Archive for the ‘Jews from Arab countries’ Category

 

Chatham House Royal Institute of international affairs

Chatham House has released a summary report of its March 2014 workshop on “Israeli Perspectives on the Palestinian Refugee Issue”—it should be on the Chatham House website next week, but in the meantime here’s an advance copy.

This is a summary of discussions that took place during a one-and-a-half day workshop on Israeli Perspectives on the Refugee Issue, held on 5 and 6 March 2014 in Cyprus. The participants were Israeli and international experts on the Middle East Peace Process and the Palestinian refugee issue, acting in a personal capacity.

This workshop was intended to evaluate the status of the debate within Israel about Palestinian refugees, and various opinions were raised. Discussions focused not only on the opinions of the participants but also on their expertise of majority opinions and moods within Israel, which are summarized here.

The workshop took place at a time when the gap between Israelis and Palestinians on the refugee issue seems wider than ever, due in part to an apparent hardening of views within Israel over the past decade. Since the failure of the 2000–01 rounds of talks and the Second Intifada in 2000–05, Israeli concern have been particularly high over the demographic implications of any Palestinian refugee return. Additional issues implications for the Palestinian refugee issue have gained salience in the past decade, notably recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the forced displacement of Jewish people from Arab countries after 1948. Finally, both Israelis and international experts have expressed concern about the degree of policy expertise within Israel on the issue, and have noted the possible implications of this expertise gap for negotiations.

The workshop formed part of Chatham House’s on-going work on the regional dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue, known as the ‘Minster Lovell Process’1, which aims at an informal and comprehensive discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue, including the role of host countries and international actors. The workshop was hosted by the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme and was kindly funded by a grant from the UK Conflict Pool. The other workshops in the current series have addressed compensation and implementation mechanisms2 and the normative dimensions3 of the refugee issue.

Key findings

  • Israeli official knowledge on the Palestinian refugee issue lags behind the state of research and policy work, particularly on the technical dimensions of implementing the refugee component of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
  • Israeli public interest in the refugee issue also remains low. The issue is considered highly sensitive and any compromise on refugees and on right of return is closely linked in public discourse to the perceived threat of the destruction of Israel.
  • There is scope for expanded engagement with the Israeli public, experts, and opinion leaders on the issue. Polling and practical experience suggest that there might be opportunities to encourage a more nuanced approach to the topic within Israel in ways that would enhance the prospects for any eventual agreement.

My own account of the meeting has been previously posted to the PRRN blog.

The Evens Program for Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute have published the results of their most recent Peace Index poll, conducted in Israel on 3-4 March 2014. It shows Israeli public support for peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but pessimism at their likely outcome. It also shows considerable doubt with regard to current US mediation efforts, with a large majority of israeli Jews believing that the Kerry initiative is biased in favour of the Palestinians.

PIM14Q3Israeli Jews are doubtful that Palestinians will accept any recognition of Israel as homeland of the Jewish people:

PIM14Q10Interestingly, a large majority of israeli Jews are willing to postpone the issue of compensation for Jews from Arab countries. They also show little confidence in the handling of any such future compensation funds by the Israeli state:

PIM14Q11

IMG_2054

Paphos, Cyprus—looking absolutely nothing like a Palestinian refugee camp.

This past week I attended a meeting in Paphos, Cyprus on “Israeli Perspectives on the Palestinian Refugee Issue,” organized by Chatham House as part of its ongoing Minster Lovell process of policy-relevant workshops and discussions. At the two day workshop Israeli and international analysts explored Israeli perceptions, concerns, interests, and policy capacity as they relate to the refugee issue. As might be expected, the discussions were lively. The weather was also a good 30 degrees or more warmer than snowy Montréal.

In time, a summary of the event will (as usual) be published by Chatham House. In the meantime, however, I thought I would outline a few of my own take-aways from the session.

First, almost all of the Israeli participants stressed the need for greater discussion of the issue within Israel, among experts, officials, politicians, and the mass public alike. Most made the point that it was a topic Israel preferred to ignore, in part because of difficult normative questions it raises about past Israeli actions. Several (including former senior officials) also pointed to what they saw as limited understanding of the issue within government. This “knowledge gap” relates to both technical and factual issues on the one hand, and empathy on the other. There is certainly a need to plug more Israeli scholars and activists more fully in the policy research community on the refugee question.

Most of the participants at this meeting tended to the left or centre of the Israeli spectrum. While that was helpful in sustaining a constructive dialogue, it will also be necessary to widen the discussion. Indeed, those who took a harder line were a very useful reminder of the challenges that these issues face.

Second, recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” or “homeland of the Jewish people”—a relatively recent demand by Israeli negotiators, and a topic that came up at a previous meeting—once again emerged as important for many. Whether this demand will prove a hindrance to negotiations, or whether it can skillfully be incorporated into a package of statements addressing  intangible needs, remains to be seen. (For my part, I continue to think that while “Jewish state” may prove particularly difficult for Palestinians to accept, “homeland of the Jewish people” is far more amenable to productive compromise.)

Third, we also spent time discussing the issue of Jews who were forcibly displaced from Arab countries. One longtime Israeli advocate for this issue argued the need to transform this from a zero-sum competition with Palestinian refugee claims (that is, somehow offsetting or cancelling them out) to a normative bridge of sorts, built on mutual recognition by both sides of the suffering and injustices experienced by the other. Doing so would involve not pitting both sets of victims against each other by compensating them from a common fund. It might involve Palestinian acknowledgement of, and reparations for, forcible displacements of Jews that took place within Palestinian areas in 1947-48. And it would likely involve Israeli acknowledgement that the appropriate source for most reparations would be the Arab regimes that were responsible, not the Palestinians or international community. It would be interesting to see if greater common ground might be built on this issue.

There was considerable discussion of Israeli public opinion. It was noted by those who had done research on the subject that there was more acceptance than commonly believed among the public that Israel shares some of the responsibility for the situation of Palestinian refugees. Polls indicated that Israelis are strongly opposed to Palestinian refugee return. Most Israeli Jews want some acknowledgement of the Jewish character of Israel in an agreement. There might also be reluctance to contribute very large amounts to refugee compensation. However, as several participants noted, public opinion can be moved to some degree by political leadership, especially in the context of a larger deal that offers a realistic prospect of peace.

Many participants expressed the hope that Palestinians would more clearly signal moderation on the refugee issue, and highlighted that mention of the right of return was seen as especially, even existentially, threatening by Israeli Jews. There was praise from several for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’ recent statements on the issue. There was also recognition that the political challenge from Hamas has made Fateh leaders reluctant to indicate a willingness to compromise.

I continue to feel that many Israelis continue to overestimate the degree of international resources that will be available to support a peace agreement, and especially with regard to refugee compensation. This issue of resource mobilization was also raised at a previous meeting in the Minster Lovell series.

On questions of residency, participants opposed all but limited or symbolic return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and several expressed a preference that this number be zero. Most supported that Palestinian state having full control over its own absorption policy, although a few expressed support for Israel having some veto over what Palestinians might repatriate to the Palestinian state for a limited transitional period. One participant voiced concerns (more widely shared in Israel as whole) that refugees repatriating to a Palestinian state could be a future security risk to Israel itself

Finally, there was considerable discussion as to whether past assumptions about resolving the refugee issue were still entirely relevant. I noted that the Syrian civil war has created strong “push” factors for hundreds of thousands of refugees, in contrast to an earlier era when Palestinians in Syria would be unlikely to face immediate pressure to repatriate following a peace agreement. Several participants also expressed doubt that a comprehensive peace deal was possible in the current era, arguing that a series of incremental and a transitional arrangements were more likely. Under such circumstances would the resolution of the refugee issue be postponed? Or were some sort of intermediate initiatives possible? It is a question that certainly needs further attention.

Jews of Egypt

Posted: October 7, 2012 by Rex Brynen in Egypt, Jews from Arab countries

The trailer above is from filmmaker Amir Ramses’ new film Jews of Egypt, which was recently shown in Egypt as part of the Euro Film Week 2012 festival.

A documentary that captures fragments of the lives of the Egyptian Jewish community in the first half of the twentieth century until their second grand exodus after the tripartite attack of 1956 .. An attempt to understand the change in the identity of the Egyptian society that turned from a society full of tolerance and acceptance of one another .. and how it changed gradually by mixing religious and political views into a society that rejects the others .. a film about the cosmopolitan Egypt in the 40’s and Egypt in the new millennium .. how did the Jews of Egypt turn in the eyes of Egyptians from partners in the same country to enemies ..

You’ll find a very positive review in Variety Arabia here. One hopes that amid the attention generated by the current Israeli government campaign regarding forced displacement of Jews from Arab countries—a campaign in large part driven by a cynical effort to somehow offset legitimate Palestinian refugee claims—the significance of an Arab filmmaker addressing this subject in an Arab country is not lost.

h/t Nadim Shehadi

In the latest (Summer 2012) issue of Middle East Report, Michael Fischbach has an interesting piece on the question of Jewish properties that were seized in Libya by both the monarchy and the subsequent Qaddafi regime:

As Libya looks to its future, one chapter from its past already has reared its head, one that could touch on everything from finances to future relations, if any, with Israel: the fate of the country’s former Jewish popula- tion. The highly publicized return to his native land made by Rome-based Jewish psychoanalyst David Gerbi in October 2011 helped bring the question of Libyan Jews, and the fate of their property confiscated in 1970, into the open. The preceding July, Gerbi was appointed as the representative of the Israel-based World Organization of Libyan Jews (WOLJ) to the rebel Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), headedbyMustafa‘Abdal-Jalil.GerbithentraveledtoTripoli in a bid to reopen the long-shuttered Dar al-Bishi synagogue. His presence soon prompted demonstrations and negative publicity, however, and he was forced to leave the country. But that was not the end of the matter. Will Libyan Jews in exile begin calling on the international community to help them seek compensation from the new regime for property confiscated by the government of Muammar Qaddafi? Events not only suggest that they will, but that Libyan Jews are not in agreement about the best way to go about the task. Nor do international Jewish groups and the Israeli government seem to agree.

He concludes the article by suggesting:

Beyond the specific case of Libya, the question of Jewish property claims against Arab countries generally has surfaced in recent years due to the efforts of non-governmental organiza- tions like the US-based coalition Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC). But rather than pushing to compensate Jews who were dispossessed when they left Libya and other Arab countries during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, these efforts have focused instead on using the claims of Jews who left the Arab world for Israel (who are described as “refugees”) as a way to counter Palestinian refugee claims—the right of return foremost among them. Groups like JJAC argue that a wide-scale Jewish-Arab population and property “exchange” has taken place in the Middle East since 1948, and that both Jews and Arabs suffered losses that must be addressed. The Israeli government came to bring this logic to a certain degree of fruition when, on April 3, 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it henceforth would campaign for international acceptance of this narrative of two refugee experiences as an important dimension of final peace talks with the Palestinians—despite the fact that the dispossession of Jews from Arab countries came at the hands of those respective governments, not the Palestinians. As the Foreign Ministry’s statement noted, “The issue of Jewish refugees should be raised in every peace negotiation framework whether it is opposite the Palestinians or Arab governments.” So while raising the profile of Libyan and other Jewish claims for property compensation, this discourse about two sets of refugee exoduses and property losses has not led to official Israeli government support for monetary compensation for aggrieved Jews from Libya.

Whether through such actions, by filing lawsuits against other frozen Libyan property in Britain and Western countries, by lobbying the US and the EU to demand movement on Jewish claims as part of future development aid, or by quiet dialogue with the new Libyan government, the world could well hear more discussion of Jewish property claims against Libya. What is less certain is how far such talk will go. Given what has occurred with similar Jewish claims against Iraq in the post-Saddam era, one should not hold one’s breath.

The article itself is gated, but you can read a pdf version of here.

As the Jerusalem Post recently reported, the government of Israel has established a a new office to collect and collate the property claims of Jews who left Arab countries in the 1940s, 1950s, and thereafter:

A new department set up by Ministry of Pensioners Affairs to manage the legal claims of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent who lost their property when they left countries throughout the region has begun collecting information.

The office will help identify, locate and seek compensation for the assets of the more than one million Jews who came to Israel from Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.

The initiative follows a law approved earlier this year by the Knesset requiring the compensation of Jews from Arab countries and Iran to be included in any peace negotiations.

“The Palestinians have been collecting evidence of their losses for many years,” said Yoni Itzhak, a spokesman for the Pensioners Affairs Ministry.

“So we are not waiting until there is a negotiation for a peace accord. We need to be prepared, so that if there are negotiations and the Palestinians say, ‘We are owed a few billion dollars,’ We will say, ‘OK, no problem,’ and be ready with a much higher figure of what we are owed.”

The ministry says that as of 2007 “the estimated value of Jewish property in Arab countries is 50 percent more than the value of the property of Palestinian refugees and is valued at billions of dollars.” The ministry did not provide specific figures.

I’ve always found it a bit curious that anyone would think that this approach would have any traction in negotiation with the Palestinians when the Palestinians weren’t responsible for the situation of Jews in other Arab countries. Don’t get me wrong: I think most Arab regimes and Arab populations often treated their own Jewish citizens with grave injustice, whether by encouraging violence against them, seizing properties, and/or failing to protect them from intimidation. I do think, in many cases, it constituted forced displacement. I think Arab unwillingness to address what happened is lamentable. Finally, I believe that legitimate claims for compensation can be made.

…But why would the Palestinians be expected to pay this, or somehow have it deducted from their own compensation claims against Israel? Israel, after all, has had a peace treaty with Egypt since 1979–and yet has failed make claims against Egypt for its treatment of Egyptian Jews. Similarly, it hasn’t made formal, legal claims against any other Arab country. Indeed, as Michael Fischbach has shown in his masterful book Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries, successive Israeli governments resisted efforts to pursue justice for Jewish property claims because it wanted to “save” the issue to use as a bargaining chip in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The Palestinian response to this, however, is likely to be a combination of “yes, we agree with you that legitimate refugees should be compensated in full.. that’s what we’ve been claiming,” and “go take your bill to the Iraqis/Egyptians/Yemenis/etc… these specific claims have nothing to do with us. On the other hand, now that you’ve accepted the principle, here are our specific claims against you…”

In past permanent status negotiations the issue has been dealt with in various ways. At Camp David in July 2000, it was briefly suggested that it might be possible to pay both Palestinian and Jewish claims out of a single international fund. President Clinton later told Israeli TV that “the fund should compensate the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominately Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.”

The problem in such an approach is that many international donors have already indicated that while they would be generous in support of a peace deal, they don’t envisage making contributions to a compensation fund, something that they see as the primary responsibility of Israel (in the case of Palestinian claims) or Arab countries (in the case of Jewish claims). As I’ve argued for some time now, there is likely to be a significant gap between Palestinian expectations of compensation, and the level of resources available from Israel or anyone else—a gap large enough to potentially destabilize any future agreement. Why then would you want to make this problem even more grave by enlarging the number of claimants? And why should the international community be expected to foot the bill so that Israel or Arab states can continue to enjoy refugee properties that they may have improperly seized?

It is revealing of how weak this linkage is that, in practice, neither the US nor Israel has seriously pursued the issue previous permanent status talks. Jews from Arab countries don’t get a single mention that I can find in Dennis Ross’ otherwise voluminous 815 page autobiographical account of the peace process. It is also not mentioned, or barely mentioned, in the autobiographical accounts by Israeli peace negotiators Gilead Sher, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and Yossi Beilin. The Clinton Parameters of December 2000 make no reference at all to the issue of Jewish claims—nor, indeed, does Israel’s own draft Framework Agreement on Permanent Status. By the time of the Taba negotiations in January 2001, both Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to put the issue aside. Indeed, the Israeli negotiating text of 22 January explicitly postponed the issue to other fora and a later date, rather than including it in the compensation regime under negotiation:

Former Jewish Refugees

15. Although the issue of compensation to former Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not part of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement, in recognition of their suffering and losses, the Parties pledge to cooperate in pursuing an equitable and just resolution to the issue.

In other words, not only does it make little logical sense to link contemporary Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Palestinian refugee compensation claims to the behaviour of Arab regimes six decades ago, but the historical negotiating record shows that Israel itself has already conceded that Jewish claims against Arab countries are not appropriately “part of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement.”

For further information: See the website of the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries, which is assisting the government of Israel with documenting claims, and the website of the advocacy group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. See also Michael Fischbach’s Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries, as well as his account of non-governmental efforts by former Iraqi Jews to make claims for lost property in Iraq.