(May 18, 2021 / JNS) If you believe most Western media, it all started with Sheikh Jarrah: the neighborhood in Jerusalem that has become the symbol of the “injustice” to Palestinian residents under threat of eviction. The matter has been misrepresented as a bigoted attempt by Israel to evict “hundreds” of Palestinians by Jewish “settlers.”
In fact, it is a long-running private dispute between Jewish landlords and Arab tenants. The tenants are at risk of eviction for not paying the rent.
A mirror image of the Sheikh Jarrah case occurred in Iraq recently. There, a tenant in Baghdad, fearing his home would be bulldozed, appealed to the Jewish owners of the land, now living in Canada, to sue a developer who had falsified the ownership deeds.
But even if they had won a legal case, the Jewish owners would not be able to claim back their property, since they had been de-nationalized—stripped of their rights when they fled the country.
While discussions can take place where Israel has the power, Jonathan Spyer, writing in The Jerusalem Post, points out a fundamental asymmetry: All avenues leading to restitution of Jewish property seized in Arab countries are closed. “Might is right” in dictatorships that persecuted Jewish citizens, scapegoated as Zionists. For Jews, even to entertain the idea of reclaiming their property is considered ludicrous.
Billions of dollars’ worth of property has been seized from Jews evicted from Arab countries. (Some Jews expelled from Egypt after the Suez crisis, British and French citizens, received some compensation from the U.K. and France, but the vast majority got nothing.)
There has only been one example of property restituted to its Jewish owners, the Metzgers—the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria. An Egyptian court ruled in 1996 that the hotel should be restituted to Albert Metzger, but the ruling was not implemented for fear that it would establish a precedent for the restitution of nationalized Jewish property.
It was only in 2007 that the Egyptian government proposed a deal whereby it would implement the ruling, but would immediately buy back the hotel from the Metzgers.
When a Property Claims Commission was set up in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to deal with claims by Iraqis stripped of their property, the timeline was set at 1968, the year when the Ba’ath regime took power. This excluded the vast majority of potential claimants—the 130,000 Jews who left in 1950-51.
A Claims Commission was due to have been implemented under the terms of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But it was never established.
Jerusalem is an exception. When the city came under Israeli jurisdiction after 1967, Jews evicted by the Jordanians in 1948 were presented with the opportunity to recover their properties in the Old City and eastern Jerusalem.
A 1970 law enables Jewish owners to sue for restitution. But there is one important caveat: The law protects tenants who pay rent. In the Sheikh Jarrah case, they refuse to do so.
In Israel itself, a partial exchange of property occurred: Jewish refugees from Arab lands were resettled in abandoned Palestinian homes and villages. Conversely, Palestinians were re-housed in Jewish quarters, social clubs, schools and synagogues in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Syria.
The thorny issue of property claims for refugees on both sides awaits a comprehensive peace settlement. The fairest solution might be compensation, rather than restitution. But in light of recent events, that prospect seems some way off.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).
Jewish News Syndicate
With geographic, political and social divides growing wider, high-quality reporting and informed analysis are more important than ever to keep people connected.
Our ability to cover the most important issues in Israel and throughout the Jewish world—without the standard media bias—depends on the support of committed readers.
If you appreciate the value of our news service and recognize how JNS stands out among the competition, please click on the link and make a one-time or monthly contribution.
We appreciate your support.