Canadians behind U.S. bill to help Jews expelled from Arab countries

Research by former justice minister Irwin Cotler and other Canadians is at the centre of a U.S. bill telling the American president to advance the cause of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were driven from Arab and Muslim lands after Israel’s creation.

The bipartisan draft legislation in the House of Representatives says the plight of Palestinian refugees has received “considerable attention” worldwide, and so it would be “inappropriate and unjust” if the United States didn’t also recognize equal rights for the Jewish refugees. The bill also recognizes that Christians and other minorities were displaced from North African, Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf countries, as well.

“It’s an important step forward; it is a very good bill,” Cotler told the Citizen. “It sets forth what the U.S. should be doing in bilateral negotiations, multilateral negotiations, various initiatives in the peace process and the justice agenda.”

Arab leaders have long demanded a “right of return” for descendants of 600,000 Palestinians whose homes were situated in what became Israel. But the bill says some 850,000 Jews living throughout the Arab world and Iran were similarly turned into refugees following the 1948 emergence of the Jewish state.

The bill’s findings mirror those of the report “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: the Case for Rights and Redress” by Cotler, currently Liberal critic for justice and human rights, David Matas, a Winnipeg-based refugee lawyer, and Stan Urman, Canadian executive director of New York-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.

The 2007 report came in the same year Cotler, Urman and Canadian academic Henry Green presented the congressional human rights caucus with its first testimony on the Jewish refugee matter.

The House, in turn, reflected the testimony in a 2008 resolution, while the new bill builds on that measure.

“This initiative is to the credit of the congressional leaders themselves,” Cotler said. “They themselves really took the ball and ran with it.”

Among three Democrats sponsoring the bill, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York said it was “simply wrong to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of nearly one million Jewish refugees.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, one of the three Republican sponsors, noted the plight of refugees from Arab lands had largely “been ignored by the United Nations, other international bodies, and many responsible nations.”

A United Nations agency with 30,000 staff members exists separately from the world body’s global refugee agency to help care for the five million Palestinians who trace their lineage to the initial displaced population. But while the Jewish refugees moved on to new lives in Israel and elsewhere, they were never compensated for an estimated $1 billion in property the governments of their former homelands confiscated.

Cotler said the campaign hopes to have multiple countries legislatively recognize the Jewish and other minority refugee rights. He has testified before British and Italian parliamentary bodies on the issue, and has tabled a motion seeking Canadian parliamentary support.

Leading voices in the campaign will join Cotler on the margins of the UN in September to make an additional statement as the world body launches its new session.

The bill says the U.S. president must periodically tell Congress how the U.S. government is raising the profile of the Jewish refugee issue, and come up with ideas for addressing not only their interests, but the interests of “Christians and other groups” displaced from Arab and Muslim countries, as well.

It says the government must make sure Jewish refugee issues are mentioned alongside Palestinian ones by the Middle East Quartet, a peace-process partnership comprising the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Finally, the bill says the government must help Israel advance its bid to have Jewish refugee interests addressed in any comprehensive peace plan that addresses the Palestinian refugee question.

U.S. bills become law after both the House and Senate approve a joint measure, which in turn must receive presidential assent.