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No more lip service: How to retrieve lost Jewish property in Arab countries

The property Jews abandoned across the Middle East has been long used by Israel as a bargaining chip, to offset similar Palestinian claims. If Mizrahi Israelis are serious about claiming it back, it can only be done by bringing the Palestinians on board.

By Uri Zaki

A Jewish Wedding in Morocco, by Eugene Delacroix (1841)

A Jewish Wedding in Morocco, by Eugene Delacroix (1841)

Israel’s powers that be have been surprisingly attuned recently to causes championed by Mizrahi activists – such as equitable distribution of wealth, cultural marginalization, allegations that babies were snatched from their immigrant Yemeni parents in the 1950s, and others.

The effect of this fad is twofold. On the one hand, it indicates that the Israeli establishment is ready to address some of the sorest open wounds of our society; on the other, however, it could well be no more than populist attempts on the part of a nationalist government to drive a wedge between different communities and turn them against each other.

It is against this backdrop that we should assess the government’s recently launched efforts to retrieve the lost property of Middle Eastern Jews. Are we seeing a bona fide effort to redress of one of the issues Mizrahi Jews hold most dear, or just a hollow spin that will amount to nothing?

Looking back on of Israel’s treatment of the issue, the conclusion is clear: Every single government, whether Labor or Likud, treated Mizrahi Jews’ restitution claims as bargaining chips, to be offset against similar Palestinian claims.

Property worth billions

What is the basis for these claims? In the immediate wake of the establishment of the State of Israel, some 800,000 Jews from across the Middle East emigrated after the Arab governments responded to the nascent Israeli-Palestinian conflict by persecuting the indigenous Jewish communities. This persecution, combined with growing Zionist sentiment, led the vast majority of them to make Alyah to Israel, where they found themselves penniless, having left behind billions’ worth of property that has subsequently been requisitioned or nationalized.

On several occasions from the 1950s onwards, the immigrants were invited by the Israeli government and affiliated bodies to make restitution claims. Their initial belief that Israel will pull diplomatic leverages to return their belongings was quickly subsumed by the realization that their property serves a sole purpose – that of countering the Palestinians’ argument for restitution.

What’s more, consecutive Israeli governments declared that the value of Jewish property left in Arab countries would be offset from the value of the property fleeing Palestinians left behind in 1948 – and would even secure a net profit.

The most realistic opportunities to follow up on these claims came when Likud was in office. The first was Menachem Begin’s first government, who negotiated a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and the second came 24 years later, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister during the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the appointment of a new regime. On both occasions the government was lobbied by organizations representing Mizrahi Jews, to no avail.

The government’s ongoing snub created a backlash among Middle Eastern Jews in Israel. The leaders of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, for example, representing second-generation Mizrahim, called on the government to get its hands off their property, because it doesn’t represent their interests.

Clearly, the Israeli government won’t pursue this issue in earnest out of its own free will. What is needed is an effective public campaign which the government will be unable to ignore.

How to bypass the government

While the government sees lost Jewish property as a mere political bargaining chip, civil society action should do the opposite: Use the mutual claims as a leverage to bring the two sides closer together and make a joint claim to their respective leaderships.

Recent trends in international law place the emphasis on “satisfaction,” which derives from publicly addressing the past, issuing apologies and taking responsibility for creating injustices. These, alongside reparations and restitution of lost property, are essential in conflict resolution.

The communication technology of our time allows us, for the first time ever, to interact with people across the border, in enemy countries. Unlike any time before, Israelis today are able to speak to Iranians, Lebanese, Egyptians and others, directly.

The technology provides fertile ground for the creation of a Middle Eastern memory platform – which will host the stories of Jewish as well as Palestinian refugees. Naturally, beyond accounts of the physical and emotional trauma, they would include details about their lost property.

Only thus could mutual recognition of the injustice inflicted upon millions of people and their descendants, on both sides of the divide, emerge. In addition, it could create a buzz in the relevant countries as well as internationally, paving the way for actual reparation and restitution as well as satisfaction.

Uri Zaki is a Takana fellow at the Emile Zola Chair for Human Rights Center at the College of Management’s School of Law.

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    1. R4

      “Memory platform”? Are you serious? Not their fault, but Israeli leftists have no clue about the Arab public because they’ve never lived in Arab countries. Arabs literally believe that Israel created ISIS. Views on Israel are driven by mass delusions and conspiracy theories. Its extremely naive to think they would take responsibility for persecuting Jews 60-70 years ago. This idea is basically a joke.

      Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      It is fascinating how this ongoing horror in the Arab world is of so little interest to so many of our friends who comment here at 972. How many times have we heard the rant that “Israel has no right to exist because the Chief Rabbinate controls marriage and divorce in Israel”. At this very moment the Russians are bombing hospitals and other civilian targets in Aleppo, Syria, yet nary a peep from our friends who keep ranting on and on in favor of BDS against Israel. I asked a prominent American rabbi/Israel basher from Chicago who keeps demanding boycotts of Israel but not of the belligerent parties in Syria (i.e Russia, the Assad regime, the Gulf States, the Iranians and all the others who keep feeding the killing machine). Believe it or not, his response was “the Palestinians (who exactly?) have asked me to boycott Israel, the Syrian people (did he actually poll all of them?) have not and perish the thought that I should tell them what to do. Should the Syrian people ask me to boycott, I will be the first to do so!”. Real, unabashed hypocrisy. His motive and that of so many others who bash Israel HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HUMAN RIGHTS, including that of the Palestinian. They simply hate Israel and the Palestinians are merely the springboard for them to carry out their anti-Israeli obsessions.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      This may have escaped your attention, but 972 is about human rights in Israel, not Egypt or North Korea. You may also not have noticed that many people do not engage in tribal thinking; they do not believe that the right way to think about these issues is to have an Olympic competition to see which ethnic group is worse.

      The U.S. has plenty of responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as a citizen of a country which dumps more money on Israel than any other country in the world I don’t feel I need to justify my interest in the situation is Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      “How many times have we heard the rant that ‘Israel has no right to exist because the Chief Rabbinate controls marriage and divorce in Israel’.”

      Produce one rant that said this.

      “They simply hate Israel and the Palestinians are merely the springboard for them to carry out their anti-Israeli obsessions.”

      Produce one statement that objectively supports this accusation. Or are you like Trump when he natters on about “Obama is the founder of ISIS…Arabs were dancing in the streets in New Jersey…something’s going on…some people say….”?

      Reply to Comment
    5. i_like-ike52

      The Arab/Israeli conflict CAN NOT be separated from larger events in the Middle East. The “progressives” demand that Israel allow an independent Palestinian state to be created. Most Israelis might be willing to accept that IF such a state is willing to live in peace with Israel, but not only do the Palestinian leaders, both FATAH and HAMAS say they will never accept peace with Israel, even if an independent Palestinian state were set up, but even should the leaders in practice accept that there should be a peaceful relationship set up with Israel, the mass terror engulfing almost all of Israel’s neighbors would seep in and destabilize said Palestinian state and the peace agreement would inevitably fall apart.
      First, let the Arab show they can live in peace with each other (after, they all love each other as brother Muslims and Arabs, right?) and then they can show that they can live in peace with us, who are viewed as aliens and deniers of Islam.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Bruce Gould

      If there were no home demolitions, theft of land, torture, administrative detentions, theft of water, burning of olive groves and so on – in short, if Israel hadn’t set up an entire apparatus for committing politicide – I think we would be in a different situation than the one we find ourselves in, whether or not a Palestinian state was “allowed” or not.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      “not only do the Palestinian leaders, both FATAH and HAMAS say they will never accept peace with Israel, even if an independent Palestinian state were set up”

      Patently false. The argument falls apart. Israel could promote all the conditions needed for peace. It quite obviously does not want to. It wants instead to promote the opposite. It does so, exploitatively and cynically. So now the “allowing” of a two state solution has moved from depending on Bibi’s cynically created “recognize The Nation State of the Jewish People” ploy to depending on the “first there must be world peace” ploy. LoL. What’s next? “First global warming must be reversed because it’s too hot around here to negotiate”? No one is fooled. It’s always been a cynical nationalist/messianic land grab. But, you know, like Trump says, “some people say” there’s no possible partner on the Palestinian side but Ayalet Shaked, Eli Ben Dahan and Benjamin Netanyahu all pine for a peaceful, fair two state solution, hands extended in peace. Except for the few wee things Bruce Gould itemizes above.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Bernie X

      Right on, brother. Right on.

      Reply to Comment
    9. R5

      Bruce Gould: As someone who cares so very dearly about where your tax dollars are going, I would bet a good deal that you don’t know how much the US spends on anything BUT Israel. But of course, you are merely a fiscally responsible citizen looking out for the American interest and have no ulterior motive whatsoever, I am sure. Countdown to Bruce Gould doing some internet research on the federal budget so he can write something in response to this.

      Reply to Comment
    10. JeffB


      The cost of 30k troops defending South Korea and the large military base in Okinawa needed to supply them exceeds by an order of magnitude the cost of Israeli aide. So if your issue is really who gets the most aide, yes you can focus on North Korea’s problems.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ben

      JeffB: Nonsense. The US keeps forward military bases in those countries. It would have to pay for keeping those troops in the US too. These are American expenditures on American military bases. These bases entail benefits and risks for the US but they are essentially forward bases that allow for strategic options that would be unavailable to the US otherwise. This is not in any way comparable to the direct military aid the US supplies the Israeli military. And even if that were not true, though it is true, no American has to justify why he or she is interested in a country, Israel, on which the US showers so much money and so much foreign policy capital. You, on the other hand, need to justify why you think an American has no business being interested. What massive entitlement explains that?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ben

      R5: This is a pure ad hominem insinuation you make. In which the assumption is that the target of your insinuation has to defend himself against the “charge” or is presumed guilty; but then if he does take the troll bait he is also convicted ahead of time. And we all get nicely distracted from the real subject at hand. But that was your primary intent, wasn’t it?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Duh

      JeffB: The US is paying to maintain two ghettos, the Gaza Strip and West Bank (itself consisting of smaller interconnected ghettos) so the larger part of Palestine captured by the Zionists in 1948 can stay repopulated and keep out its rightful citizens. Palestine is the only place in the world where racial segregation is subsidized by the US. That doesn’t apply to Germany, Japan or South Korea or the other recipients of military aid, Egypt and Pakistan. Of course, opposing US militarism is very much the same cause as its support of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    14. R5

      Ben: You’re 100% correct – I am attacking Bruce Gould’s sincerity and credibility. So what?

      Reply to Comment