The Foreign Ministry – along with the World Jewish Congress and the Pensioners Affairs Ministry – is ramping up its campaign to bring the issue of Jewish refugee rights to public and diplomatic attention.
According to the Foreign Ministry more than 850,000 Jews from Arab states fled their countries of birth following persecution that ensued after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Many also had their property confiscated.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Deputy Pensioners Affairs Minister Lea Nass said the government was currently finalizing plans to institute a national day of recognition for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. It is also planning to build a museum to document the historical events of these communities, as well as their cultural heritage; collate testimony from thousands of refugees; and bring the issue front and center on the diplomatic stage.
Ayalon also pointed to legislation passed in the Knesset in 2010 obliging any government conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians to include the issue of compensation for Jewish refugees as part of any final status talks.
“This is one of the core issues,” the deputy minister said. “It is not separate and certainly, when it comes to negotiations, it will be part and parcel of the refugee issue as a whole.”
Ayalon denied that the campaign was designed to hinder the peace process, adding that even if that were the case Israel was already being accused of obstructionism.
“They say we’re not ready for peace anyway, but this is not a reason not to do what is just and right for hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
“This is not a reason not to show a mirror in front of the entire world, in particular the Arab countries.”
Ayalon also insisted that Israel-Palestinian negotiations were the correct forum for advancing the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, saying the linkage stemmed from historical precedents following wars on the Indian subcontinent and Europe.
He added that part of the proposals made in the Arab Peace Initiative suggesting that an Israeli settlement with the Palestinians should bring peace and normalization with the entire Arab world, meant that the Jewish refugee issue should be dealt with in this comprehensive manner.
The Pensioners Affairs Ministry, which was given responsibility for the issue in 2009, has taken the lead on the documentation of testimony from refugees and their descendants. Nass explained that it was critical to record the stories of the refugees, who, she said, had largely been forgotten.
“The Jewish people left behind their property, their stories and their history,” said Nass. “It’s important in our religion to first of all tell the story. The story has disappeared, and when we meet these people they express great pain that it has not been told.”
The ministry has digitized 20,000 documents pertaining to the Jewish refugees and will next week actively begin to collect further such documents and testimony, in coordination with various interest groups representing Jews from Arab countries.
The project, named “I am a refugee” and having an initial budget of NIS 2 million, calls on refugees and their descendants to come forward and present their stories, documents, pictures and other records to create an archive similar to that in Yad Vashem for victims of the Holocaust.
World Jewish Congress (WJC) secretary-general Dan Diker praised the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry and the Pensioners Affairs Ministry, saying progress being made on the issue would not have been possible without them.
Diker also focused on the need to advance legislation in governments around the world, as well as at the UN, to ensure that the issue was given sufficient attention and weight.
“This government, along with the WJC, is advancing this issue as a global Jewish project of highest urgency,” he said. “We are taking a position, we’re insisting on rights based diplomacy and we’re saying enough is enough.”
The Foreign Ministry and the WJC will be staging a media event at the United Nations headquarters in New York in September to gain media and diplomatic attention. It will coincide with the beginning of the UN General Assembly session. Along with the Pensioners Affairs Ministry, it will also hold an international conference in September called “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.”