The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has touched off a scramble among Jewish groups seeking compensation for Jewish refugees from Iraq as well as other Arab countries. In many cases the groups are competing against each other.
At stake potentially are billions of dollars from individual and communal claims.
The push for reparations comes at a time when Palestinians are demanding the right of return to their former homes in Israel.
The World Jewish Congress and the American Sephardi Federation have been focusing attention on the claims of displaced Jews for more than a year. The WJC has held five conferences on what it calls "the forgotten exodus," including one this week in Jerusalem.
Avi Beker, the WJC’s secretary general, said he hopes the testimony presented by displaced Jews will be enough to warrant the issue’s inclusion in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
"This is the strongest moral case Israel has against the Palestinian right of return, which has proved to be a major stumbling block in the peace process," Beker said.
But Dr. Heskel Haddad, a Manhattan ophthalmologist who heads the American Committee for the Rescue and Resettlement of Iraqi Jews, brushed aside that effort as a "publicity stunt."
"It is of no financial value to the Jews," Haddad argued. "We plan to file a class-action lawsuit like the one filed against the Swiss [banks]."
He said there are an estimated 10,000 former Iraqi Jews living in the United States and that the suit against whatever Iraqi government emerges from the recent U.S. war against Saddam Hussein’s regime would encompass individual and communal property claims.
"Iraq owes them so much," Haddad said. "And when we get the money, individuals will put in their claims, just like with the Holocaust claims. But I’ve cautioned that we should wait because we do not want to appear thirsty for the money. We want to see the demands of the Kurds of Iraq and other minorities satisfied first."
Beker pointed out in a phone call from Jerusalem that the majority of Jews in Israel are from Arab countries, and there are another 1 million in the diaspora.
Jews from Arab countries "numbered almost 900,000 [at the time they left], far more than the 650,000 Palestinians who left Israel," he said. "Today they number almost 4 million Jews."
Among those considering joining in a class-action suit seeking to recover personal property is Maurice Shohet, 54, of Great Neck, L.I.
"I would definitely ask for compensation" said Shohet, who fled Iraq in 1950 with his parents, two brothers and other relatives and friends.
"We left because of many years of persecution," he said. "When we had an opportunity to escape with the help of the Kurds [in northern Iraq], we took advantage of it. We left from Baghdad, went to the Kurdish area and were driven to the border. We walked across at night."
Left behind was the familyís knitting factory, jewelry, carpets and other personal property.
Carole Basri, a lawyer who has studied the issue of Jews forced to leave Arab lands, said in a phone interview from Israel that she believes efforts should be focused on communal rather than individual property.
In excerpts from her WJC presentation, Basri pointed out that the story of Iraq’s Jews is the "most extreme example of the kind of persecution that forced the vast majority of the Jews from Arab countries to flee their native countries in the years since the establishment of the State of Israel. … Their story must be told and their claims must be taken into consideration in the context of any true peace process."
Basri said that in 1950, the Iraqi parliament stripped Jews of their citizenship if they registered to leave the country. And later legislation effectively confiscated the property of those who had declared their intention to leave.
"Detailed regulations limited the items which emigrating Jews were permitted to take with them. Even the permitted number of pairs of shoes and sets of underwear was set out in the law," she said. "As a result of these legislative confiscations, an estimated $150 million to $200 million worth of Jewish property was left behind in Iraq."
Basri said there were 150,000 Jews in Iraq in 1947, but by the mid-1950s only 6,000 remained. In 1968, following Israel’s Six-Day War, the Iraqi government restored restrictions that had been lifted and denied Jews the right to travel more than three-quarters of a mile from their home.
The following year, nine Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s central square. They were found guilty of "trumped-up charges of espionage, and two more Jews were hanged several months later," Basri said.
Another Iraqi Jewish refugee, Saeed "Nachum" Herdoon of Merrick, L.I., noted that Iraqi Jews "had the most sophisticated hospital in the Middle East, a huge hospital. In 1950, the government confiscated it."
Herdoon, who said he fled Iraq in 1970, said he too would join those in seeking communal rather than personal compensation.
"I studied in a school that had three or four tennis courts, a basketball court and three libraries," he said. "It was huge. … I’m so sorry there is talk of personal property. The talk should be about the Jewish communal property in Iraq."
Stanley Urman, director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, said he welcomes all views.
"There are a variety of ways to pursue this issue and everyone will proceed with what they believe is the best way to go," he said. "If it results in individual or communal claims or getting [this issue to be considered] as part of the [peace] road map, each has validity."
His group was established in September as a coalition of the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Sephardi Federation.
The federation’s national executive director, Vivienne Roumani-Denn, said her organization is an educational, historical, cultural and archival institution that has been collecting claims of displaced Jews. The form can be found on the Web at www.jewishrefugees.org.
"The majority of Jews in Arab countries lived scared, and the majority had to pick up their lives and start from scratch," she said, noting that the majority left between 1948 and 1951.
"Their claims total in the billions of dollars from Iraq alone," Roumani-Denn said.
Semha Alwaya, a lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., said she would be willing to work on a class-action suit with other lawyers.
"My belief is that the Arab countries that should have taken care of the Palestinians should be paying compensation to the Jews and Palestinians," said Alwaya, who is Jewish and of Iraqi descent. "There has been a discussion of an international [compensation] fund, and it should be funded by the frozen assets of Libya and Iraq, and the assets of terrorist organizations frozen since 9-11.
"Why should the Americans and Europeans pay for it? The Arab nations took the property from the Jews and didn’t use it to incorporate the Palestinians into their countries."
Alwaya placed the value of private property lost by Jews at more than $100 billion.