Israel’s UN Ambassador Demands Recognition of Jewish Refugees
A Yemenite Jewish family walking through the desert to a reception camp setup by the Joint Distribution Committee near Aden, Nov. 1, 1949. (Zoltan Kluger/Israel GPO)

Israel’s UN Ambassador Demands Recognition of Jewish Refugees

Resolution seeks to put Jewish, Palestinian refugees on equal footing, Erdan says

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan on Tuesday informed the body’s secretary-general, António Guterres, that he will soon present a draft resolution recognizing Jews that were forced to flee Arab and Muslim countries following the creation of Israel as refugees.

“The establishment of the Jewish state was one of the most important decisions made by the UN,” Erdan wrote to the UN chief. “The Arab leaders chose to reject this decision and instead launched a widespread attack against the State of Israel and the thriving Jewish communities that lived within [these Arab states].”

“I urge you to … begin sharing the story of 850,000 Jewish refugees deported from Arab countries and Iran in all of the organization’s forums,” Erdan added, noting the importance of promoting “in-depth research on the tragedy of Jewish refugees” and backing “the study of the subject in various UN forums.”

On Monday, Israel observed the official Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran, one day after commemorating 73 years since the passing of the historic November 29 UN resolution adopting the partition plan for Palestine and the de facto establishment of the State of Israel.

According to varying estimates, approximately 850,000 Jewish men, women and children were expelled from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and other countries in the 1930s-1960s. While some communities were forced to flee after falling victim to repeated deadly terror attacks and violence, some were urged to leave by increasingly restrictive government decrees or were even officially deported.

Most emigrated to Israel, with tens of thousands arriving in France and in the United States as well.

Jews left their homes with only the clothes on their backs

“Jews left their homes with only the clothes on their backs,” Miriam Gez Avigail, chair of the Center for Organizations of Arab Countries’ and the Muslim World Jews, told The Media Line.

“And the people who held these states’ economies usually were Jewish,” she adds, noting the vast wealth some refugees had accumulated over the years.

“Their whole property was taken, confiscated by the authorities. They left never to return. We’re talking about a huge sum,” says Avigail, who oversees 11 groups whose stated missions are to help retrieve the communities’ wealth.

Monday’s memorial day, passed into law in 2014, represents Israel’s recently growing recognition of the plight of the Jewish communities in the years leading up to – and immediately after – the nation’s birth.

Israel passed its first laws recognizing some citizens of Arab descent as refugees in 2002, and in 2010 passed a bill protecting Jewish refugees’ rights to receive reparations for their property left behind.

“In any future Middle East peace negotiation, the government shall include the issue of lost property reparations for refugees of Arab countries and Iran, including property owned by the Jewish community in these states,” the law reads.

“After the 2014 law’s enactment, the interest in this historical subject from researchers in Israel and around the world has grown noticeably. Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad have begun dealing with the issue,” Prof. Haim Saadon, who heads the documentation center at the Ben Zvi Institute for the study of Jewish communities in the East, told The Media Line.

As for ambassador Erdan’s latest UN proposal, Saadon said the institute “welcomes any step that will grow the research, documentation, publication and bequeathing of the legacy of Jews emigrating from Islamic countries. We believe the scope of subjects worthy of research regarding the communities in these areas is wide and the institute will be happy to offer its resources and academic reputation to advance the issue.”

The institute has worked for 70 years to document, preserve and publish the stories of Jewish immigrants from the Arab world, offering scholarships and grants, publishing books and hosting academic conventions.

“My parents came from Tripoli, after years of strife,” Albert, a 62-year-old descendant of Libyan-born Jews, told The Media Line. “After the 1945 riots, they realized it was no good. It took them a few years but eventually, they emigrated to Israel.”

The November 1945 pogrom left over 140 Jews dead in Libya, with hundreds injured and several thousand homeless. Synagogues and Jewish places of business were looted and razed.

“They didn’t have much when they came. They weren’t penniless but there was definitely property they left behind,” Albert says.

The exact modern-day worth of property owned by Arab Jewish communities is under dispute, as estimates range from a few billion dollars to $300 billion.

“The exact sum is privileged, because we don’t want to reveal private people’s details and net worth, and we also don’t want to hurt our coordination with Arab governments and future negotiation starting points,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Equality, which is in charge of the issue for the Israeli government, told The Media Line.

Minister Meirav Cohen, who heads the office, met with Ambassador Erdan via Zoom in recent days to discuss the issue prior to his drafting the letter to Guterres, the spokesperson added.

In his statement, Erdan, recently a right-wing MP, also compared Jewish refugees to Palestinian ones, admonishing the UN for dealing “extensively” with the latter while “completely [ignoring]” the former.

“It is infuriating to see the UN mark a special day and devote … resources for the issue of ‘Palestinian refugees,’ while abandoning and ignoring hundreds of thousands of Jewish families deported from Arab countries and Iran,” Erdan wrote, purposely placing Palestinian refugees in quotes.

Though the US House of Representatives has passed essentially symbolic resolutions recognizing Jewish refugees’ rights, most recently in 2008, many in academia and in the international arena believe the comparison between Jewish and Palestinian refugees is misguided.

While thousands of Jews living in the Muslim world were forcefully pushed to leave their homes, they were received in Israel by a Jewish state and were often encouraged to emigrate by Zionist organizations, experts point out.

In contrast, the estimated 700,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes during the 1948 war did not have a nation-state to go to; most of them and their descendants have since remained in limbo, including many under Israeli control.

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