Jerusalem — Having successfully recovered millions of dollars worth of Jewish property lost in the Holocaust, restitution experts in Israel and the U.S. are now setting their sights on the Arab world.
The Knesset Parliamentary Committee on the Restitution of Jewish Property announced plans this month to create a national center to register documents and testimony about the possibly “tens of billions of dollars” in property left behind by Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab/Muslim countries.
Committee chairman Avraham Herschson, a Likud Knesset member, said the effort would be carried out in coordination with the World Jewish Congress, which has played a leading role in trying to recover dormant bank accounts and other Jewish assets lost in Europe during the Holocaust.
The first step will be to pore over decades-old documents and lists of assets held by Israel’s Interior Ministry and other government bodies, as well as the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee and various Sephardi organizations. Those who have never registered their documents will be encouraged to do so.
An estimated 1 million Jews fled Arab/Muslim countries between the early 1940s and the 1970s, after being subjected to widespread persecution. In the vast majority of cases they were forced to abandon their private and communal property, or to sell it at a fraction of its worth.
Most of the Jews, 600,000 of whom immigrated to Israel, hailed from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Others came from Lebanon, Iran and Algeria.
Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director, said the restitution project’s timing is not coincidental. While stressing that the issue “has been on the Jewish agenda for decades,” he acknowledged that current events have given this agenda “added significance.”
Steinberg said that efforts to recover Holocaust-era assets have “renewed general attention to this kind of issue, and that includes the issue of assets in the Arab world.” He said there is “no question that a large percentage of the Jews were forced to leave their property behind without appropriate compensation.”
As with Holocaust survivors, Steinberg said, “Jews from Arab countries are growing older. Many have already died. There is a need to document what we can before it’s too late.”
Along with wishing to help those who lost their property, the WJC’s efforts are expected to arm Israel with facts and figures when it enters final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. Under the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accord, the issue of lost property will be tackled during this phase.
“There will be final-status talks in which questions related to Palestinian restitution are going to be raised. Of course there are enormous Jewish claims, and the Jewish people have a right to assert their claims,” Steinberg said. “We see this as a reciprocal process.”
Like Holocaust assets, the WJC director divided assets in Arab countries into three categories: individual private assets; communal property like synagogues, schools, cultural institutions, mikvehs; and private or public property owned by Jews but without heirs.
“A Jewish person may have had a claim to property in Egypt but he has no heirs. He’s no longer alive, but this property still belongs to Jews,” Steinberg said. “The issue right now is to make a claim, as much a moral claim as a material one.”
Without going into the project’s political implications with regard to the peace process, Yaakov Meron, the Israeli Justice Ministry’s expert on Arab countries, confirmed that Jews from Arab countries suffered greatly from Arab persecution.
“It began even before the establishment of the State of Israel,” Meron said. “The first big pogrom in Iraq took place in 1941 during the feast of Shavuot. Later there were isolated pogroms virtually everywhere [in the Arab world]: in 1945 in Cairo, in 1947 in Syria, in which large numbers of Jews were murdered and an ancient synagogue was set on fire, after the United Nations ratified the Partition Plan. In November 1947 the official delegates of Egypt and Iraq menaced the Jews in the Arab world by saying that if a Jewish state were established in Palestine, they would be exposed to persecution and massacres.”
Meron rejects claims that Arab anti-Semitism was limited to the 1940s. “In Algiers, in 1961, a young Jewish mother named Mrs. Amram went out shopping, leaving at home her two little boys with her housekeeper. When Mrs. Amram came home she found her two children bathing in their blood, their throats cut.”
This incident, he said, “went through the Jewish community in Algiers like thunder. Normally, people think the Jews left Algeria just as the French did. In fact, the Jews had motives of their own for leaving.”
According to some Israelis, this new effort to recover Sephardi assets could go a long way toward healing the longstanding rift between Israel’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. For as long as Israel has been a state, many Sephardim traditionally have seen themselves as disenfranchised by the Ashkenazi “elite.”
“The fact that the government and American Jews are acknowledging Sephardi suffering is an important first step,” said one Sephardi leader in Israel, who asked that his name not be published. “The money is important, but in some ways secondary.”
While distancing himself from the rift, Leon Levy, president of the New York-based American Sephardi Federation, agrees that “Sephardim have not been given the same attention as the Ashkenazi community. The community’s losses haven’t received the same exposure as those incurred by the Ashkenazi community.”
If it were up to Levy, Jewish organizations that have already recovered Holocaust-era assets eventually would share these resources with all Jews who have lost property, regardless of their country of origin. And if compensation ever comes for Arab world assets, that money should be shared as well, he said.
“The first order of business of the restitution organizations is to compensate those [victims] who are living. When none exist, whatever is left over should be shared with all Jews,” Levy said.
To begin with, Levy would like to see restitution money pledged by Spain earmarked for Sephardi communities around the world.
“Recently, Spain offered a couple million dollars for restitution and as an acknowledgment of the role it played in the war aiding Hitler. Spanish Jews were all Sephardi. All the money coming from Spain should go to Sephardi causes, Sephardi education, Levy said.
Mordechai Ben-Porat, who formerly headed the Israel-based World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, has another idea.
“For the health of the region, the best solution would be for the world community to establish a fund to help those who lost their property,” he said. “I call on the world community, [especially] those who have assets in the Arab world from oil, to do their part.”
Ben-Porat, who estimates that Jewish claims in the Arab world total “tens of billions of dollars,” believes that such an undertaking will require a comprehensive Middle East peace — a prospect he envisions within 10 to 20 years.
“Our treaty with Egypt has a section on dealing with property, though it hasn’t been enacted yet,” he said. “When we sign a treaty with Syria, I assume some of the sections will be about property.”
As eager as Ben-Porat is to receive justice, compensation is meaningless without peace for Israel, he said.
“Peace has to come before everything, including property,” he said. “That’s what we’re working toward.”