In 1969, Israel announced a major project to document the potential billions of dollars in lost property that belonged to the estimated 850,000 Jews who fled or were forced to leave their native Arab countries because of persecution after the creation of the Jewish state.
But the project was quickly abandoned.
"There were zero results," Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit revealed last week. "I’m afraid a lot was said about the problem but nothing was done. Thousands of original property records were left to gather dust and deteriorate in forgotten storage areas."
Sheetrit aims to change things: and fast.
Speaking at the Center for Jewish History in New York last Friday to a group of American Sephardic leaders, Sheetrit announced a new worldwide effort by his ministry to quickly gather information about communal and private Jewish assets that were confiscated or otherwise lost in a host of Arab countries, and save it on computer files.
Time is of the essence for several reasons, Sheetrit said. Many of the estimated 850,000 Jews who left such places as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon and Algeria 50 years ago are dying, and with them will be lost crucial evidence and eyewitness testimony.
With one of the major stumbling blocks between Israel and the Palestinians being the Palestinians’ demand for the right of Arab refugees to return to their homes (which are now in Israel proper) Sheetrit said it is imperative for Israel to document for the world that not only the Palestinians were displaced and lost property in the past 60 years.
The results of the project would be used as political leverage in future negotiations with the Palestinians, he said.
In announcing a partnership with the American Sephardic Federation, Sheetrit, whose family fled Morocco in 1957 when he was 9, outlined an ambitious plan to collect property deeds and other legal documents.
Using new multilingual Web sites, and working with a host of Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the American Sephardi Federation, he hopes to quickly reach Jews from Arab lands that are scattered around the world.
Most of the Arab Jews, about 600,000, immigrated to Israel, while others settled in the United States and South America.
The most urgent task in Sheetrit’s plan is to preserve decaying documents held by the Ministry of Justice for 33 years by transferring them to microfilm.
"The majority of the documentation is made up of original material that has begun to show wear and gradual ruin," he said.
The records would then be computerized.
At the same time, Sheetrit said he is launching a "drive to renew the recording of claims."
But unlike the 1969 project, which was limited to Jewish properties lost after 1948 from a select group of Arab countries, Sheetrit is expanding the initiative to include communal and private Jewish assets lost since 1940.
The search also will now include all neighboring Arab or Islamic countries. For example, Iran was not included in 1969 but is now. It was unclear why Sheetrit chose 1940 as the starting date.
In addition, Sheetrit intends to record "testimonies and documentation of the events and persecution that preceded the Jewish flight."
Sheetrit made no secret about the political value of the project in the ongoing struggle for peace with the Palestinians, whose leadership is demanding the right of Arab refugees to return to the homes they left in 1948 that are now located inside the State of Israel.
He criticized the Arab world for failing to absorb and integrate the Palestinian refugees and forcing them to live in refugee camps after 1948, comparing it to Israel’s successful absorption of a million Jewish brethren from Arab lands.
"At the same time that there were Palestinian refugees, there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees," Sheetrit said.
"The difference was that between us and the Arab world … they tried to keep those refugees in camps" in order to be able to keep alive their claim to come back to Israel in the future.
"In our case the new young Israel state was absorbing almost all of the refugees," he said. We did not "try to use them as a political tool."
Sheetrit and American Sephardic officials credited former President Bill Clinton for helping renew Israel’s interest in the Jewish Arab restitution issue.
For years, Sephardic groups have criticized the Israeli government for neglecting the restitution issue. But they pointed to Clinton’s comments about compensating refugees from both sides during the failed Camp David talks in 2000.
During an interview on July 27, 2000, Clinton said there was interest, "interestingly enough on both sides in having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war which occurred after the birth of Israel."
"Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land. ÖThe Palestinians thought these people should be eligible for compensation as well," Clinton said.
Vivienne Roumani-Denn, director of the ASF, recalled how her family was forced to flee Libya and leave their home virtually in the middle of the night.
"We were forced to leave behind everything we owned. Everything," she said. "The world needs to understand that the losses of the Jews, many of whom lived in the Middle Eastern lands long before the Arab invasion, exceed those of the Arab refugees who have been exploited by their brethren."
Roumani-Denn added that besides material losses, there were also "great psychological losses, losses of language, self image and identity."
Sheetrit said there was no available estimate of the value of the lost Jewish Arab property. Israeli officials have said it was possibly "tens of billions of dollars."
The project would be publicized, Sheetrit said, through media advertising and multilingual Web sites "that will enable international collection and documentation" of the materials.
"Following the collecting of material, it will need to be translated and summarized to create an effective and accessible tool both for negotiations, for informative purposes and for historical documentation," he said.
ASF vice president Marlene Brill said, "It is vital to the peace process that a comprehensive database be constructed."
She said a fund-raising drive would begin to help finance the project. She also asked potential claimants to file applications identifying lost assets. Applications can be obtained at asfonline.org.