Israel has launched a new and controversial diplomatic initiative aimed at placing the plight of Jews in Arab countries on an equal footing with that of Palestinian refugees, insisting that the resolution of both problems is a prerequisite to Middle East peace.

Speaking at special conference convened on Friday at UN headquarters in New York, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said “We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.”

The first-of-its-kind conference, which was convened over the objections of Arab representatives to the UN, attracted several hundred participants, including Israeli diplomats, senior Jewish organizational leaders, New York State and city politicians and a modest number of other countries’ ambassadors to the UN (8) as well as lower ranking representatives (17). The conference heard Israeli and Jewish officials – as well as eyewitness accounts by Jews whose families had been persecuted and expelled from Arab countries.

Delivering an impassioned speech, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor lambasted Arab leaders who “launched a war of terror, incitement, and expulsion to decimate and destroy their Jewish communities. Their effort was systematic. It was deliberate. It was planned.”

Prosor cited Arab statements inciting to violence as well as official decrees depriving them of their rights. He said that “billions of dollars of their property and assets were seized” and that “the total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles. That is five times the size of Israel.”

Prosor called on the UN to set up “a center of documentation and research to tell the 850,000 untold stories of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” He also lauded the contributions of Jews from Arab lands to Israeli society: “They became some of our greatest statesmen; our leading doctors, lawyers and in especially the Iraqis, our accountants; our most brilliant minds in art, science, and commerce.”

The new initiative has drawn criticism from critics on the left, who describe it as a ruse aimed at creating more obstacles for any peace negotiations, and from Israelis who immigrated from Arab countries and object to being placed on same footing as Palestinian refugees. They say that the new initiative casts doubt on their Zionist ideology, which led many to come to Israel voluntarily.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected claims that the Jews from Arab lands had departed voluntarily, saying that “the evidence proves” that they was “a coordinated campaign by the Arab League” against their own Jews, who were persecuted and discriminated against in their lands. Hoenlein cited 172 UN resolutions on the issue of Palestinian refugees – and not one on Jewish refugees. He said that the UN needs to “rectify this injustice” in order to “restore its own credibility.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said that Jewish losses in the 1948 war and its aftermath “in terms of personnel and property more than matched those of the Arab side.” Like all the other speakers, Lauder also rejected the Palestinian demand that Palestinians be allowed to return to their homes. “The Right of Return is a subject for history books,” Lauder said, “but there is a ‘right of remedy’ for recognition, redress and compensation.”

“I see a Jewish child and a Palestinian child, both of whom left the country of their birth – nothing can bring back to them the feeling of being at home. But we can compensate them in a small way for what happened,” Lauder said.

Canadian jurist and MP Irwin Cotler, in a fiery address, described the “double war of aggression” that Arab countries waged in 1948, not only against the nascent state of Israel but against their own Jews, “including Nuremberg-type laws.” He proposed a series of measures, including incorporation of the Jewish refugee issue in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, UN and Security Council discussions, the dismantling of UNRWA, which deals exclusively with Palestinian refugees, inclusion of Jewish refugees in any talks over Middle East peace and parliamentary hearings in various countries of the Jewish refugee problem. According to Cotler there had been a "double Naqba" in 1948.

“Where there is no remembrance, there will be no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be reconciliation; where there is no authentic reconciliation – between the parties and not just between the states – there will be no genuine peace,” Cotler said.

Finally, Harvard professor and Israel advocate Professor Alan Dershowitz, who served as an intern at the time for then-US Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg, recounted the 1967 diplomatic battle over inclusion of the word “Palestinian” before the term “refugee” in resolution 242, and Goldberg’s on-the-record statement that the final wording includes Jewish refugees – which was cleared, Dershowitz said, by both the State Department and the White House.

Dershowitz blasted “cynics in both Israel and outside” who have cast doubt on the initiative to highlight the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, saying “these cynics don’t know history.” Dershowitz said that “the situation faced by Jews in Arab countries was much worse than that faced by Palestinians in Israel.”