During various rounds of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, negotiators have overlooked an important element pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict – the uprooting of around 850,000 Jews living in Arab countries, the loss of their assets and property, and the difficulties they underwent upon migrating to Israel and their absorption.
Close to half of Israel’s Jewish citizen’s today were born in Arab countries and are descendants of refugees from Arab countries.
Official recognition of their rights which were neglected and the need to grant justice is an issue of national, ethical and moral importance.
It is also of diplomatic significance and in any permanent status agreement with the Palestinians and normalization of relations with Arab countries, this issue must also be brought to an agreed and just conclusion.
Thriving, prosperous Jewish communities existed in the Middle East and North Africa about a thousand years before the rise of Islam and more than 2,500 years before the establishment of modern Arab nations. These communities, which extended from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west, had a lively fabric of life and were influential in the local economies. Until the 10th century C.E., 90% of the world’s Jews lived in the areas of today’s Arab countries.
Since the end of the 1940’s around 850,000 Jews lived in Arab countries but by 1967 most Jewish communities in these countries disappeared, leaving a few thousand Jews spread over a number of small towns.
Due to international expectation that a Jewish state was going to be established, the Arab League decided in 1946 to boycott all Jewish citizens living in Arab countries. With the United Nations adopting the Partition Plan (November 1947) riots broke across the Arab world against Jewish communities. Jewish shops and synagogues were ransacked and burned, hundreds of Jews were killed and thousands were imprisoned.
With the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Arab League’s Political Committee convened and formulated recommendations for all Arab and Muslim countries which specified how to treat Jews in those countries. Among other things the document stated the Jews should be deprived of their citizenship as they were considered citizens of the newly established Jewish state. Assets were seized, bank accounts were frozen and property worth millions of dollars was nationalized. Jews were excluded from government ministries, restricted entry to public service causing many to lose their means of subsistence.
The anti-Jewish trend only increased over time, and an organized plan of oppression and persecution was implemented against the Jews in Arab countries. Between 1948 and 1951, about 850,000 Jews were expelled or, as explained above, forced out of Arab countries, and became refugees. In fact, a two-way migration of populations began, along with the creation of two different refugee groups. The Arab nations, led by the Arab League, were responsible for causing both groups of refugees, Jews and Palestinians.
The ratio between the two refugee groups was 2:3, with the Palestinian group numbering around 600,000 as opposed to the Jewish refugees, which numbered about 850,000 (up until 1968), and their descendents now account for about one half of the population of the State of Israel.
Another important aspect of this subject is that of lost property. A 2008 study estimated that the ratio of lost property stands at almost 1:2; the Palestinian refugees lost property totaling roughly 450 million dollars (in today’s prices around $3.9 billion) whereas the Jewish refugees lost property totaling 700 million dollars (around $6 billion dollars).
The Arab nations, led by the Arab league, perpetuated the refugee problem (except for Jordan, which conferred citizenship on its Palestinian citizens), as opposed to Israel which integrated and absorbed the Jewish refugees and saw to their rehabilitation and absorption. The Palestinian refugees’ situation was also perpetuated by the international system through UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which has no mandate to find sustainable solutions for the Palestinian refugee problem.
According to the criteria set by the UN regarding the definition of a refugee, the Jewish refugees are considered full-fledged refugees, and when the Security Council passed Resolution 242 in November 1967, no differentiation was made between Palestinian and Jewish refugees. The Palestinian refugees had their refugee status perpetuated, while the Jewish refugees from Arab countries engaged in building new lives for themselves.
The issue of Jewish refugees in the Middle East was raised as far back as the 1970s, and was spearheaded at the time by former MK Mordechai Ben-Porat, among others. The first relevant organization to be established was WOJAC – the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries.
Later JJAC – Justice for Jews from Arab Countries – was founded, and near the time of the Annapolis Conference it exposed UN documents proving that the Arab League nations planned and employed an organized program of oppression and persecution against Jews in Arab countries following the establishment of the State of Israel. Accordingly, claims JJAC, hundreds of thousands of Jews should be recognized as refugees exactly as the Palestinians are.
During the Camp David peace talks of 2000, President Clinton announced that if an agreement would be reached, then an international fund should be established to compensate the refugees, both Arab refugees and Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Clinton’s proposal was seconded some years later by the U.S. House of Representatives’ decision in April 2008 which stated that Jewish refugees should be recognized as refugees by the UN Convention, and an international fund should be established to compensate Jewish and Palestinian refugees for the loss of their property. This House of Representatives decision, known as H. Resolution 185, determined that one refugee population problem should not be resolved without also resolving the other refugee problem at the same time. Recently a new legislative proposal has been presented to the House calling upon the US administration to deal with this important issue.
Nevertheless, the issue of Jewish refugees was pushed to the sidelines of the national and international agenda while Israeli governments, which changed frequently, did not do enough to raise and incorporate the issue of Jewish rights into the national and international discourse.
In February 2010 the issue did gain recognition in Israel, with the legislation of the "Law for Preservation of the Rights to Compensation of Jewish Refugees from Arab countries and Iran", passed by the Knesset.
The law upholds safeguarding the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab states. According to the law, the State of Israel is obligated to make sure that any negotiations for peace in the Middle East will include the subject of compensation for the Jewish refugees. At the same time, the National Council for Jewish Restitution, chaired by Rafi Eitan, was established under the auspices of the Ministry for Senior Citizens.
In order to bring about justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the Deputy Minister of Foreign affairs has decided to act to raise this important issue onto the international agenda. This is also due to the ongoing efforts held by the Arabs to have international recognition of Palestinian refugees and their rights.
The world should know that the issue of refugees in the Middle East also includes the Jewish refugees. It is not a coincidence that the Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 speaks of the need to find a just solution to the refugee problem, i.e., the decision speaks of reaching a solution for the refugees on both sides.
Raising the issue to the international agenda will be done by promoting parliamentary initiatives around the world with the help of the World Jewish Congress and the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians. Also the subject will be raised for discussion at the UN, calling the countries of the world to pay attention to this issue. Another way to bring the issue to the attention of the world is to publish it in world media and social networks and to document Jewish refugees telling their personal stories.