Point of No Return can hardly contain its excitement: on the day that direct Middle East peace talks are due to restart, an Israeli (deputy) foreign minister has at last given Jewish refugees the profile the issue deserves. Danny Ayalon, the son of Algerian Jews, is not the first foreign minister to hail from Arab lands (Shlomo Ben-Ami, Silvan Shalom and David Levy spring to mind) but he is the first to pen an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post entitled “I am a refugee“. (With thanks: Eliyahu; Edwin)
My comment: While it can be claimed that the 1962 civil war was anti-colonial struggle in which Algerian Jews were targeted because they held French nationality (a privilege also initially offered to Muslims but rejected by them), the Ayalon family were amongst 25,000 Algerian Jews who fled to Israel, not France. As a member of the Arab League, Algeria has been in a state of war with Israel since independence; almost no Jews live in Algeria anymore. Algeria was the first Arab state to reject Israel’s campaign for redress to Jewish refugees, whose rights are now enshrined in law.
As a descendant of a family forced out of Algeria, my father and I – and the millions of other Jews from families who were expelled from Arab countries after 1948 – are entitled to redress.
As a sitting member of a democratic government, it might appear strange to declare that I am a refugee. However, my father, his parents and family were just a few of the almost one million Jews who were expelled or forced out of Arab lands. My father and his family were Algerian, from a Jewish community thousands of years old that predated the Arab conquest of North Africa and even Islam. Upon receiving independence, Algeria allowed only Muslims to become citizens and drove the indigenous Jewish community and the rest of my family out.
While many people constantly refer to the Arab or Palestinian refugees, few are even aware of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
While those Arabs who fled or left Mandatory Palestine and Israel numbered roughly 750,000, there were roughly 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Before the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, there were almost one million Jews in Arab lands, today there are around 5,000.
An important distinction between the two groups is the fact that many Palestinian Arabs were actively involved in the conflict initiated by the surrounding Arab nations, while Jews from Arab lands were living peacefully, even in a subservient dhimmi status, in their countries of origin for many centuries if not millennia.
In addition, Jewish refugees, as they were more urban and professional, as opposed to the more rural Palestinians, amassed far more property and wealth which they had to leave in their former county.
Financial economists have estimated that, in today’s figures, the total amount of assets lost by the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including communal property such as schools, synagogues and hospitals, is almost twice that of the assets lost by the Palestinian refugees. Furthermore, one must remember that Israel returned over 90 percent of blocked bank accounts, safe deposit boxes and other items belonging to Palestinian refugees during the 1950s.
Even though the number of Jewish refugees and their assets are larger than that of the Palestinians, the international community only appears to be aware of the latter’s plight.
There are numerous major international organizations devoted to the Palestinian refugees. There is an annual conference held at the United Nations and a refugee agency was created just for the Palestinian refugees. While all the world’s refugees have one agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians fall under the auspices of another agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
UNWRA’s budget for 2010 is almost half of UNHCR’s budget.
Equally impressive is the fact that UNHCR prides itself on having found “durable solutions” for “tens of millions” of refugees since 1951, the year of its establishment. However, UNRWA does not even claim to have found “durable solutions” for anyone.
If that is not distorted enough, let’s look at the definitions and how they are applied: normally the definition of a refugee only applies to the person that fled and sought refuge, while a Palestinian refugee is the person that fled and all of their descendants for all time. So, according to the UNRWA definition of conferring refugee status on descendants, I would be a refugee.
However, I do not consider myself so; I am a proud citizen of the State of Israel. The Jewish refugees found their national expression in Israel, so to, the Arab refugees should find their national aspirations being met by a Palestinian state.
WITH DIRECT negotiations about to resume between Israel and the Palestinians, the spotlight will be returned to this issue. The so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ is legal fiction. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, the supposed source for this ‘right’ does not mention this term, is not legally binding and, like all other relevant United Nations resolutions uses the intentionally ambiguous term ‘refugees’ with no appellation.