After the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, and the wave of Arab nationalism and decolonisation sweeping the Middle East, the Jews of the region were uprooted and most made their way to Israel, abandoning assets ranging from modest family homes to prosperous businesses, as well as communal property like schools and synagogues. Since then, a wall of war and enmity has separated them from those former assets. Nevertheless, these families, many reduced to working-class status, have always hoped that with the advent of regional peace they would be able to claim their rightful inheritance.
Except that now incensed Sephardim in Israel and abroad are claiming that the Israeli government - with neither the legal nor the moral authority to do so - is getting ready to bargain away those personal inheritances. In a trade-off for the Palestinians' dropping their gigantic property claims agianst Israel, they say, is preparing to waive future Jewish claims to assets in the Arab countries - assets worth billions, maybe tens of billions, of dollars.
Work on the register of Jewish assets in Arab lands began toward the end of the Netanyahu administration. But it is quietly continuing under Ehud Barak's government - as a way of countering, a similar project by the Palestinians, begun several years ago, to list assets left behind by Palestinians in Israel in 1948. And although individual would-be Sephardi heirs contacted by The Report are horrified by the equation, and dismayed too at the prospect of countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya getting off the hook, several Sephardi organisations are co-operating: "We are performing a service for Israel," says Leon Levy, president of the American Sephardi Federation.
For their part, Palestinian officials insist that they have no intention of reducing their demands for financial compensation from Israel because Jews lost assets in the Arab world. "There is no linkage here. Israel has to negotiate directly with Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt," says Daoud Barakat, the Palestinian Co-ordinator of Refugee Negotiations. "I don't represent those countries."
Says Bobby Brown, who deals with Diaspora affairs in the Prime Minister's Office, "An injustice was committed to the Jews from Arab countries, and for 50 years we've been saying that it's not the right time to deal with this issue. But in a month, or a year, we will be sitting with the Palestinians ....... and negotiating. The issue of restitution will come up. The Palestinians are going to say, 'You owe us X-amount.' That's the moment that the Jewish side must say, 'There was a war. We also have claims. And these must act as a counterbalance.' We have to find a rough justice on both sides."
Sephardi activists in Israel fume that their community is going to be short-changed by the government for a second time: A generation ago, their parents were settled in remote development towns, and condemned to second-class status, from which many of them are still trying to escape. Now, they fear, the government is playing big brother again, seeking to use their inheritance for its own ends.
"The government will evaluate the property of, say, the Iraqi Jews and then use it to counterbalance the Palestinian claim."
"The property of the Jews of the Middle East is not a matter for the State of Israel," says Yehouda Shenhav, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, himself of Iraqi descent. "They are manipulating me for an ulterior motive," says Shenhav.
For Jews from the Middle East and North Africa who live outside Israel, the notion is even more absurd and untenable: How dare the Israeli government, which cannot conceivably assert that it represents them in any way, they ask, try to usurp their property claims?
Some Israeli officials have argued over the years that, since the government spent billions absorbing the Sephardi Jews here, they can hardly consider themselves shortchanged by Israel. That argument, too, is rudely dismissed by Sephardim abroad. "They certainly didn't spend billions on me," snorts Naim Dangoor, born in Iraq in 1914, who left behind factories and a house when he moved to London in 1959. Naim Dangoor says, "I happened to be in London with my family in 1964 when all the Jews were given three months to return to Iraq or lose their nationality and their property. Although I had extensive interests in Iraq, I decided not to return, mindful of the Talmudic dictum of not taking personal risks for the sake of money. Although I can now justify a claim of $5 million, this is insignificant in the context of hundreds of billions being mentioned by both sides in the final settlement negotiations."
The human, cultural and economic tragedy that befell the Jewish communities in Arab countries was profound. Although circumstances varied from country to country, whole communities, some over 2,000 years old, were uprooted. Some Jews managed to sell their homes - often for far below the market value; others managed to ferret out valuables, stuffing jewels and gold coins into their pockets. But most lost almost everything and, like the refugees from war-ravaged Europe who had preceded them, arrived in Israel destitute.
In Iraq, for instance, on March 10, 1951, a new law impounded the property of all Jews who had renounced citizenship and planned to go to Israel. This included many Jews who, although not Zionists, fled persecution which grew with the establishment of Israel. To ensure that the Jews could not use the brief time-lag between passage of the legislation and its implementation to sell their homes and businesses, the Iraqi government shut down the banks for three days. Jews' shops were sealed and their possessions were confiscated. Jewish merchants and jewellers had their homes searched.
In 1945 there were 870,000 Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa. By 1952, hundreds of thousands had arrived in Israel, and tens of thousands had reached Western Europe and North and South Africa. Estimates on the collective value of the property they left behind vary wildly - from a few billion dollars to more than $100 billion.
Moroccan-born Amram Attias, who heads the U.S. based Committee of Jews from Arab Lands - set up to help spearhead the registration project- claims that the 130,000 Jews of Iraq, the wealthiest Jewish community in the Middle East, lost nearly $100 billion, while Egypt's Jews lost more than $60 billion.
The idea that Palestinian demands for property taken over by Israel could be countered by Jewish demands for abandoned property in Arab lands has been bandied about for years. But few people, even those directly affected, are aware that this hitherto theoretical "linkage" is becoming real - with work on the register under way and the final status talks imminent.
When it does become more widely known, the issue could exacerbate Ashkenazi-Sephardi tensions. David Tal, a Knesset member from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, of Tunisian descent, warns that if the Sephardim are left empty-handed, "the bitterness will come to the surface, with serious public implications."
Adds a government official whose parents immigrated to Israel from Baghdad, and who asked not to be named in this article, "Sephardim will say that Israel didn't want to bring them in the first place, that it then put them in transit camps, then in development towns - and that now we're being used as a bargaining chip. This will create an explosion. I can't say how big. But it will."
Barak's Labour Party is particularly vulnerable to Sephardi rage. Soon after taking over the party leadership in 1997, in an effort to rid Labour of its elitist, Ashkenazi image, Barak issued a formal apology to Sephardi immigrants for what he acknowledged was the suffering and lack of respect they endured here at the hands of the Labour governments of the 1950's. He owed his election victory last May, in no small part, to the defection of thousands of traditionally Likud-voting Sephardim. A misstep on the restitution issue could aggravate old wounds.
In the eyes of some Sephardim who live abroad, the linkage equation is especially alarming. Even though they chose not to make their homes in Israel, they are now facing the possibility of their restitution claims being cancelled out in Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Why, they ask, should they, of all people, cover the cost of Palestinian losses?
Professor Heskel Haddad, in New York, says he had to leave Iraq "illegally" in 1950 as a young man, and that his parents followed - "leaving behind our house in Baghdad, my father's plumbing business."
It would be a terrible injustice to let countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Morocco get off scot-free. "They owe us a debt. They should be made to pay it. They shouldn't be let off the hook because Israel wants to make peace with the Palestinians in a hurry."
Deborah Srour, a 37 year old New York lawyer, chuckles incredulously at the thought that the Israeli government wants to bargain away the casino her grandfather owned in Cairo. King Farouk used to gamble there, she says, along with other celebrities like singer Um Kalthoum. In 1950, she says, her grandfather was arrested on suspicion of allowing Israeli spies to operate in the casino, and then forced to leave Egypt. After Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979, she and her grandfather travelled to Cairo, and found that the casino building had become an office of the Moslem Brotherhood.
"We're Zionists. We'll do anything for Israel", she says. "But this is like a stab in our back. How can the government of Israel bargain away something it has no jurisdiction over?
But other Sephardim overseas are willing to have the lost Jewish property used as a bargaining chip. Take the American Sephardi Federation's Levy, who was more than happy to oblige when, earlier this year, he was approached by Israeli government officials and asked to help run the registration drive. The Israelis, he recalls, were "alarmed by the sophisticated search that the Palestinians were undertaking. They wanted to be able to balance those Palestinian claims."
WOJAC was set up in 1975 precisely to push Sephardi claims, but with no conspicuous results.
The Camp David framework agreements, signed in 1978 by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, did provide for a "Claim Committee for the mutual settlementof all financial claims" between Israel and Egypt. But Israel has never pursued the matter with the Egyptian government; it may be that Israel feared undermining the delicate diplomatic relationship.
But if the details were lacking, the principle of "linkage" was already being set in place. In a 1951 address to the Knesset, after Iraq nationalised Jewish property, foreign minister Moshe Sharett declared, "An account already exists between us and the Arab world: the account of compensation that accrues to the Arabs who left the territory of Israel and abandoned their property...The act that has now been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Iraq...forces us to link the two accounts...We will take into account the value of the Jewish property that has been frozen in Iraq when calculating the compensation that we have undertaken to pay the Arabs who abandoned property in Israel."
This policy, aimed at offsetting Palestinian refugee claims, has remained consistent over the years.
Diaspora affairs adviser Brown says that the issue took on real importance 18 months ago, when it became clear that the Palestinians were hard at work compiling their own property register for use in the final status talks. "We knew," says Brown, "that this would be the time to put our claims on the table."
Without going into detail, Brown adds that, if the mutual claims are ultimately written off against each other, Israel will have to "find a way to provide compensation to the Sephardim."
For Shas's David Tal, that vague commitment represents the best hope of preventing an outburst of Sephardi anger over the issue. "If Israel resolves this issues with the Arab world, that's fine. But that's not the end of the account. Israel would then have to give some compensation to the Sephardim. I don't want to draw comparisons, but the Jews who fled Germany and Eastern Europe got compensation. That money helped them establish themselves here. The Jews who fled Arab lands have never got anything."
Naim Dangoor writes:
The assets I left behind in Iraq comprise among other things the following:
At the depressed level of 150,000 Dinars for all the above, that amount would have grown now to $5 million.
In Judaism we believe that riches are a gift from G-d, so I abandoned it all back into His care, and was not disappointed.
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