As my friend Maurice and I strolled towards the Jaffa Gate to enter the Old City of Jerusalem several years ago, he told me the story of his family. He was  a young teen in Egypt when the 1956 Suez War broke out between Egypt against the United States, France and Israel. After fighting ceased the remaining Jews who had not left for Israel after the 1948 War of Independence were forced out.

In 1948, 800,000 Jews fled their homes in Arab countries when their governments persecuted them as retaliation for Israel’s victory. Their property and wealth were either stolen or nationalized. They arrived in Israel penniless and to this day have not retrieved their lost property nor been compensated.

The same fate happened to Maurice and his family in 1956. Because they spoke French and Arabic they fled to Montreal leaving everything behind.

Last week an article appeared in 972+ Magazine called “No more lip service: How to retrieve lost Jewish property in Arab countries” (by Uri Zaki) ( Knowing Maurice’s story, I sent him the article’s link and asked for his reaction. He granted me permission to reproduce his letter:

Hi John: Thanks for thinking of me. It is so nice to have a friend that knows and understands my history. You probably also know that this topic touches a sensitive nerve so please take what follows with those feelings in mind.

It is a very important topic for the Jewish people as a whole and one to me and my family….

Egypt was home to a vibrant and rich Jewish community for centuries. Jewish and general scholarship … was tremendous and to this day sits as one of the Jewish people’s most important assets … Egypt was more than a comfortable home for us….

In the years leading up to the mid-1950’s, we endured increasing racism and harassment. Eventually, the substantial assets that we had earned over the years were seized and stolen from us. We were mercilessly (and pennilessly) expelled from our home, country, and community. We left behind not just our property but our way of life…

Although I was just in my teens, I remember well the struggle that my family and parents faced without country and any financial strength.

…We left, rebuilt and regained the position of strength (financially, Judaicly, culturally, and intellectually) that we always occupied. We didn’t do it with the help of the UN or foreign governments….we did it on our own.

The truth is that after the Egyptian King was deposed, the country went through a period of violent nationalism and home-grown radicalism. Years before we were expelled, I remember that my father was nearly stoned to death in the street for the simple crime of being a Jew.

Our plight … had to do with anti-Semitism and the use of xenophobia by the Egyptian leaders to stir the public.

Jews [in 1956] were …not persecuted because we represented any credible threat….[it was] Xenophobia and racism plain and simple….

I believe that we Jews have always been the canary in the mine!

It is a stark contrast to the Palestinian approach. … my story isn’t any better than the Palestinian….arguably much worse. Yet no Jew has sat in a refugee camp for nearly 70 years. Israel quickly absorbed its people (sometimes with bumps, but ultimately successfully) and the displaced and abused Jewish communities of the Middle East quickly reestablished themselves and are thriving.

With much love

Maurice rightly notes the distinctions between the plight of Jewish and Palestinian refugees (note: 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes in 1948, a number equivalent with Jewish refugees leaving Arab lands that same year). Both stories are deeply troubling, to say the least, and both peoples deserve and require restitution. The 972+ article offers insight into the Jewish struggle. The Palestinian struggle is of a different order altogether.

Two points:

[1] All neighboring Arab nations (except Jordan) refused to absorb Palestinians into their populations;

[2] The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was created in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees. It is the only organization in the world devoted to only one refugee community and has sustained Palestinians as refugees for more than six decades thus enabling so many of them to continue living in poverty and statelessness.

Sadly, despite the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights to a state of their own beside Israel in what must eventually (sooner rather than later) become a two states for two peoples resolution of the conflict, the Palestinians have been used cynically as pawns by both the UN and  Arab nations for their own political purposes, and by their own leaders who have time and again refused to accept a two-state solution and the rights of the Jewish people to a nation state of our own.

In conclusion, Zaki wrote:

Recent trends in international law place the emphasis on “satisfaction,” which derives from publicly addressing the past, issuing apologies and taking responsibility for creating injustices. These, alongside reparations and restitution of lost property, are essential in conflict resolution. … Only thus could mutual recognition of the injustice inflicted upon millions of people and their descendants, on both sides of the divide, emerge. In addition, it could create a buzz in the relevant countries as well as internationally, paving the way for actual reparation and restitution as well as satisfaction.

Maurice’s story is one among millions. In his case, his family has done well though they were exiled from their home. Not so for so many others.