Jewish refugee David Gerbi prays in a ruined
Jewish refugee David Gerbi prays in a ruinedReuters

For the first time, the Knesset is establishing an official body to speak up for the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab lands who migrated to Israel. The Knesset Lobby for Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands was inaugurated by MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud), who will chair the committee.

As the date for Israel's independence edged closer throughout the 1940s, Jews who had lived for centuries in Arab-majority countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Libya found themselves increasingly persecuted by their Arab co-nationals.

When Israel was established, approximately one million Jews from Arab countries were forced to leave their homes due to pogroms, state discrimination and persecution. In many cases, such as the former Jewish community of Libya, entire Jewish populations were simply expelled in one go by the government.

With nowhere else to go, most of them fled to the nascent State of Israel. Almost none received any kind of compensation for the substantial assets they were forced to leave behind.

Despite the lack of money and resources, Israel made great efforts to absorb these immigrants, and despite the many problems of poverty and discrimination they initially faced, the country was able to successfully absorb most of them. Few, if any, expressed a desire to return to their countries of origin, but polls show that the vast majority want their property back.

Today, Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their descendants account for more than 50% of Israel's Jewish population. The assets they left behind have been estimated at around $4.4 billion.

Successive Israeli government have been criticized by refugees and their descendants for their near silence on the issue - much of which stemmed from the fact that few Jews wanted to go back to Arab lands due to rampant anti-Semitism, and that the prospect of any Arab country agreeing to compensate expelled Jews was considered too remote to even consider. But in recent years, as the Palestinian Authority continues to demand a “right of return” for the significantly fewer Arab refugees from the 1948 War of Independence, many in Israel have begun to assert the rights of compensation for Jews expelled from Arab countries.

Ohayon commented on the way that Arab states and the Palestinian Authority have worked to prevent Arab refugees and their descendants from restarting their lives, as a way of perpetuating the so-called "refugee problem". 

“The Palestinians preserve their refugees, unlike Israel, which absorbed them properly,” he noted.

The PA and Arab countries care little about Arab refugees, using them only as a weapon against Israel, he continued. “In the refugee camps in Syria tens of thousands of Palestinians are being killed, and PA chief Mahmoud Abbas remains silent.”

As the representative of the expelled Jews, Israel had an obligation to stand up for their rights, said Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who also attended the event.

“We must, with all our might, demand their rights and property. We began working on this several years ago, and we plan on addressing this in all international forums. There is a wide political consensus on this among all Zionist parties, regardless of the differences between them,” he declared.

In a statement, MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) said that Israel should not look at the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands as its “answer” to demands by the PA that Arabs be repatriated to their original homes in Israel.

“The property rights of the Jews were taken from them without any issues of national sovereignty,” Feiglin said. “As representative of these Jews, Israel must speak up for them,” because Israel is the state they live in.

However, unlike the Arabs, Feiglin says Jews from Arab lands needed to be compensated as individuals for their property, contending that by "allowing" the Arab countries to hijack their refugee status for their national struggles destroy Israel, the Arab refugees had lost the right to make individual demands for compensation.