This fascinating piece by Aidan Chivers in the Jewish Chronicle casts light on the tracing of title deeds of properties in Tunisia so they can be restituted to Jewish owners who have fled the country. It is interesting that Moché Uzan would not have been able to do this painstaking work before the Arab Spring; but the authorities may still place bureaucratic obstacles in his path.
Moché Uzan: property restitution takes more of his spare time
This has taken me years.” the assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia says, pushing a bundle of documents across his cluttered desk.
“But finally the family has legal ownership of what is rightfully theirs.”
Moché Uzan has just established property rights for a family of Tunisian Jews who abandoned their home when they fled the country in the mid-1960s.
This is his most recent case from a personal project to restore the property of Jews who hurriedly left Tunisia at various difficult times over the last century. Many left with nothing to start their lives again.
A Jewish property successfully reclaimed by Moché Uzan
Alongside his main role as assistant to Rabbi Haim Bittan, this project has been taking up more and more of Mr Uzan’s spare time.
The work can be laborious, painstaking, and sometimes fruitless.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a career path,” he smiles wryly. He earns a small fee for his time but only if he successfully manages to prove ownership for the families abroad.
“One case can mean years of effort — with sometimes nothing to show for it at the end.”
But when all his research and evidence-gathering comes to fruition, it can be very rewarding.
A new Tunisian law permitting the state to expropriate property ‘for the public good’ is expected to impact on absent Jewish owners and their heirs.
A French property lawyer based in Sousse contends that the law was ‘sneaked’ through parliament at the height of summer in order to attract minimum attention. It is usual for a French version of the text to appear alongside the Arabic, but on this occasion, Pierre-Olivier Aribaud writes in his Times of Israel blog, the law, passed on 11 July 2016, was published only in Arabic.
Aribaud argues that such a law would be justified where a crumbling property presented a physical risk. If the expropriated property were to be re-sold to a developer – that would be a different matter.
The law stipulates that the owner be notified at the address of the property concerned. In 80 percent of cases, the owner has not lived at the address for years, and is likely to have been born between 1910 and 1930. He is either dead or very old. The chances of his heirs receiving notice of the expropriation are minimal. If they now live in France, they cannot rely on the French authorities for support. Aribaud urges Jews to exert pressure for change on the French government and parliament.
Unlike Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Tunisia did not nationalise Jewish property. But abandoned homes have often been taken over by squatters or fallen into the hands of greedy developers abetted by crooked lawyers who falsify deeds. There is often no way to recover property and assets except by going to law – a tortuous and seemingly interminable process.
Aribaud has represented hundreds of clients: some are Italians and Maltese who left their property when they departed Tunisia. But his regular blogs in the Times of Israel suggest that Tunisian Jews form an important slice of his clientele.
Following the passing of a new Knesset law protecting the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, a new agency in Tunisia has been set up to trace abandoned property. However, it is doubtful whether Tunisian Jews who use this service will ever get the Tunisian government to acknowledge responsibility for compensating the erstwhile owners:
A new agency has been established to trace unclaimed Jewish property in Tunisia.
The new agency, Immoconsult Tunisia, was given the official green light days after the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law in February conditioning the signing of peace agreements with Arab countries on compensation to Jewish refugees driven from their homes. A native of Sfax in the south of Tunisia, but living in France, the man behind this initiative is Victor Cohen. Immoconsult Tunisia will provide a service to owners of unclaimed buildings, apartments, shops, land or property in cities or in rural Tunisia. Realites, a Tunisian website, carried an article on this service in its edition of 15 March in Arabic.The Immoconsult team is permitted to conduct archival research in the Tunisian courts to trace goods and property deeds considered lost forever by their Tunisian-Jewish owners.They are also working to find the titles to lost real estate listed in various land registries or other state agencies in Tunisia. However, Immoconsult Tunisia claims that “the Tunisian government has never sought to appropriate or to deprive in any way non-residents and expatriates of their property, adding that Tunisia is a country of law, respects private property and all the rights of citizens and non citizens. “The new agency has already begun posting its findings on its website. It has two offices in Tunisia, one in Sfax and one in Tunis.
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
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