The government of Spain announced this past week that it is implementing new steps to expedite the naturalization of Jews of Sephardic descent whose ancestors ran away from the Iberian Peninsula over five centuries ago when they were commanded to convert to Christianity or become exiled from the country.
Sephardic Jews have had the legal option to apply for Spanish naturalization for a number of decades. The newly publicized change confers upon them a special status and establishes a process for their ancestry to be examined by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities and then sent to the appropriate government authorities for final approval.
The federation maintains that thousands of Sephardic Jews worldwide are potential beneficiaries of the revised system, especially those who reside in Latin America and Turkey.
Numerous Sephardic Jews fled to foreign cities such as Istanbul, Cairo and London in the wake of the 1492 decree. Others who chose not to convert were killed during the Inquisition.
In a related issue, the organization Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) has been strenuously lobbying a variety of governments for many years to obtain legal redress for the masses of Jews who evacuated their native countries in the Arab world as a result of anti-Semitic government oppression. According to the group’s website, Jews and Jewish communities have existed in the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region in substantial numbers for more than 2500 years – fully one thousand years before the advent of Islam.
JJAC bases its arguments for legal redress on the following facts: With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the status of Jews in Arab countries changed dramatically as virtually all Arab states in the region declared war or backed the war to destroy Israel. These events triggered a dramatic surge in a longstanding pattern of discrimination and abuse that made the lives of Jews in Arab countries simply untenable. Jews were either uprooted from their countries of birth or became subjugated political hostages in the Arab world’s struggle against Israel. In virtually all cases, as Jews fled, individual and communal properties were seized and/or confiscated without any compensation provided by the Arab governments involved.
The international definition of a refugee clearly applies to Jews who fled the persecution of Arab regimes:
A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees”
When the issue of refugees is raised within the context of the Middle East, people invariably refer to Palestinian refugees, not former Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Yet, there were two major population movements that occurred during years of turmoil in the Middle East. In fact, there were more former Jewish refugees uprooted from Arab countries (over 850,000) than there were Palestinians who became refugees in 1948. (UN estimate: 726,000)
The legitimate call to secure rights and redress for Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees; nor is it about launching legal proceedings to seek compensation. It is an initiative to ensure that the plight of former Jewish refugees from Arab countries be placed on the international political agenda as a quest for truth and justice and that their rights be secured as a matter of law and equity.
No just, comprehensive Middle East peace can be reached without recognition of, and redress for, the uprooting of centuries-old Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa by Islamic regimes hostile to the State of Israel. It would not be appropriate, and would constitute an injustice, were the United States to recognize rights for Palestinian refugees without recognizing equal rights for former Jewish and other refugees from Arab countries.
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