The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would compel the administration to raise the issue of Jewish refugees in any international forum in which Palestinian refugees are discussed.
The bill, sponsored by six Democrat and Republican legislators, would also require the president to report to Congress on the “assistance the United States has provided to Israel to help it accomplish its goal that the interests of Jews displaced from Arab countries are considered in any final settlement of the Middle East refugee question.”
Introduction of the bill comes after seven years of lobbying by Jews for Justice in Arab Countries (JJAC), an organization dedicated to ensuring preservation of the rights of an estimated 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
“We’ve been working with Congress for many years and we are clearly happy [the bill was introduced] this way,” said JJAC vice-president Sylvain Abitbol.
The bill follows on the heels of a non-binding 2008 House resolution that was adopted unanimously, said Stanley Urman, executive director of JJAC. The current bill, introduced by three Republicans and three Democrats, is “binding and has an action component,” he said.
To become law, the bill must be passed by the House and Senate and receive presidential approval.
“Right now, Jewish refugees are not on the international agenda. We have been called the forgotten refugees,” said Abitbol, former co-president of Canadian Jewish Congress. “After 1948, many Arabs from Palestine left their homes, and yes, they have been refugees. The difference is that we were never called refugees. We adapted to the places where we went, with was not the case for Arab refugees.
“We Jews had been living in Arab countries for more than 2,000 years… We’re talking about recognition, about justice.”
According the JJAC, from 1948 to 2005, the number of Jews in 10 Arab countries dropped from 856,000 to 5,110. The majority of them settled in Israel.
JJAC has long advocated that Jewish refugees be discussed in any final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The government of Israel, which was cool to the issue when JJAC first raised it, now recognizes the moral imperative of raising it in talks, Urman said. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who has Algerian roots, “is demonstrating tremendous leadership on this issue. It’s important to him and he will raise it in talks.”
Last April, Israel’s Foreign Ministry hosted a conference on Jewish refugees. Ayalon said compensation for Jewish refugees should be an integral part of any future negotiations or settlement.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry will host another conference on the subject in September.