Facing opposition from cardinals, archbishops, Arab spokesmen and Labor politicians, the British Prime Minister Liz Truss (backed by Board of Deputies Chairwoman Marie van der Zyl) supports moving the British Embassy to Jerusalem. The popular argument against this decision is that it would be “an obstacle to peace” and would legitimize the “illegal” annexation of Arab territory by Israel.
Opponents’ assumptions are that East Jerusalem is at least as Arab as West Jerusalem is Jewish: Israel has no right to claim sovereignty over the entire city. Although sovereignty is not the same as ownership, we are treated to stories of Jewish “settlers” taking over Arab homes in silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. The only just solution, they claim, is to return to the status quo ante the 1967 war.
But that ignores the fact that the eastern part of Jerusalem only became Jewish-free when some 3,000 Jewish residents were “ethnically cleansed.” from the old town during the Arab invasion of 1948. Dozens of synagogues were destroyed and cemeteries desecrated during 19 years of “illegal” Jordanian occupation. We forget that the city was united in a defensive war – when Israel responded to a Jordanian attack, recaptured the eastern side of the city and annexed it in 1967.
The issue of land ownership in East Jerusalem is far more complex than many imagine. Mount Scopus – the original site of the Hebrew University campus and Hadassah Hospital – remained a Jewish enclave in Jordanian-controlled territory. Yemeni Jews who had lived in Silwan (Kfar Shiloah) since the 19th century were forced to evacuate their homes in 1938 when the British admitted they could no longer protect them from Arab violence and harassment. Same in Hebron, which the Jews evacuated after the 1929 massacre.
It is also a little known fact that hundreds of thousands of Arab squatters in “Arab” East Jerusalem live on land owned by Jews. The Jewish National Fund purchased hundreds of individual plots of land in and around Jerusalem during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Shuafat refugee camp is built on JNF land, as is Kalandia refugee camp , which the UN seized without authorization. Other plots of land in “Arab” East Jerusalem have been cut off from their Iraqi and Iranian Jewish owners after coming under Jordanian rule. A total of 145,976 dunams (one dunam equals 1,000 m²) of Jewish land would have come under Jordanian control.
Another 16,684,421 dunams of Jewish land in rural areas of the West Bank – including the settlements of Gush Etzion, land between Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem, and in Bethlehem and Hebron – were seized by the Jordanians after 1948.
The Golan Heights are almost universally considered “Syrian” territory and yet the JNF claims 73,974 dunams in southern Syria. The first purchase dates back to the 1880s. Jews also owned land in Gaza.
Those who defend “Arab” property rights in Jerusalem ignore the fact that there has been an exchange of land and goods between Israel and Arab countries, as well as an exchange of population between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi. They were expelled en masse Arab countries and now form a majority of Israeli Jews. At the macro level, and with very few exceptions, there is no means open to a Jew to obtain restitution of property seized in Arab countries.
Jews expelled from Arab countries as the “Jewish minority of Palestine” are believed to have possessed 100,000 km² of property transferred, equivalent to four or five times the size of the Jewish state. Many cities in the “Arab” Middle East and North Africa had large Jewish populations. Baghdad was a Jewish quarter. When over 90% of Iraq’s Jews left for Israel in 1950-51, assets seized by the Iraqi government included three hospitals, 19 Jewish schools, 31 synagogues and two cemeteries. Rumors are now circulating that these properties are being illegally sold for millions by Iran-backed militias. In Egypt, mansions belonging to wealthy Jewish families became residences of ambassadors and public institutions.
Jerusalem is an exception. After 1967, Jews expelled by the Jordanians in 1948 had the rare opportunity to recover their properties in the Old City and East Jerusalem. A1970 right allows Jewish owners to sue for restitution. But there is an important caveat: the law protects tenants who pay rent.
Throughout the Arab world, Jewish property was abandoned, sequestered, or sold well below market value, as Jews were hastily left or driven out without compensation.
Those who disapprove of a British embassy in Jerusalem enshrine the principle that “ethnic cleansing” is a legitimate way to appropriate property. The Arab world must be without Jews (the Arab states have almost succeeded in this task, having banished 97% of their Jewish population). The takeover of millions of dollars worth of Jewish homes, shops, offices and communal assets by Arabs was never seen as a provocation or an “obstructing peace”.
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Middle Eastern and North African Jews in the UK. She is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight”. (Valentine Mitchell)