Irwin Cotler: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress

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When the issue of refugees is raised within the context of the Middle East, people invariably refer to Palestinian refugees, virtually never to Jews displaced from Arab countries.

In reality, two major population movements occurred as a result of over a half century of turmoil in the Middle East. Securing rights for these former Jewish refugees has never been adequately addressed by the international community. For any peace process to be credible and enduring, it must address the rights of all Middle East refugees, including Jewish and other minority populations that were displaced from Arab countries.

Historically, Jews and Jewish communities have existed in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region for more than 2,500 years. Jews in substantial numbers resided in what are to-day Arab countries over 1,000 years before the advent of Islam. Following the Moslem conquest of the region, for centuries, while relegated to second-class status, Jews were nonetheless permitted limited religious, educational, professional, and business opportunities.

It is important to note that the treatment of Jews by Arab leaders and Islamic populations varied greatly from country to country. By way of example, in some countries, Jews were forbidden to leave (e.g. Syria); in others, many Jews were expelled (e.g. Egypt) or displaced en masse (e.g. Iraq); while other Jewish communities lived in relative peace under the protection of Muslim rulers (e.g. Tunisia, Morocco).

When Arab countries gained independence, followed by the rise in Arab nationalism, statesanctioned measures, coupled often with violence and repression, made remaining in the land of their birth an untenable option for Jews.

In 1948, the status of Jews in Arab countries worsened dramatically as many Arab countries declared war, or backed the war against the newly founded State of Israel. Jews were either uprooted from their countries of longtime residence or became subjugated, political hostages of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In virtually all cases, as Jews left the country, individual and communal properties were confiscated without compensation.

Since 1948, over 850,000 Jews have left their birthplaces and their homes in some 10 Arab countries. To-day, fewer than 7,000 Jews remain in these same countries.

The fact that Jews displaced from Arab countries were indeed bone fide refugees, under international law, is beyond question.

  • On two separate occasions the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruled that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were indeed ‘bona fide’ refugees who “fall under the mandate of my (UNHCR) office”.[1]
  • In all relevant international bilateral or multilateral agreements, (i.e., UN Resolution 242, The Road Map, The Madrid Conference, etc.), the reference to “refugees” is generic, allowing for the recognition and inclusion of all Middle East refugees – Jews, Christians, and other minorities.

This Legal Report is intended to document, and assert, the rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries. Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries must assume its rightful place on the international political agenda, as a matter of law and equity.

It is important to underscore that:

  1. The legitimate call to secure rights and redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees. In any Middle East peace proposals, Palestinian refugees will be up for discussion. The history and truth about the plight of former Jewish refugees from Arab countries must be also be acknowledged and returned to the narrative of the Middle East from which it has been expunged;
  2. This Report should not be misconstrued as ‘anti-Arab’. This Report provides an accurate historical narrative about the plight and flight of Jews from Arab countries that has neverbeen recognized by the international community nor acknowledged by Arab countries. Compelling evidence supports the call for justice to redress the victimization of Jews who lived in Arab countries and the mass violations of human rights that they were victims of; and
  3. This initiative is not about money, nor about launching legal proceedings to seek compensation. This Report provides legal facts and evidence to assist all parties in any future negotiations on rights and redress for all Middle East refugees. In the absence of truth and justice, there can be no reconciliation, without which there can be no just, lasting peace between and among all peoples of the region.

The first injustice was the mass violations of rights of Jews in Arab countries. To-day, we must not allow a second injustice – for the international community to recognize rights for one victim population – Palestinian refugees – without recognizing equal rights for other victims of that very same Middle East conflict – former Jewish, Christian and other refugees from Arab countries.

To read the entire report click here


[1 ]Mr. Auguste Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Report of the UNREF Executive Committee, Fourth Session – Geneva 29 January to 4 February, 1957; and Dr. E. Jahn, Office of the UN High Commissioner, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Document No. 7/2/3/Libya, July 6, 1967.

Irwin Cotler: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress

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