there is one thing that the “Great March of Return”—the ongoing campaign
since 30 March to break through the fence into Israel from Gaza—has
taught us, it’s that the “right of return” remains the overriding
objective of the Palestinians. Jewish refugees could be its antidote, argues Lyn Julius in JNS News.
The “right of return” cannot be dismissed as meaningless
rhetoric. This form of “demographic subversion” remains the single
biggest stumbling block to peace, if not a recipe for continuing
bloodshed. Even so-called Fatah “moderates” will not give up their
“right” to Arabize Israel by flooding it with the millions of
descendants of Palestinians, who, under the aegis of the UNWRA, are
uniquely permitted to pass on their refugee status from generation to
In 2009, Omar Barghouti (the founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), told The Electronic Intifada
that “people fighting for refugee rights like I am know that you cannot
reconcile the ‘right of return’ for refugees with a two-state solution.
That is the big white elephant in the room, and people are ignoring
it.” The Palestinians re-iterate this demand at every turn, but the West
remains deaf to it, pretending that what the Palestinians really want
is an end to the Gaza blockade, self-determination in the West Bank and
As long as the “right of return” is the cornerstone of the
Palestinians’ strategy, the Jewish refugees who fled from Arab lands to
Israel in roughly comparable numbers remain its antidote.
The Palestinians, it is widely believed, cannot be held responsible
for what happened to the Jewish refugees. Even Israeli government
negotiators, such as Tzipi Livni, who served as Israel’s Minister of
Justice, declared in 2013 that “there was no connection between Jewish
and Palestinian refugees.” She asserted that while Israel could
legitimately discuss Palestinian refugees in peace talks, Jewish
refugees would have to address their grievances to Arab states.
It is a fact, however, that both refugee populations were created by
the Arab countries’ belligerent refusal to accept the 1947 U.N.
Partition Plan; both groups became refugees during the same period in
history; and both were declared to be bona fide refugees, under
international law, by the appropriate U.N. agencies: the U.N. High
Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the U.N. Works and Relief Agency
The common objection to the Jewish refugee issue—that the
Palestinians had nothing to do with it—is an easily demonstrable
fallacy. In 1948, seven Arab states declared war against Israel.
However, an extremist Palestinian leadership—the wartime Mufti Haj Amin
al-Husseini collaborated with the Nazis and incited anti-Jewish hatred
all over the Arab world in the decades preceding the creation of
Israel—played an active part in all Arab League decision-making and
dragged Arab states into conflict with the new Jewish state. It was a
conflict they lost and whose consequences they must suffer. The
Palestinians cannot escape some measure of responsibility for both the
Arab and the Jewish nakbas (“catastrophes”).
Linkage between the two sets of refugees opens up a window of
opportunity for a political accommodation. A “right of return” for
Palestinian Arab refugees to Israel—a state where they were not
citizens—is a concept non-existent in international law. It is, in any
case, a non-starter, for it promises nothing but upheaval and strife
between Arabs returning to 1948 Israel and resident Israeli Jews. A
“right of return” for one set of refugees is morally untenable; it is
not equitable to give one set such a right without giving the same right
to the other. Apart from the chaos and turmoil it would generate,
giving Jews from the Arab world a “right of return” to countries that
spat out them out is like asking a prisoner who has tasted freedom to go
back to jail. “The masts of our ships are broken, our sails are torn,”
said the late Baghdad-born Professor Shmuel Moreh, poetically. “Iraq is
no place for us. If the Muslims are slaughtering their brothers, how can
Three generations of Jews have now been resettled in Israel and the
West after their painful uprooting. No Jew would wish to return to an
Arab country in present circumstances, except perhaps as a tourist,
unless they are Jews who, in 1948, lost their homes in Jerusalem and
areas that have fallen under Israeli control and are seeking
restitution. The key to peace is therefore to recognize that the
exchange of refugees is permanent and irreversible.
One might argue that no comparison between the two groups of refugees
is possible; after all, one problem has ostensibly been resolved, while
the other has not. It’s hard to justify a position that defends the
non-resettlement of Palestinian refugees—an abuse of their human rights.
The biggest obstacle to their absorption is the existence of the UNWRA,
the U.N. agency dedicated to perpetuating refugee status through the
generations. It is extraordinary and concerning that UNWRA should
attract one-third of the budget for the UNHCR—the agency that deals with
all refugees globally, excluding Palestinians—and that it should have
four times the number of staff. It is a cause for alarm that UNWRA
indoctrinates its young Palestinian charges with the idea that they are
temporarily living in Gaza until they are able to return to Israel
proper—a country the vast majority of “refugees” has never seen.
Israel should not be penalized for “doing the right thing” by
absorbing its Jewish refugees. Palestinian Arab refugees need to follow
the model of successful Jewish refugee resettlement by being allowed to
acquire full citizenship in a future Palestinian state or in their host
Arab countries. This is, sadly, a right that the Palestinian leadership
has, to date, declared no intention of granting them.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight.”