In the wake of the deathly silence surrounding the issue at Annapolis, Ashley Perry of The Sephardi Perspective blog tackles the Jewish refugees. Of course the two sets of refugees – Arab and Jewish – were produced in quite different circumstances, the Jewish case being the more egregious. But I would argue that it is not disingenuous for Israel to use the resulting ‘de facto exchange of populations’ to quash Palestinian claims of ‘a right of return’, once and for all :
“The meeting taking place in Annapolis between the Israelis and Palestinians is one that hardly anyone from the left or the right is holding much hope for. There has been little agreement on any of the major issues, and as Israel provides more and more ‘confidence-building measures’, the Palestinians become entrenched in their positions.
“The Jew who was driven out from an Arab land before and after the State of Israel was proclaimed can only look on in wonder at the Palestinian position on their refugees. The Palestinians fictitiously created ‘right of return’ (a right is a legal term, and there is no binding legal apparatus for such a return) and it has now become a sacred cow that dare not be rejected or ignored.
“The Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared succinctly recently “No one is authorized to compromise the right of return.” Even members of Fatah will not talk of negotiation without the refugee issue being addressed. Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Fatah official in the West Bank, recently described the right of return as sacred. “The right of return cannot be ignored or surrendered,” he said.
“UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which is the main source for the Palestinian ‘right’, never mentions who the refugees are and does not make a distinction between the nationality and ethnicity of the refugee. That Jews who fled Arab lands were also considered refugees by the UN is beyond question.
“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognized the refugee status of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries in the report of the UNREF Executive Committee, Fourth Session – Geneva 29 January to 4 February, 1957. Likewise, Dr. E. Jahn, Office of the UN High Commissioner, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Document No. 7/2/3/Libya, July 6, 1967, recognized the refugee status of these Jews.
“So why has the issue of the Jewish refugees never been brought to the attention of the world by the Israeli government?
“Many reasons and no easy answer. The first is the idea that all Jews arrived in Israel because of Zionism and a yearning to live in the Land of Israel. These Jews were returning to Israel as citizens and not as refugees became the official line.
“Even in the early years of the state the survivors of the Holocaust did not receive acknowledgment of their suffering as the myth of the ‘new Jew’ set about disassociating itself with the old Diaspora Jew who was persecuted. The Eichmann trial that began in 1961 changed all of that, as the true horrors of the Holocaust permeated every transistor radio in many households.
“The Israeli sabra now understood the true horrors of Diaspora persecution, but still few knew or cared to find out about the persecution of the Jews from Arab lands.
“Another major reason the Israeli government never addressed the issue is to make an unstated gesture to the Palestinians; if you forget about your refugees, we will forget about ours. This reason, coupled with those who now expose the Jewish refugee story for political gain as a trade-off with the Palestinians, are being both disingenuous and inaccurate.
“Of course, not all Palestinian Arabs were involved in bellicose actions against the Jews and a few were indeed pushed out by the Israel Defense Forces. However, this was war and it was started and declared by the Arabs themselves. History has shown that those nations or people which start a war and lose do not warrant concessions or a return to the status quo.
“The situation of the Jewish refugees was markedly different. None of the Jewish refugees were in the theater of war when they fled or were forced out. Although many had allegiances to Israel and belonged to Zionist movements, none were involved in aggression towards the local population or their leadership.
“Thus, the two refugee situations are incomparable and the Jewish refugee issue cannot be used as a bargaining chip with the Arab refugees who were part of a war. (my emphasis – ed)
“The Israeli leadership has refrained from even mentioning the issue of the Jewish refugees in the lead up to the Annapolis meeting. Even when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni referred to the Arab refugee issue she did not mention the Jewish refugees. (This is not strictly true – ed)
“Silvan Shalom, a prominent Sephardi political leader who served as Israeli foreign minister from 2003 to 2006, said he believes the Olmert government is “not committed” to the issue.
“To counter the ignorance or lack of commitment to the issue in the lead up to Annapolis, the JJAC organization (Justice for Jews from Arab Countries) organized a two day conference of some 40 delegates from 10 different countries to focus on the Right of Redress campaign for Jews from Arab countries.