Did Arab leaders secretly conspire to expel Jews from their native Arab homelands after 1948 in retaliation for the creation of the State of Israel?
Did this "collusion" of Arab nations create a large but little-known refugee population of nearly 900,000 displaced Jews: more than the approximately 650,000 displaced Palestinians at the time?
That’s the conclusion by a coalition group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
With support from major Jewish organizations, JJAC plans to unveil a major report on Monday arguing there was "a pattern of repressive measures" 50 years ago among a dozen Arab governments to forcibly drive out Jews from the lands they had lived in for thousands of years, even before the birth of Islam.
As evidence, the report weaves together United Nations records, public statements by Arab League leaders from Egypt, Iraq and Syria, newspaper accounts, and an analysis of "strikingly similar" nationality laws in a string of Arab countries that stripped Jews of their rights, according to portions made available to The Jewish Week.
"We believe these legislative decrees were intended to cause Jews to leave or to hold them as political hostages," said JJAC director Stanley Urman. "We’re after justice."
Among its options, JJAC could mount an international legal campaign to fight for compensation for what the group estimates is more than $100 billion in communal and individual Jewish property and assets.
The campaign, backed by the Israeli government, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a host of Sephardic and mainstream groups, comes as the Palestinian refugee issue continues to hold worldwide attention. The issue has evoked much sympathy for the Palestinian plight and anger toward Israel.
But JJAC argues that the world must also be educated about the Jewish refugees, two-thirds of whom were absorbed into Israel, with the rest settling in the United States and other nations.
"Right now, when the world talks about refugees, they talk about Palestinians," Urman said. "Nowhere do they say ‘Jewish refugees’ as well. Our first objective is to insure that this issue is placed on the international political and judicial agenda as a matter of law and equity."
"This campaign is about truth, justice and reconciliation," said Irwin Cotler, a Canadian international human rights attorney and member of Parliament. "We must return the history of Jews from Arab countries to the narrative of the Mideast from which it was expunged."
Cotler asserted that "there is compelling evidence about victimization of Jews and mass violations of human rights," adding that "without truth, without justice, there can be no reconciliation."
But behind legal and moral arguments is a crucial political agenda, experts say. They see the Jewish refugees issue as a political bargaining chip for Israel in a possible final peace negotiation with the Palestinian Authority over its demand for the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel proper.
Israel shied away from the Jewish Arab refugee issue for more than 30 years, some note, seeking to downplay the issue for fear it would give more publicity to the Palestinians. But current political circumstances make it timely for Israel to pursue its case for refugee claims now.
JJAC plans to present a series of statements by Arab leaders made either before the United Nations or in other public venues, going back more than 50 years, to make a case for a conspiracy of "a discernible pattern of evidence that the Arab League colluded for the expulsion of the Jews," Urman said.
The group cites Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, who in a 1961 article in Middle East Forum wrote that Heykal Pasha, an Egyptian delegate to the UN General Assembly, "publicly and very formally announced a program to expel Jews from Arab countries" in November 1947.
On Nov. 14, 1947, five days before the UN vote on the partition plan for Palestine, Pasha warned that the approval of the plan "might endanger a million Jews living in Moslem countries."
The JJAC report cites a March 29, 1949 Syrian newspaper stating that "if Israel should oppose the return of the Arab refugees to their homes, the Arab governments will expel the Jews living in their countries.
It also cites a May 16, 1948 New York Times story headlined "Jews in grave danger in all Moslem lands," reporting the text of a proposed Arab League law that would declare all Jews in Arab states to be considered " ‘members of the Jewish minority state of Palestine’ who could be imprisoned and whose bank accounts and assets frozen and used to finance resistance to ‘Zionist ambitions in Palestine.’ "
Countries included in the alleged collusion are Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Aden, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
JJAC officials said there were 856,000 Jews in Arab lands in 1948 but only 7,900 in 2001, according to the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, one of JJAC’s members.
Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle East studies at New York University, said "there is a real basis" for the JJAC campaign for compensation since "hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Arab countries for a thousand years and were displaced."
But he called the political timing suspect, noting the issue is not symmetrical because Jews are not seeking to return to their homes, as the Palestinians are. He said raising the Jewish refugees issue now is "not a coincidence" and "the subtext is we [Israel] are not responsible" for the Palestinians.
JJAC also will present legal precedents for pursuing compensation for the Jewish refugees under both international law and the law of several Arab nations.
The legal committee report was prepared by 25 experts on international law from four countries after some 10 months of work.
It will conclude that "there was significant victimization of Jews and violation of their human rights, that former refugees still possess rights under international law; and there exist a variety of potential avenues for redress."
Urman said he is presenting an analysis of anti-Jewish Arab decrees and the Nuremberg laws enacted in prewar Germany, which violated the rights of German Jews, "to show the extent to which perhaps this was a continuing pattern against Jews."
Slated to make presentations are Cotler and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, both honorary chairmen of JJAC.
Holbrooke’s report will trace the UN’s "differential and disproportionate response to the two populations of refugees that arose out of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
For example, the report notes that since 1947, the General Assembly has adopted 681 resolutions on the Middle East: 101 on the issue of Palestinian refugees.
"Not one resolution dealing with Jewish refugees," it said.
The report also details a number of differences between the Jewish and Palestinian refugee problems.
# Palestinian refugees are war refugees. Jewish refugees from Arab countries are peacetime refugees, not fleeing war but actual or feared persecution. "Human rights violations create a right of redress. War does not."
# Jewish refugees were nationals of the states from which they fled. Many Palestinian refugees fled British Mandate Palestine before the creation of Israel. Other Palestinian refugees who fled later never had Israeli nationality, thus Israel did not breach a duty of protection it owed to its nationals and the Arab nations did.
# The attribution of fault: "There can be no doubt that the fault for the creation of the Jewish refugee problem lies with the Arab states. There is a good deal of controversy about Israeli responsibility for the flight of Palestinian refugees."