OpinionMiddle East

‘Deal of the century’ must address Jewish refugee issue

If the U.S. Mideast peace plan is to succeed, it must include redress for the Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

Jewish refugees at a Ma’abarot transit camp in Israel, 1950. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jewish refugees at a Ma’abarot transit camp in Israel, 1950. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
David A. Dangoor

It can be argued that before there can be peace, there must be truth, justice and reconciliation. Perhaps nowhere is this more relevant than with regard to the over 100-year-old Israeli-Arab conflict.

In an article titled “Resolution 242: After 20 Years,” the late Arthur J. Goldberg, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and one of the chief drafters of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, argued that when the resolution used the term “refugees” it “refers to both Arab and Jewish refugees.”

Resolution 242 has formed the basic foundation of all peace talks and negotiations surrounding the future of the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War. It is also the only resolution on the conflict that was placed under Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter, meaning it is legally binding, if not legally enforceable.

However, with few exceptions, almost every time the term “refugees” has been brought up in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict, it has been used purely in reference to Palestinian refugees.

In fact, while Palestinian refugees have a whole U.N. agency, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), with a large annual
budget and a substantial international consensus surrounding their plight, the over 850,000 Jews driven from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa during the middle of the 20th century have received scant attention.

Even in Israel the issue has only recently started to be dealt with in a serious fashion. In 2014 a law was passed for a Day of Commemoration for the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries on Nov. 30 each year, and an annual event is now held by the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations. There has also been an attempt by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and international partners like Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) to employ an international accountancy firm to undertake a forensic assessment of communal and personal assets lost and stolen in the exodus of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

This surge of activity is arguably the result of a law passed in Israel in 2010 mandating Jewish refugees be put on the peace agenda alongside Palestinian refugees. The law requires that every time the issue of Palestinian refugees arises, Israeli diplomats and politicians must raise the issue of Jewish refugees.

A similar resolution was passed in the U.S. Congress two years earlier, stating that any mention of the Palestinian refugees must also include Jewish refugees, including any agreement to “address and resolve all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees.”

Over the next few weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump will put forward a new plan to resuscitate the almost moribund peace process. Dubbed “the deal of the century,” it is supposed to be an attempt to arrive at a deal that takes into account and solves all of the outstanding issues. The first stage of the plan is the convening of an “economic workshop” in Bahrain to get countries and businessmen from around the world to invest in the peace deal. Precious few other details have been released about what is seen to be a holistic deal.

However, if it is to succeed in ending the conflict and dealing with issues of justice and compensation, the issue of the Jewish refugees must be an important element of it.

Perhaps it could borrow from the peace talks at Camp David in July 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton put into what would become known as the “Clinton Parameters” the idea of an international fund to compensate both Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

Either way, it is not just a matter of correcting a historic injustice, it could also be politically astute to include the Jewish refugee issue when presenting the plan to Israelis.

More than half of all Israeli Jews have roots in the Middle East and North Africa, and all have stories of how they were forced out of lands their families and communities had lived in,
sometimes for millennia, without much more than the clothes on their back.

Jews with tremendous assets and businesses in places like Baghdad and Cairo were rendered paupers nearly overnight. Some estimates have placed the lost communal and personal assets of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa at $250 billion in today’s figures.

Obviously what was lost will not be reclaimed, but it is vital that there be redress. If there is, then those who were forced to flee their homes and communities, as well as their
descendants, will feel their grievances are being taken seriously and will view the U.S. plan more favorably as a result.

For the “deal of the century” to succeed, it must deal with all the outstanding issues raised over the past century, including the forgotten issue—the Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

David Dangoor, a businessman and philanthropist, is vice president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) and honorary president of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq. He recently commissioned the internationally acclaimed film “Remember Baghdad,” which tells the story of Jews who fled Iraq.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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