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Jews of Arab Countries Seek Lost Property

A massive drive is underway to win the return of tens of billions of dollars worth of property left behind in Arab countries by Jews who fled under duress.

The effort, which is being led with the support of the World Jewish Congress, is modelled in part on the attempt by Holocaust survivors and their heirs to win restitution from Swiss banks.

In addition to the potential monetary payoff, which is substantial, the campaign to win compensation for the material losses suffered by Jews who fled Arab countries has significant historical and political consequences. On the political level, the Jewish claims may be used in the final status negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs to neutralise, or even to trump, Arab claims on property that is now within the borders of Israel. And on the historical level, the effort is an attempt to document the obliteration of the Jewish communities in many Arab countries, a tragedy that has garnered far less attention than the destruction of European Jewry.

An important factor, besides getting the money, is to have the historical record set straight. Jewish losses are many times more than the Palestinians could ever claim.

The executive director of the World Jewish Congress, Elan Steinberg, said the World Jewish Congress had pledged its full support for the effort. "I think this is a matter of justice for all Jews."

The government of Israel has also been supportive of the effort to gather information about the property claims. Some have guesstimated the claims to be in tens of billions of dollars.

The properties, in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, include houses abandoned by Jews, businesses and bank accounts that were seized or left behind, and communal property such as synagogues, schools and cemeteries.

One rough way of estimating the Jewish claims would be to note that in 1948, Jews were 2% of the population of Arab countries. Granting Jews 2% of the land mass of Arab countries would leave Jews with an area more than 7 times the size of Israel in its current borders, and a valuable share of the oil wealth.

In 1945, more than 870,000 Jews lived in Arab countries, according to the organisers of the restitution effort. An estimated 600,000 went to Israel, while 260,000 found refuge in Europe and in North and South America.

If Israel intends to use the Jewish claims merely as a set-off for Palestinian claims, this can only cover the Jews who came to Israel. Jews who went elsewhere have every right to expect their individual claims to be recognised, if only on paper for the time being.



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