Israel Secretly Seeking Restitution for Jewish Property From Arab States, Iran

Millions of shekels invested in effort, which will come to fruition in weeks, senior Israeli official tells Knesset.

Jewish Agency representatives greet Yemenite immigrants upon arrival in Israel.
Teddy Brauner / GPO

Israel is working secretly to obtain the return of Jewish property in Arab countries, Social Equality Ministry Director-General Avi Cohen said Wednesday, adding that millions of shekels have been allocated to the process.

Speaking to a Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee hearing on restitution, Cohen said, “There is classified activity in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry in which we will invest millions to restore property belonging to Arab and Iranian Jewry, which will come to fruition within a month to a month-and-half. I cannot elaborate further.” Alon Simhayoff of the National Security Council confirmed the statement, adding that the covert move has the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office and the NSC.

The news that Israel is secretly working to secure the return of property stolen from the Jews of the Islamic world some 70 years ago is surprising. Though the restitution issue resurfaces in the public debate every few years, until now, virtually nothing has been done about it. 

The sensitive issue resurfaces in public debate every few years. Though numbers aren't exact, it is believed that nearly a million Jews resided in Arab countries and in Iran on the eve of the War of Independence in 1948. After Israel was established, around 600,000 of them immigrated to Israel over the next three decades in waves that continued in 1956 and 1967 and after the Iranian revolution in 1979. A State Comptroller report published 2014 blasted the state for neglecting the issue, and put the combined value of the lost assets at “a few billion dollars.”

Despite repeated promises by successive governments, the state has made almost no effort to gather data on this lost property, and as of when that report was published in 2014, it hadn’t even formulated any real plan for doing so. 

The Knesset did pass a law in 2010 stating that restitution for the lost property would be part of any future peace negotiations. And three years ago, the Social Equality Ministry, which is responsible for dealing with this issue, issued a public appeal to any whose family lost property in the Arabs states or Iran to fill out forms seeking its restitution. 

But since then, there have been no reports of any progress on the issue. 

The covert activity, whatever it consists of, is presumably not unrelated to another law passed in 2014, which established an annual memorial day for the expulsion of the Jews from Muslim countries. This day, November 30, is marked by various state events to recall the persecution, discrimination and dispossession endured by these Jews, and has thus helped raise awareness of the issue of their stolen property.

Several of those present at the hearing called to tie property restitution to any diplomatic negotiations that might ensue. MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) told the MKs, “The issue was explicitly mentioned in our party platform before the last elections. If there is a move toward a regional arrangement, there’s no doubt that this issue must be on the agenda.”

Labor party secretary-general MK Hilik Bar said that he was formulating a new platform that would make the issue of restitution even more prominent. “My diplomatic plan is the only one in history that seeks full recognition of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and the payment of compensation. I presented this to 210 members of the EU parliament,” he said.

Ze’ev Ben-Yosef, a member of the World Likud executive committee, said, however, that “Tying the issue of property restitution to a diplomatic arrangement is problematic, since the other side isn’t eager to come to such an arrangement. We must disconnect the issue of an agreement with the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael from this issue.”

Committee chairman MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud) said, “Those who came from Arab states left their countries and left their property behind. We want to bring about historic justice, and finally make sure that this property is returned to its owners. It’s very important that the opposition and coalition be united on this issue. That’s an important tool for success."

MK Oren Hazan (Likud), who had initiated the hearing, said, “There is a change among part of the establishment that recognize the glorious communities of the Jews of Arabia and Islam, and we hope that we will be able to correct this injustice. Till they passed a law, one time it wasn’t implemented and another time it wasn’t worded well enough.”