At a press conference Tuesday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced a new state policy regarding dispossessed Jews who were forced to flee from their homes in Arab countries.
Sitting at the dais were representatives of the National Council for Jewish Restitution, part of the Ministry for Senior Citizens (a portfolio held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), as well as organizations representing Jewish refugees from Arab countries. At times the conference became very emotional.
Most people only think about the 600 thousand Arabs who became refugees after the Arab nations attacked the State of Israel.
But in fact, between 1948 and 1967, at least 850 thousand Jews were forced to leave Arab countries—where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.
Threatened by street mobs and governments following the declaration of an independent Jewish state, the Jews in many Arab countries were given a deadline to escape, often with only the clothes on their backs, abandoning assets and property. Today, only a few thousand Jews live in all the Arab countries combined.
These former Jewish refugees from Muslim countries and their descendants now make up close to 50% of Israel’s population.
Danny Ayalon himself is the son of one of these Jewish refugees, who was forced to flee from Algiers.
He suggested that, based on President Clinton’s suggestion in 2000, an international compensation fund should be created to solve the refugee problem. The fund should be based on the size of the assets at the time (It is common knowledge that Jews in Arab countries owned a great deal more assets than their Palestinian counterparts).
A 2008 study indicates that Arabs lost 450 million dollars in property and assets ($3.9 billion in today’s numbers).
Their Jewish counterparts lost 700 million dollars ($6 billion in today’s numbers).
The Arab nations, led by the Arab league perpetuated the Arab refugee problem, which is being cultivated to this day by United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
Ayalon pointed out Tuesday that until now, the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has been sidelined, despite the fact that Israel absorbed these refugees at a huge financial cost, and perhaps the issue has been ignored because Israel absorbed them so successfully.
Ayalon also stated that Security Council Resolution 242 makes no differentiation between Arab and Jewish refugees. According to the effective criteria set by the UN regarding the refugees, Jews who had been forced to leave their former Arab homelands are full-fledged refugees too.
The US House of Representatives Resolution 185 of Apr 1, 2008, determined that one refugee problem should not be resolved without resolving the second refugee problem.
In February of 2010, the Knesset passed a law “for preservation of the rights to compensation of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.”
Each side should rehabilitate their refugees where they currently are, was Ayalon’s message. Indeed, in agreement with the Prime Minister and other ministries, from now on it will be government policy to make sure that the issue of Jewish refugees, and their due compensation, are part of any peace deal, negotiation, and even discussions about regional peace. “Truth and Justice for the Jewish refugees” is required for a real “End of Conflict,” according to Ayalon.
But this wasn’t simply some boring press conference stating some new government policy, there were tears and drama too as individuals got up to share their experiences as members of the generation of refugees who are dying out – after having lost everything, from assets and property, and even family members.
One lady broke down in tears as she talked about her father’s legacy to her.
And it wasn’t without its controversy either. At one point, a man in the audience blamed Israel for not wanting peace, and not pursuing the Saudi Peace Initiative, that Ayalon had mentioned earlier in his speech.
Deputy Minister Danny Ayalon said he was personally and secretly sent by Ariel Sharon to see if there is a basis for discussion and negotiations with the Saudis. They refused to talk to him.
The guest continued to blame Israel, until Ayalon berated him loudly and vociferously, telling him he should stop listening to nonsense and rumors. He [Ayalon] had been there, as Sharon’s representative, and he was rebuffed by the Saudis.
For Ayalon, the refugee issue is a two way street, and now, that will now be government policy too.
Stephen Leavitt contributed to this report.