Friday, 11 August 2000

Jewish refugees' seized assets may be used as bargaining chip

Israelis divided on whether their effects should square accounts with Palestinians

Friday, August 11, 2000

By Matthew Kalman and Joshua Brown

Jerusalem - When Asher Yissachar left his native Iraq for Israel in 1951, he was allowed to take nothing with him except a few clothes. The watch and the ring he wore to the airport did not make it onto the plane with him.

Now, nearly half a century later, Mr. Yissachar hopes that the assets that he and his family left behind in Iraq will help Israel square its accounts with Palestinian refugees, to whom Israel owes billions of dollars.

Mr. Yissachar, a 66-year-old retired farmer, sees a symmetry between the estimated 600,000 Jews who left or were expelled from Arab countries when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, and the similar number of Palestinian refugees created at the same time.

"If the Palestinians can come and claim that they are refugees, then we are refugees, too," he said. "We are refugees just like they are refugees. They left, and we came."

He said it would have been impossible for Jews to remain citizens in countries such as Iraq after the founding of Israel. He recalled a day in Baghdad, before he moved to Israel, when he watched police stop every car that came their way.

"If it was being driven by a Jew, they just took the keys. In one half-hour I saw them confiscate 125 cars."

In 1951, the Iraqi parliament passed a law allowing its Jewish citizens to forfeit their Iraqi citizenship and move to Israel. More than 130,000 Jews applied. A year later, Iraq passed a law saying that property of those who went to Israel would be confiscated by the government, a move decried by the Israeli government as "legalized robbery."

Mr. Yissachar says that the Iraqi government still owes him money, but he is willing to give up the claim if Israel could use his lost assets as a bargaining chip against the claims of Palestinian refugees, a controversial plan the Israeli government has long supported.

The thousands of Jews from Arab countries who made their way to the new Israeli state were housed first in makeshift camps. Within a short period, they were given permanent housing and became fully absorbed into Israeli society.

Meanwhile, their displaced Palestinian counterparts had to live in refugee camps overseen by the United Nations. Today, Palestinian refugees and their heirs are numbered at about four million, with thousands dispersed in camps across the Mideast.

At last month's peace talks at Camp David, Md., Palestinian officials are reported to have claimed $40-billion (U.S.) in compensation for Palestinian refugees' lost property, now in Israeli hands.

After the summit, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that in addition to the establishment of an international fund to compensate Palestinian refugees, a peace accord might also call for the compensation of Jews from Arab lands.

The idea that Jews should be compensated for the property confiscated by Arab governments is not new. In the past, Israel has made intermittent efforts to register Jewish claims against the relevant governments.

Just how much property the Jews left behind in Arab countries is difficult to gauge. One estimate claims that the assets of the 100,000 Jews who abandoned property in Iraq, the wealthiest of the Jewish-Arab communities, are now worth $100-billion (U.S.). The most conservative figure places a price tag of $8-billion on the confiscated assets in Iraq.

The value of the Jewish property left behind in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, while less than the Iraqi total, is also substantial.

But even if a compensation fund were set up, it is not clear that it would bring any direct benefit to the former owners and their heirs. Israel has long argued that the assets left behind in Arab countries should be used to cancel out some or all of the debt owed by Israel to the Palestinian refugees whose property it expropriated after the 1948 war.

In 1988, several organizations representing Jews from Arab countries, working with the World Jewish Congress, began compiling a registry of all Jewish-owned assets lost in the late 1940s and the 1950s in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen.

The registration forms ask respondents to list details of former communal property such as synagogues, schools, ritual baths and hospitals, as well as private assets including homes, bank accounts and jewellery. The questionnaire states: "The data will be used as the basis for a counterclaim to the Arab claims in the future final negotiations between Israel and the Arab states."

For Yehouda Shenhav, one of the founders of an Israeli political advocacy group for Jews from Arab lands, the notion that Israel might use his family's property to pay off its debts to the Palestinians is deeply disturbing.

A sociologist at Tel Aviv University, Professor Shenhav is the son of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, and is a left-wing political activist. He objects to what he sees as the Israeli government's attempt to use his family's assets to reduce its debt to the Palestinians.

"These are not Palestinians who took their property, these are Arabs," he said. "Why do we include all Arabs in one box? They have nothing to do with each other. These are two different, separate issues. Why do we link them?"

What disturbs him most is that the Israeli government appears to be claiming the abandoned property for itself, without asking its former owners whether they agree to yield their ownership.

"If the government was fair, and [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak would say, 'Listen we want your help. There is no way you are going to get compensation. Are you going to give a hand?' -- that would be different," he said.

Prof. Shenhav is not alone in challenging Israeli attempts to use the abandoned Jewish property as a bargaining chip. These efforts are especially problematic to Jews from Arab lands living in Europe and North America.

Professor Heskel Haddad, an ophthalmologist in New York City, left Iraq with his family in the 1950s, leaving behind a great deal of property. That property, he says, belongs to his family, not Israel.

"It has no legal right to represent Jews from Arab countries living outside Israel, no legal right to link their claims to those of the Palestinians," he recently told the Jerusalem Report.

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