FEATURE - Mideast Jewish refugees campaign for recognition

Sun Oct 22, 2006 4:10 PM IST

By Jonathan Saul

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - World Jewish groups began a global campaign on Sunday calling for recognition of Jews from Arab countries as refugees in the Middle East conflict.

"The world sees the plight of Palestinian refugees, and not withstanding their plight, there must be recognition that Jews from Arab countries are also victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC).

JJAC, a U.S.-based coalition of Jewish organisations, is one of the groups coordinating the campaign which aims to record testimonies of Jews who fled in the face of persecution, list asset losses and lobby foreign governments on their behalf.

Jewish groups have estimated that since 1948 at least 900,000 Jews have been forced to leave their homes in Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

At least 600,000 went to Israel. The rest sought sanctuary in France, Britain, the United States and other countries.

A meeting of Jewish groups in Jerusalem on Sunday marked the first concerted effort to put the issue on the world agenda.

Linda Abdel Aziz, who fled to Israel in 1971, is one of many thousands of Jews born in Iraq who left or were expelled as conditions deteriorated due to discriminatory legislation, pogroms and public executions.

Abdel Aziz has recorded her testimony in the campaign. Her father, Jacob, who stayed behind in Iraq, disappeared in 1972, and family members believe he was executed by the ruling Baath party regime for being a Jew.

"We did not interfere in politics but we were persecuted. We are all haunted," said Abdel Aziz, 56.


Jewish communities in the Middle East stretch back over 2,500 years.

But anti-Jewish violence, fanned by Arab nationalism, swept through the region in the early 1940s. A wave of pogroms against Jews was triggered by the establishment of Israel in 1948 and a war in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in what became the Jewish state.

After 1948, conditions deteriorated for Jews in many Arab countries, including property confiscation by Arab governments.

The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, another body spearheading the new campaign, has estimated that Jews lost more than $100 billion in personal and community assets through confiscations by various Arab governments.

While some individuals have tried to file suits for lost property particularly in Libya and Iraq, there has so far not been a concerted effort by Jewish groups to seek reparations.

JJAC is working in tandem with Israel's Ministry of Justice which is collecting and registering testimonials, affidavits and property claims. The ministry has already received thousands of claims to date.

"With memories fading, and elderly people passing on each day, this will be our last, best chance to obtain this important record of Jewish history and the evidence for future claims," Urman said.

Any future claims are complicated by the fact that the departure of Jews from Arab states happened alongside the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Millions of Palestinians who fled themselves or are descended from those who left their homes behind demand a "right of return" to what is now Israel or at least compensation for their losses. Most live in Arab states neighbouring Israel.

"If there will be compensation for Palestinian refugees, there must be compensation for Jewish refugees," Urman said.

Abbas Shiblak, a British-based Palestinian writer and author of a book on the Jews of Iraq, said their plight should not be compared with the Palestinian refugee issue.

"Their (Middle Eastern Jews') rights should be addressed and discussed with each of the concerned Arab states with the help of the international community and only after a comprehensive peace settlement is agreed," Shiblak said.

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries