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.