Palestinians arent the only refugees from the Mideast

One of the key stumbling blocks to Mideast peace talks is the "right of return" of refugees, a central point of the Palestinian agenda. But now Jews from Arab lands are organizing to show that two can play this political game.

Any discussion of Mideast refugees, they say, must take into account not only the 650,000 Arabs displaced by the 1948 war, but the more than 800,000 Jews who fled Arab countries soon after Israeli statehood and were never compensated for their lost homes and possessions.

Jews for Justice from Arab Countries is a new international coalition of organizations dedicated to securing rights and reimbursement for Jewish refugees. In the Bay Area, JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa has a similar mission and held a conference in March in San Francisco.

Now these groups are getting political, calling for congressional hearings on the subject. And a group of Iraqi Jews in the United States and Europe said they are considering filing class-action suits through the World Jewish Congress for compensation for property and assets lost when they had to leave Iraq in the 1950s. About 90 percent of the 120,000-member Jewish community of Iraq immigrated to Israel a half century ago.

Whether or not Jews who suffered human rights violations from Arab states will ever be compensated remains to be seen. Some estimates of the personal homes, businesses, land, pensions and community assets lost exceed $100 billion. But it is important on a legal, moral and psychological level for the world to come to know that "Mideast refugees" does not just refer to Arabs.

Indeed, U.N. Resolution 242 that ended the 1967 Six-Day War calls for "a just settlement of the refugee problem," making no distinction between Arab and Jewish refugees. And one of President Clinton's provisions of the ill-fated Camp David peace talks of the summer of 2000 was that any peace agreement calling for an international fund to handle the claims of refugees would deal with both Arabs and Jews who were displaced.

The Palestinians continue to insist on the right of return to Israel for this multitude, the descendants of those who left the country, voluntarily or not, during the first Israeli-Arab war. Israel says that to absorb them into the state would be to commit political suicide since Jews soon would become a minority in their own homeland, leading to an Arab takeover of the Knesset and the dismantling of Zionism. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has stated that the proposed Mideast "road map" will go nowhere until the Palestinians give up the right of return.

The major difference between the Arab and Jewish refugees is that while most of the Jews were absorbed as full citizens by Israel within a decade of statehood, the Palestinians were allowed to languish by their Arab brethren and still remain stateless, living in refugee camps that are now said to account for about 4 million people.

Should Israel be punished for its compassion and efficiency in taking in evicted and homeless Jews? Should the Arab states be rewarded for discriminating against and even expelling Jews, confiscating their possessions and cynically using their Arab brethren as a political tool rather than taking them in?

In the last five decades there have been more than 100 U.N. resolutions dealing with Palestinian refugees, and not one dealing with Jewish refugees. Hardly surprising, given the anti-Israel sentiments and actions of the United Nations. But Stan Urman, the JJAC's director, said the organization is determined to ensure that from here on out, "anytime refugees are mentioned" in this context, the plight and rights of Jewish refugees will be recognized as well. Until now, he notes, "our issue hasn't even been on the radar."

Part of the effort of JJAC and other groups is to document the claims of those forced to flee from Arab lands. The American Sephardi Federation, working with the Israeli Justice Ministry and a number of other Jewish organizations, is seeking to register all those who lost land and possessions and has set up a project, Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries, with a link to claim forms at

But JJAC officials, well aware of the widespread criticism of the effort to gain restitution for Holocaust victims in Europe, say the main point here is to record the narratives and gain information, not collect money. Only some 12,000 testimonial forms have been collected to date; the Palestinians, by contrast, have been thorough in documenting many tens of thousands of claims.

Israel's participation marks a breakthrough because for years Jerusalem avoided talk of refugee compensation. Officials feared the discussions would be one-sided and deal only with the Palestinians. But the reality is that the refugee issue is already quite public, so Israel has decided to make the best of it and help advance the cause of Jewish refugees.

Still, this is, and should be, more of a diaspora Jewry issue than an Israeli one. And it is primarily informational rather than confrontational. Few realize that a precedent exists for an international fund, administered by the United Nations, that aids both Arabs and Jews. A compensation commission was set up by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War to help those who suffered, and both Israelis and Arabs have benefited.

Meanwhile, JJAC, which is under the auspices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is beginning to make itself heard. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) is calling for congressional hearings on the subject, and officials of JJAC recently held a legal consultation focusing on international law and the rights of Jewish refugees as well as possible avenues for political representations through the United Nations and/or individual countries.

Let's not hold our breath. Jewish refugees from Arab countries won't be receiving monies anytime soon. But let us remember, and remind the world, that Palestinians are not the only Mideast refugees who have suffered.