Thursday, 6 September 2012

Justice delayed is justice denied

A redress long overdue

Word is that the Israeli government is about to launch an initiative designed to bring the world’s attention to the long-neglected issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Knesset legislation passed in 2010 already obliges any government conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians to include compensation for these Jewish refugees in any deal. Unfortunately there has been no opportunity to bring the issue forward in that context, since the whole peace process has been on ice since the failure of the face-to-face talks of September 2010. Now a new effort is being initiated, and not before time.

Thriving Jewish communities existed in the Middle East and North Africa a thousand years before the rise of Islam. In 1945, there were approaching a million Jews living in the various Arab states. But as the UN General Assembly moved towards acceptance of the recommendation to partition British-ruled mandated Palestine, increasingly hostile measures were being taken by the Arab nations against their Jewish communities. Following adoption of the Partition Plan by the UN, Arab governments started confiscating Jewish property. Simultaneously riots and massacres broke out against Jewish communities throughout the Arab world. Jewish-owned stores and synagogues were looted and burned, hundreds of Jews were killed, thousands were imprisoned.

As Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the Arab League Political Committee drafted a series of recommendations for all Arab and Muslim countries on how to take action against the Jews in their countries. Among other recommendations, the citizenship of Jews was to be revoked, and they were henceforth to be considered citizens only of the newly established Jewish state. Their assets were to be confiscated, their bank accounts frozen, and property worth millions of dollars nationalized. Severe restrictions were to be imposed on their employment, and many lost their means of livelihood. Between 1948 and 1951, about 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab lands, and approximately 600,000 sought refuge in Israel. There has never been any offer of compensation from the Arab governments which expropriated their possessions.

The current estimate is that there are something less than 8,000 Jews left in the ten Arab countries which were originally home to nearly a million.

More to the point, perhaps, it was estimated in a report issued last April by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that today close to half of Israel's Jewish citizens, including their descendents, came from Arab countries. Many of these families once owned property, businesses, possessions and financial assets in their countries of origin which were simply abandoned.

Dealing with how the parallel Palestinian and Jewish refugee problems should be treated in any future peace negotiations, this government report makes a series of recommendations which have not so far received a great deal of public attention. Three would be particularly central in any negotiations leading to a possible solution of the Arab-Israel dispute.

The first of these proposes an agreement, to be concluded between Arab countries and the international community, to provide compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees. To achieve this, an international fund should be created, based on President Clinton's suggestion from the 2000 Camp David agreement and Congress Resolution 185 of 2008, which was initiated by the advocacy organisation “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries”. This fund will also deal with the issue of Jewish property still in the hands of Arab and Muslim countries.

The second major suggestion is that most Palestinian refugees should be rehabilitated in their place of residence, just as the Jewish refugees were rehabilitated in theirs - Israel. However, the insistence of some Palestinian refugees to be given a right of return would be resolved by their immigration into the future Palestinian state that will be established through a peace agreement. The State of Israel would not accept the principle of a Palestinian "right of return" into Israel; it would accept the concept of compensation, to be provided through an authorized third party.

Finally, it was proposed that the Foreign Ministry, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, lead a promotional campaign on the issue of Jewish refugees. This is the campaign that has just been announced, and in a sense has already started to bite, for it has evoked an immediate response from Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) member Hanan Ashrawi. In an article published in a number of Arab outlets, she asserts that Jews who migrated from Arab lands to Israel, “which is supposed to be their homeland,” are not refugees. Their claim. she writes is “a form of deception and delusion”.

Her argument is disingenuous on a number of counts. Jews who migrate to Israel willingly are one thing; Jews persecuted to the point of fleeing for their lives is quite another. Moreover a “national homeland” is not equivalent to an individual’s home. If someone born in a particular country, with family roots there perhaps going back generations − in short, a national of that country − has his property and goods confiscated, his home destroyed and his family threatened. and he flees to some other country, he falls fairly and squarely within the definition of “refugee”. Whether the person in question happens to be a Jew, and whether the country he flees to happens to be Israel, is totally irrelevant.

For the international definition of a refugee is a person who ‘‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’’. This definition, Congress Resolution 185 states, “clearly applies to Jews who fled the persecution of Arab regimes,” and indeed on January 29, 1957, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), determined that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees that fell within the mandate of the UNHCR. Moreover, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, calls for a ‘‘just settlement of the refugee problem’’ without distinction between Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

In short, people − whoever they are − who are unwillingly uprooted from their homes are entitled to the status “refugee”.

As for those Jews whose refugee status has been ignored for decades, at last their case is to be given a public hearing. Next Monday, September 10, an all-day international conference is to be held in Jerusalem on the topic: “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.”

Justice delayed is justice denied. The time is more than ripe for a determined effort to secure general recognition of the rights of these Jewish refugees, and for a redress of the wrongs they have suffered for so long.

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