Friday, February 14, 2014

Jewish refugees from Arab lands seek compensation

From McClatchy-Tribune News Service, February 12, 2014, by BEN BARBER* (

U.S.-brokered Middle East peace talks have suddenly focused on the long-ignored escape of more than 700,000 Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East to safety in Israel since 1948.

While the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who left Israel since 1948 have been cared for by U.N. programs in camps from Gaza to Damascus, the Jewish refugees from Arab lands have never won U.N. support or obtained restitution of their properties left behind.

A senior U.S. State Department official told Jewish leaders in January that the draft peace "framework" would include compensation for the Jews who fled Arab lands, the New York Times reported.

These Jewish communities had been deeply rooted for centuries: in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq; they predated the rise of Islam in the 7th century.

Indeed, in 1965, before the Jewish flight took place, I first visited the Moroccan Jewish neighborhoods known as the "mellahs" in Rabat and in Marrakesh. I met Jews wearing traditional gelaba cloaks and yellow Moroccan slippers. Some spoke little Arabic or French but still spoke the Berber language that predates the Arab conquest.

During my visit back then, I shared the Passover seder meal with Rabat Rabbi David Cohen and learned that many Jews were quietly seeking to leave and head to France or Israel.

At that time, King Hassan II wanted the 300,000 Moroccan Jews to stay put and he sent his son, now King Mohammad Sixth, to a synagogue on the Jewish New Year to convey the royal family regards.

But after Jewish forces routed Arab armies in the 1948 war for independence, and then in 1955 wrested the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, anti-Jewish sentiment spread. Already in 1965 the Moroccan synagogues no longer had any marker or mezuzah in front. Jews quietly left their homes and businesses and took small boats across the Mediterranean to escape.

After the 1967 victory by Israel over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War, anti-Jewish riots and pogroms took place across the Arab world. The floodgates of refugee flight had opened and rulers from Cairo to Baghdad arranged for Jews to sign away their land, homes, businesses and other property before leaving.

In Basra, Iraq, in 2003, I noticed some curious adjoined housing along a canal and was told "that's where the Jews lived for 400 years" before they vanished from Iraq, mostly ending up in Israel after 1967. Only one Jew remained in that ancient city. On my flight out of Iraq I sat next to a Christian clergyman who told me he was helping to provide food and medicine for the last Jew in the city - an elderly Jewish woman.

The treatment of the two refugee communities has been markedly different and the suggestion that someone - U.S., UN, EU or perhaps multinational banks - might propose compensation to the Jews is remarkable.

Jewish refugees from Arab lands had a tough time at first in Israel. They faced discrimination by the Jews from Europe who founded the state and considered European culture and intellect superior to the "Oriental" Jews.

Many of the Jews from Arab lands were sent to live in barracks in the desert and build new towns far from the comforts and educational advantages of Tel Aviv and Haifa.

The bleak settlements they lived in were a far cry from the ancient stone pathways and palm trees of their North African cities and towns. But they were free to educate their children, find work where they wanted and become full members of Israel's society and economy.

On the other hand, the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who fled Israel were kept in camps. Arab leaders decided to maintain them as refugees to pressure Israel. Fedayeen killers were recruited and trained in the camps for attacks inside Israel. Life was bleak in Palestinian refugee camps and hatred of Jews was the unifying truth. Instead of letting the Palestinian refugees settle in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt - where local people spoke the same language and shared the Muslim faith - the Palestinians were barred from adopting local citizenship and escaping their refugee status.

The United States has been the largest donor to the enormous expense - nearly $1 billion in 2013 - of caring for 4.8 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants. After the U.S. came nine European countries. The Islamic Development Bank was 10th largest donor and Saudi Arabia 15th.

I asked a prominent Lebanese leader a few years ago, "Why not let the 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon out of the camps and let them become citizens?"

"Never," he said. "They must not be part of our balance of communities. They must go back to Israel."

However Israelis of all political persuasion agree on one thing: not to accept millions of refugees bred to hate Israel and Jews.

So the new plan being crafted by Secretary of State John Kerry and his team calls for:

-Arab refugees would "return" but not to Israel. They could resettle in the new Palestinian state on the West Bank and would receive compensation.

-Jewish refugees from Arab lands would get some compensation for their lost property.

The very fact that the peace framework mentions that Jewish refugees from Arab lands are entitled to some form of compensation may do a lot to get support for a two-state solution - Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace - from hawkish Sephardic Jews and their descendants who left behind billions in property.

But it remained unclear who would provide the compensation and how much it would amount to.


Ben Barber has covered the Middle East for 30 years for the Baltimore Sun, London Observer, Toronto Globe and Mail and other publications.


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