In 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Yedid family’s world crumbled. The Egyptian authorities revoked the business license of the head of the family, Nissim. He was a flour and spice merchant who could no longer provide for his family in Cairo. He decided to take them and flee, hoping to start a new life in Israel.
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“We left Egypt without a thing. We only had one suitcase each, containing essential clothing,” his daughter, Prof. Ada Aharoni, recalled this week. “My father was relying on his savings, which were deposited in the Cairo branch of a foreign bank, hoping that these would help him start afresh.”
The family boarded a ship that left Egypt and headed for Marseille, southern France. Once there, the family was housed in a transit camp run by the Jewish Agency. “We were 30 people to a room and the food was served in buckets,” says Aharoni. “My father felt insulted by these conditions, but took comfort in the knowledge that his money was waiting for him at the bank, to help him build a new life.”
However, bad news awaited him at the bank’s Marseille branch. “Sir, you do not have a penny. The Egyptian government nationalized all Jewish money, including your savings,” a bank clerk told him. Aharoni, who had accompanied him, still remembers her father’s anguished cry: “Thieves! You’ve taken everything I own.”
“My father, the respected Nissim Yedid, instantly lost the fruits of his life’s work,” she says. “He was transformed from a gentleman with many assets into a penniless pauper.”
When he returned to the transit camp, Yedid suffered a heart attack. His health deteriorated thereafter. The family moved into a tiny “servants’ quarter” apartment in Paris, as Aharoni describes it. Her mother, who had been a piano teacher in Egypt, was forced to work as a ticket puncher on the Paris Metro.
Aharoni was the only one of her family to immigrate to Israel. She established a family here and developed a career as a literary researcher. The money and other assets the family left behind in Egypt were never recovered.
“We had two large, beautiful houses that were worth a lot of money, but all this property disappeared and we didn’t see a cent. We tried repeatedly to look into it, but nothing came of it,” she recounts.
Two weeks ago, though, she was surprised to learn of Israel’s “classified activity” to seek restitution for assets lost by Arab and Iranian Jews.
In a discussion held by the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, the Social Equality Ministry Director General Avi Cohen vowed that their efforts would “come to fruition within a month to six weeks. I cannot elaborate further.”
Aharoni, who is 83, is not holding her breath. “There’s no way we’ll get anything back,” she says. “You can’t ask a beggar to return your money.”
Someone who feels more hopeful is Janet Dallal, 59, from Tel Aviv. To this day, she keeps the inheritance document granted by a Baghdad court to her grandmother in 1955, confirming the abundant property she inherited from a very rich relative.
Dallal has never relinquished her dream of recovering the money and property her family had to leave behind in Iraq. “We owned valuable lands, stores and houses in Baghdad and Basra,” she tells Haaretz. “The tomb of the prophet Ezekiel is on one of these plots,” she adds with pride.
In the early 1950s, after many members of the Jewish community had already left Iraq, Dallal’s lawyer father Selim decided to stay there with his family. “He was loyal to Iraq and served in the army as an officer,” recounts Dallal. However, the deterioration in the security situation for Jews, and her father’s persecution by the Saddam Hussein regime, eventually caused them to flee as well. Janet was the first to immigrate to Israel, in 1975: She gave up college so she could work and save money for her family; her parents and grandmother joined her in 1978. They had to leave all their assets behind, arriving in Israel penniless.
“Everything remained there. They forced us to sell off our assets at rock-bottom prices and we weren’t allowed to take the money with us. It was frozen in the bank,” recounts Dallal. Her grandmother died three days after reaching Israel, while her parents were housed in a public housing apartment in Tel Aviv. “They came with no money and endured a life of poverty,” Dallal says. However, she emphasizes that her father, who lost all his assets and lived off a tiny stipend from the National Insurance Institute, was happy even under the new circumstances he found himself in, blessing every day he was alive.
Dallal, who became a grandmother this week, is tensely awaiting news regarding the secret negotiations the state is conducting with regard to Jewish assets.
“The stolen assets belonging to Jews from Arab countries remained there, while their owners have been stuck in destitution for generations in poor neighborhoods and in Israel’s periphery,” she says. “I and many others should get back the land and assets of our families based on their peak value at the time they were taken, plus compensation for the financial losses occurred since then.”
It’s difficult to find out exactly what lies behind that “classified” state activity for the restitution of stolen assets. “There’s a complete gag order, based on concerns that information will leak,” Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel tells Haaretz.
She’s coordinating efforts, and believes the activity will lead to significant results that will eventually enable people “to come forward with their requests for recovering these assets, with a good chance of success.”
MK Oren Hazan (Likud), who heads a lobby aimed at recovering Jewish assets from Arab countries, suggests some potential directions this activity could lead. “The idea is that, in the framework of official and unofficial relations Israel is trying to develop with Arab countries, the possibility of obtaining information about stolen private and public Jewish assets be included. This includes synagogues and cemeteries in these countries” he says.
In other words, a possible future scenario could see Israeli insurance claims adjusters traveling to Arab countries in order to evaluate the value of Jewish property left behind. The state could then use this information to formulate claims.
“I have a personal connection to this,” adds Hazan, describing assets his father’s family owned in Morocco and other assets his mother’s family held in Tunisia. “I know firsthand from my family and others of stories of valuable objects, treasures and a lot of property that was all confiscated when they left for Israel,” he says.
Stories like those of the Yedid and Dallal families are a common refrain among many Jewish families who fled from Arab countries or Iran. A million people came to Israel from these countries in 1948, and several hundred thousand followed in the next few decades. Many left behind valuable possessions, which they never saw again.
For many decades, the state disregarded their claims of stolen assets. However, in 2014, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira addressed the matter, describing the “fiasco” that will be regretted for generations to come, since Israel didn’t make any serious efforts to find out how much property these Jews left behind, what condition it was in and what could be done to seek compensation.
In the past, the state did try to gather some information from citizens who came from these countries, asking them to fill out claims forms for personal and community property. However, notes Minister Gamliel, this activity was “merely protocol. It’s embarrassing to think how little was done up until now on this issue.”
For now, she admits that it’s difficult to know the precise value of these assets. The State Comptroller’s Report said it is probably “a few billion dollars.” But other organizations and individuals quote much higher figures. “$400 billion is buried there,” said Arieh Shemesh, an 83-year-old businessman who immigrated from Iraq, at the Knesset panel discussion earlier this month. “These funds could have lifted these communities in all spheres of life, including housing, education and business – all for the glory of Israel.”
Aharoni, who doesn’t expect to retrieve her family money and assets from Egypt, seeks to harness the suffering, loss and theft suffered by Jews from Arab countries to promote peace. She’s devised a Utopian formula, according to which a “sulha” (reconciliation) between Israel and the Arab states can be reached if the latter recognize that it wasn’t only Palestinians who suffered and whose property was stolen.
“The resolution to this conflict has been in the drawer for 68 years,” says Aharoni. “A million Jews were expelled from Arab countries, while 650,000 Palestinians fled Israel. Our property was thousands of times more valuable than theirs.”
Dallal, however, refuses to see the comparison. “The Arab states declared war on Israel and we – Jews from Arab countries, who were loyal to these countries and never fought them – were the ones who were hurt. We’re the refugees. We’re the ones who need rehabilitation.”
Dr. Edy Cohen, an expert in Arab Affairs at Bar-Ilan University and who immigrated from Beirut, Lebanon, has no intention of compromising or showing flexibility. “We won’t give up a single shekel,” he says. “We demand not only the value of these assets, but also compensation for nonuse for over 70 years.”
In the meantime, until these secret negotiations bear fruit or until peace arrives, Cohen is pursuing his own initiative. On a Facebook page he set up called “The Jewish Nakba,” he appeals to Arab audiences in Arabic, “explaining to them that there will be no solution to the Palestinian refugee problem as long as the problem of Jewish assets in Arab countries is not resolved.
“I’ve managed to scare them,” he boasted this week, describing an article on an Egyptian website entitled “The Jews are plotting to get their possessions back.”