Most people are unaware of the size and scope of the Jewish refugee problem. In both human and economic terms, the expulsion was massive. Approximately 900,000 Jews fled Arab countries. Their property, confiscated or stolen outright by the Arab states—in particular Egypt and Iraq—is valued today in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Among these assets were the buildings that housed Jewish institutions, synagogues, factories, and personal property. Excellent article by Edy Cohen in The Tower:The losses were particularly heavy for the Jews of Egypt. For them, the persecution came swiftly. When Israel was established, the Egyptian government announced that the property of anyone whose actions were deemed dangerous to the state would be confiscated. This law was aimed at the Jews, who were collectively accused of supporting Zionism. Hundreds of Jewish businesses were confiscated. Their owners were sent to prison on charges of colluding with Zionism. After a year and a half, they were expelled with their families, most of them with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
In 1954, the pan-Arab dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power in Egypt. State harassment of the Jews and official Jewish institutions quickly intensified. Jewish schools, hospitals, and welfare and youth organizations were nationalized or outlawed. Following the Sinai War in 1956, a second wave of persecution and mass imprisonment began. Approximately 35,000 Jews accused of Zionism were expelled with a few days warning. The government then issued a special decree that confiscated all Jewish property. Those expelled had their passports nullified and were forced to sign a declaration that they had no claims on Egypt and would never return to it.
At the end of 1956, Shlomo Cohen-Zidon, the vice-chairman of a federation of Egyptian immigrants in Israel, asked then-Finance Minister Levi Eshkol for help documenting the property that had been left behind by the Egyptian exiles. Eshkol agreed. In March 1957, a committee led by Cohen-Zidon was convened. It worked for worked for a year and a half, and documented over 4,000 claims. The Israeli Justice Ministry would later document a further 3,000.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, a third wave of persecution took place in Egypt, accompanied by the imprisonment of all Jewish men and the confiscation of their property. This proved the last straw, and almost the entire Egyptian Jewish community, dating back thousands of years before the advent of Islam, took flight. The amount of Jewish private and public property stolen by Egypt is estimated today in the tens of billions of dollars, with some claiming that the number is in the hundreds of billions.
Along with the Jews of Egypt, the Jews of Iraq were hardest hit by the waves of persecution that swept the Arab world after 1948. In the 1950s, the Iraqi government allowed its Jews to leave the country on the condition that they renounce their citizenship and their property. This resulted in several massive waves of aliyah, whereby most of the community was brought to Israel—over 120,000 people. Under Baath party rule from 1968-1973, the Iraqi Jews suffered from harassment by the government, which did not allow them freedom of movement and confiscated their property. In 1969, a series of pogroms killed around 50 Jews. Following this, the entire community, dating back to the Babylonian exile, fled the country.
This pattern repeated itself throughout the Arab world. For years, the Jews of Syria were not permitted to leave. The Jews of Yemen, Libya, and other Arab states eventually fled under pressure from official persecution. Their property was, again, confiscated. During this time, the Jews of all the Arab countries were second-class citizens. The governments invariably saw them as a fifth columnists. In places like Lebanon, apartheid laws were put in place denying the Jews government jobs. In short, life was made impossible for the Jews until, as was likely intended, they fled.
For decades, the plight of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries has been denied or ignored. Certainly, it has not received proper attention from the international media. Everyone talks about the Palestinian Nakba and the eternal rights of Palestinian refugees. No one talks about the suffering of the Jews of the Arab countries, the persecution and violence they faced, and certainly not their confiscated property.But there is reason to hope that this is changing. In 2008, the U.S. Congress unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and saying that, if aid is given to Palestinian refugees, there should be similar aid and compensation for the Jewish refugees. The Canadian parliament had done the same in 2004. (sic - 2014 - ed)
Israel has also made the issue a priority. Two lobbies have recently been established in the Knesset that deal with the issue: One for the preservation of the culture and legacy of the Jews of Arab and Islamic nations, and one for the return of confiscated Jewish property. In 2010, the Knesset adopted a law to protect the rights of Jewish refugees from Muslim countries to compensate for their stolen property. It explicitly placed the issue in the context of the peace process. More recently, the Knesset designated November 30 as “Jewish refugee day.”
These actions are heartening, because refugees and their descendants believe that it is not possible to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians while this issue is ignored. The fact that many do ignore it does not mean we have given up. We have a moral and legal obligation to demand compensation from the Arab nations for their crimes against us.
We must not forget the silent and silenced trauma of a people. In everything connected to the peace process, Israeli governments and the countries seeking to mediate negotiations must ensure that for any solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, any reference to recognition of the refugees, and the creation of any mechanisms for compensation, there must be reciprocity for Jewish refugees as well.
There may have been two Nakbas, but it must be noted that the Jewish Nakba is not only a story of catastrophe, it is also one of triumph over adversity. Even today, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants are considered refugees and receive aid from UNWRA. Every Palestinian child is recognized as a refugee and continues to be subsidized by the international community. The Palestinians refused to develop a new way of life, preferring to live in the illusion that someday they will be allowed to reenter Israel and overwhelm its Jewish population by sheer force of numbers. But the Jewish refugees from Arab nations succeeded in overcoming their difficulties. They came to Israel with little or nothing and built their homes here. Many of them became successful as doctors, engineers, and lawyers, while some have even been elected to the Knesset.
Nonetheless, the Jewish refugees should not be punished for their success. They had to overcome enormous difficulties to become part of Israeli society. The Jewish refugees arrived in Israel in a post-traumatic state. They did not talk about the past they had left behind. They were dispossessed and beaten down, and forged a life through an arduous process of survival. Most of them became part of larger society and made an extraordinary contribution to the state. But others, because their wealth and property had been stolen from them, remained mired in poverty on the periphery of Israel.
For them and their descendants, it is incumbent on the Western world to acknowledge that there were two Nakbas, two tragedies: The tragedy of the Palestinian refugees and the tragedy of the Jews from Arab nations.
The nature of aliyah from the Arab countries was diverse. Some chose to come to Israel out of Zionist convictions, but others did not. My family was one of the latter. We were third-generation residents of Lebanon, an inseparable part of Wadi Abu Jamil Street in the Beirut Jewish neighborhood of Harat Elihud. We did not want to leave. Over the years, we came to Israel for family visits, but always returned to our home in Lebanon. At that time, we were part of a community that numbered 7,000 in the 1970s.Slowly, however, our situation became impossible. The rise of Hezbollah on one side and the weakness of the Lebanese government on the other left the Jews exposed to the same persecution our brothers and sisters had suffered before us. Slowly life became impossible. We became refugees, as defined in international law: someone who flees out of fear of persecution due to racial, religious, or national background.
We realized that this now applied to us in 1985, when Hezbollah kidnapped and murdered 12 Lebanese Jews.
Among them was my father, Haim Cohen, of blessed memory.
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