Against the backdrop of Palestinian ‘Nakba Day’, Tani Goldstein, writing in Ynet News takes an unusually detailed look at the wholesale robbery suffered by Jews from Arab countries:
The Jews’ situation began deteriorating with the Arab national awakening, before the State of Israel’s establishment. “From a British mandate, Iraq turned into an autonomic state in 1932 and immediately began disinheriting the Jews,” says (Zvi) Yehuda (of the Babylonian Heritage Centre).
“They weren’t accepted to schools and universities and were dismissed from jobs with all sorts of claims.” “The Arab nationalists and the militant Muslims. The establishment was not happy with the situation but was dragged into it, and most of the population was ambivalent: In day-to-day life they had friendly relations with the Jews, but when a Jew was appointed as a judge or government worker it bothered them, because according to their perception, a Jew is not supposed to control Muslims.”
Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab world was flooded with violent riots, massacres and plunder against the Jews. Some of the Arab governments defended the Jews, while others – mainly in Iraq and Yemen – inflamed the riots and looting.”The Iraqi government confiscated property, as if to compensate the Palestinian refugees,” says Yehuda. “Government workers would arrive at a business and ask the Jewish owner how much he would like to ‘donate’ to the refugees. If he wouldn’t – that was the end of the business. Most of the property reached people with ties to the government.”In 1951, the Iraqi government quietly agreed to let Jews immigrate to Israel, and almost all of them did. At the same time, it enacted a law stating that the entire Jewish property – houses, factories, goods, jewelry and bank accounts – would be nationalized.
Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser enacted similar laws after the Lavon Affair and the Sinai war. Libya’s Jews were expelled and their property was nationalized in the 1960s. “(Libya leader Muammar) Gaddafi promised to return everything within 30 years,” notes Hajaj, “but at the moment he’s busy with other stuff.”
Syria, Tunisia and Algeria did not nationalize property, but the Jews fled those countries when they gained independence (1946, 1959 and 1962, respectively), and the Muslims looted the remaining property. That is what happened to the property of Yemeni Jews who made aliyah in Operation Magic Carpet as well.
“Some of Morocco’s Jews ‘got off easy’: They immigrated with the money and property and ‘only’ left the homes,” says Hajaj. “Jews from other countries immigrated with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My father was one of Libya’s biggest billionaires and immigrated with a suitcase weighing 20 kilos.”
Researchers and organizations are at odds over the scope of the lost property.
Economist Sidney Zabludoff, a former American government worker, estimated that the property totalled some $700 million in the 1950s and reached some $6 billion in 2007. The Pensioner Affairs Ministry puts the sum at about 2 billion pounds. One organization says $30 billion and another says $100 billion in Iraq alone.
Will the Jews be compensated for the looted property? And can it, and should it, be deducted from the property Israel took from the Palestinians?
The scope of the Palestinian property is also a matter of controversy. Economist John Barncastle evaluated the Palestinian property the 1950s at some $450 million. Zabludoff said it stood at some $4 billion today. The Camp David peace talks discussed $20 billion, while Arab organizations spoke of some $200 billion.The disagreement stems from the re-evaluation method.
The number of people who escaped on both sides was similar: About 730,000 Palestinians and about 700,000 Jews (excluding those who immigrated to France). Most of them lived in their own homes.The Jews, in general, were much richer and possessed many assets in addition to the houses. But real estate is the main thing, and it is customary to add to the original value the rising prices in the places the refugees lived in. Israeli housing prices, as we all know, have gone up much more.
Israel earned a lot from the Jewish property looted in Europe and used the funds to help Holocaust survivors, although insufficiently. But until recently, the State ignored the Jewish property in Arab countries.
“Until recently, there was a lot of fear,” says Yehuda. “During the peace talks, Egypt’s Jews demanded that (then-Israeli Prime Minister) Menachem Begin include a clause requiring compensation, but he wouldn’t listen. I think the government was afraid that it would have to pay the Palestinians more.
“They changed their mind when (former US President) Bill Clinton stated that an international fund would be established to compensate both sides. Since then, they are hoping that the arrangement won’t be at their expense.”
The property in Israel is worth more thanks to the Jews’ knowledge and capital. Why should it increase the compensation to the Palestinians?
“These things are not determined according to logic. Here’s something even more absurd: Rich Jews from Iraq bought lands in Israel in the 1930s and 1940s before immigrating. Whoever bought lands within the Green Line received them. But some bought lands in Judea and Samaria, and the Jordanians nationalized them.
After the Six-Day War,the Jews demanded their lands back and the military government said, ‘We are acting in accordance to Jordanian law, and therefore they aren’t yours.’ But settlements of other Jews were established on those same lands.” Americans demanded compensation first: The United States recognized Jews’ right for compensation from Arab countries in the 1990s. Former Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit stated in 2006 that Israel would demand compensation. In 2010, the Knesset enacted the “law for compensating Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” which obligates the government to demand compensation as part of any future peace negotiations.
How will Arab countries respond to the Israeli demand? In the past, London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted an Iraqi lawyer named Hasem Muhammad Ali as saying he supports compensation.
But the Iraqi government, according to the newspaper, is against it, claiming that the Jews left out of their own free will and could get their property back if they returned.
The public discourse in Israel focuses on the distress of Oriental Jews. Most books and articles, speeches and protests dealt with the discrimination and injustice they suffered in Israel by the Ashkenazi establishment, and only few dealt with the robbery they suffered in their homelands.
“I think our situation would have been better had we remained in Libya,” says Hajaj. “But I don’t know if the only one to blame is Israel, which took care of our livelihood and provided education, or the countries which robbed us and sent us away stark naked.”