequently with little more than the clothes on their back.
The release of a report by the Social Equality Ministry, whose purpose was to evaluate the total sum of the property and assets that were left behind by Arab and Iranian Jewry, is an important step toward historic redress.
The reported amount of $150 billion should not raise eyebrows when one takes into account that Jews left behind massive international businesses in places like Baghdad and Cairo, where they made up not unsubstantial percentages of the populations.
The amount of property, assets and funds owned not just by individuals, but also communities – like synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish institutions – was enormous and substantial.
Almost of all of it was appropriated, nationalized, stolen or forced to sell at a fraction of its value, as Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa came to an abrupt end.
The news that the Israeli government is finally tackling this issue, not as a talking point but as an issue with practical ramifications, is extremely welcome and overdue.
While the considered research, facts and figures are in cold black and white, they bring color to our story and history, one largely unknown or overlooked in Israel and the wider Jewish world for too long. They also provide much needed push back against the regrettable canard that the Jews from Arab lands were backward, uncivilized, uncultured and poor, and that they had little of substance in the lands from whence they fled.
THE JEWS of the Arab world, like any other Diaspora, constituted a mixed population in terms of economic status, but when they were given the opportunity, they contributed massively to all walks of life in their nations of origin until this all came crashing down due to a series of unprecedented discriminatory, legal, economic and social measures taken against them in the middle of the last century.
In fact, the issue of redress should not just be limited to private and communal assets lost. A cursory reading of history would have demonstrated that had the Jews been allowed to stay, they would have had the benefit of their share of the national assets of the countries they were forced to leave.
As elsewhere, Jews contributed far beyond their numbers and would dictate and assist the economies and societies of which they were a part. When they were forced out, many of these countries descended into chaos and subsequently failed economies.
If they had remained, Jews would have contributed to making those assets work for the welfare of their countries of origin and their peoples. Instead, these national assets were largely wasted on corruption and terrorism.
Thus, the exiled Jews also have a moral claim to a share of that wasted wealth.
This salient fact should also be factored into the equation when deciphering assets lost, because when someone is stripped of his or her citizenship and place in society, they automatically lose that share in the society.
This share was considerable, and few governments in the region have taken any steps to even symbolically redress the situation.
Some Arab commentators of late have lamented what was done to the Jews of the region and have begun to theorize whether they or their descendants should receive a welcome back. They recognize that the Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa were loyal, dedicated and upstanding. They fought in their armies when allowed, contributed to their economies and supported the flourishing culture and arts.
Simply put, they adhered to the ancient Jewish custom of dina demalhuta dina.
Before we consider the future of the relationship of the Jews of Arab countries with the nations of the Middle East and North Africa, there must be an accounting and a redress. This should not just include the lost and stolen personal and communal assets, but also the share of the national assets which they were stripped of almost overnight during the 20th century.
The writer is a businessman and philanthropist, vice president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI), and honorary president of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq.