Exclusive: Iraqi Jews to Demand Compensation for Billions in Lost Assets
Leaders of the Iraqi Jewish community from around the world are to meet soon in London to plan a strategy to demand compensation for lost assets, potentially in the billions of dollars, from the Iraqi government, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Two meetings have been scheduled for September 18 and 19 to discuss the demands of the Jews from Arab countries and to bring to the forefront a political swap. Iraqi-born Jew Mordechai Ben-Porat, chairman of Israel’s Center for the Heritage of Babylonian Jewry, organized the first meeting. “The Jews left behind hospitals, schools, cemeteries, shopping markets,” said Ben-Porat, who had been a leader of the Zionist underground movement in Iraq from its inception in 1942 until he immigrated to Israel in 1945.
From 1949 to 1951 he worked with the Mossad to take care of Jewish immigration. During that period, he collected a list of the Jewish communal property in Baghdad and Hila. He would not reveal how much he believed the properties were worth, “before sitting at the negotiation table.” Some have estimated the value of the properties to be billions of dollars. The goal of the project is political and for that reason, Professor Hesker Haddad of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) maintains support for the cause. “It will help Israel in the peace negotiations,” he said. “The idea is to make an exchange. Arab countries will not compensate Jews who left Iraq and Israel will not compensate the Palestinian refugees.”
The Iraqi Jewish community was among the largest Jewish Diaspora communities in the Arab world, numbering some 140,000, but most of the community left Iraq between 1950 and 1952, after the creation of the State of Israel. They left behind homes, businesses and large pieces of land. Most of those assets were frozen, some were taken by the government and some were sold. Ben-Porat is fighting for the communal property.
That second meeting organized by Stanley Urman, an American non-Iraqi and director of Jews for Justice from Arab Countries (JJAC), will join together Jewish leaders from 16 Arab countries who will plan an international media advocacy campaign for the Jews who left Arab countries as refugees set to begin in March 2006.
“We want to collect historical narratives of mass violations of human rights and record losses of communal and private property,” said Urman. “Without this documentation we won’t be able to credibly assert the rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries.” However Haddad, originally from Iraq and now a US citizen, told the Post that he did not expect the Iraqi government to listen to them. “I don’t think anything will come of it.” He explained that many of those invited had not wanted to come and that he was going because he was the head of the organization.
While he does not think the meeting is the best next step, he supports the plan to document the properties of Jews left in Arab countries and has set up a website out of his own money to assist those who want to take part in the endeavour. Ben-Porat also wants to demand that the Iraqi government fix up the graves of Jewish prophets around Iraq. “We know the tombs are in very bad shape,” said Ben-Porat and claimed he had the photos and videos to prove it. He asserted that large plots of land near the grave of the Prophet Ezekiel in the city of Chifel belong to the Jews. The group also plans to demand that Iraqi synagogues and cemeteries be cared for. “There were 53 synagogues in Baghdad,” said Ben-Porat. Some have been rented by Iraqis who still pay their rent to an old Jewish woman who is the accountant of the Jewish community of 16 people in Iraq.
The group, said Ben-Porat, hoped to send a delegation of Iraqi-Jews to Iraq to formally submit their demands. If so, Ben-Porat would not attend. “I won’t go, I’m Israeli,” he said. According to him, the group will try not “to embarrass” the Iraqi government. “We want to do demand the rights of the Jews of Iraq in a humanistic way, without getting the Iraqi government angry,” said Ben-Porat. The Ministry of Justice in Israel fully backs the efforts of both WOJAC and JJAC whose leaders are in contact with their officials. “Every Jew who has left Iraq has a right to demand from the government of Iraq for their full rights,” said Jean-Claude Niddam, Head of Legal Assistance at the Ministry of Justice and the Head of the Department for the Rights of the Jews from Arab Countries. “Today we are giving moral support,” he said, “but I think that the Iraqi Jews will ask for more support from the Israeli government, and they will find an attentive ear.”