The US refugee aid bill that disappeared from history

While researching the
establishment of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee under the
auspices of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University
of Haifa, Kobby Barda found his way to the personal archive of one Isaiah Leo
“Si” Kenen, a Canadian-born lawyer, journalist and philanthropist who
was one of the founders of the pro-Israel lobby.
Barda discovered a lost chapter in the
history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ‘Marshall plan for refugees of the early 1950s’ has already featured in the work of Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, but this article by Eldad Beck in Israel Hayom is the first to reveal the politics of the time. (with thanks: Lily)

At the start of the 1950s, in
addition to pouring money into the Marshall Plan to rehabilitate Europe after
World War II, the U.S. decided to provide money to Arab states and Israel so
they could find a solution to the refugee problem created by the 1948 War of

The American aid earmarked to solve the issue of Middle East refugees
was supposed to have been split evenly between Israel and the Arab states, with
each side receiving $50 million to build infrastructure to absorb refugees. The
money to take in the Arab refugees was handed over to the U.N. agency founded
to address the issue of Palestinian refugees, and the Americans gave Arab
countries another $53 million for “technical cooperation.” In effect,
the Arab side received double the money given to Israel, even though Israel
took in more refugees, including ones from Arab nations – Jews who had been
displaced by the regional upheavals. The amount Congress allocated to provide
for Middle East refugees – Jewish and Arab – at the request of then-President
Harry Truman was equal to $1.5 billion today.

Kobby Barda: ‘in complete shock’

“When I saw the documents, I was in complete shock,” Barda

“The U.S. undertook to fund a solution to the refugee problem in
the Middle East. A message Harry S. Truman sent Congress explicitly says that
this is where the matter ends. It was a commitment the president made in a
letter to convince Congress to vote for the aid bill. In other words, an
important chapter in the history of the conflict has been lost, simply swept
away by history. The people who worked on it aren’t alive anymore, and there’s
no one who will put it back on the table. Now, when the Trump Administration is
coming up with new ideas to solve the conflict and address the refugee issue,
the information takes on new relevance.

 In hindsight, the Americans have already paid to have the
Palestinian refugees accommodated, but they are still defined as refugees and
still living in refugee camps. Israel, on the other hand, has taken in [Jewish]
refugees from Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, given them
citizenship, and ended the matter. In Jordan, where most of the Palestinian
refugees wound up and which signed the aid deal with the U.S. – unlike Syria,
which refused – there are still Palestinian refugee camps. This is the
asymmetry that has been created in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it’s
very important to the historical narrative and to any future attempt to reach
an agreement,” Barda explains.

 The decision to send aid to the Middle East to solve the double refugee
problem was the result of an Israeli initiative. The young Jewish state
urgently needed foreign aid to confront the many challenges it was facing. One
option was to appeal to the U.S., both because of its size and because of the
influence of the American Jewish community. To promote the idea, Israel asked
to establish a pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Then-Israeli Ambassador to the
U.N. Abba Eban suggested that Kenen – who served as spokesman for the Israeli
delegation – to travel to Washington and work with the American authorities.
The need for a congressional lobby was born out of the Israeli embassy’s failed
efforts to convince the State Department to provide Israel with a grant,
despite the support of President Truman.

Truman tried to convince his cabinet
that American foreign aid laws allowed him to move up to 10% of all foreign aid
grants, meaning that the money for the Middle East would be taken out of the
Marshall Plan for Europe. But then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson was a
vigorous opponent of the idea of the U.S. sending aid to Israel.

Thus it was decided to hand the decision over to Congress, even though
there were still obstacles to its passage. Eban wanted Congress to pass an aid
law specifically for Israel. Kenen, as head of the new pro-Israel lobby,
thought that the best way to secure aid for Israel would be by expanding the
Marshall Plan to the Middle East and make it part of the humanitarian framework
to address the post-war refugee problem as a whole.

Abba Eban wanted his law to be included in the refugee aid bill.
Kenen and others, including some in Congress, told him, ‘With all due respect,
you’re wrong.’

The bills presented to Congress in 1951 included a bill to send Israel
aid to take in refugees. It was the first and last time that any mechanism was
established for the Jewish refugees,” Barda says.”To avoid creating the impression that [the U.S.] was trying to
provide aid to Israel alone, Kenen said, ‘Let’s attach it to the Marshall Plan,
include the Arab countries, and break down the opposition in the State

The U.S. State Department has objected to the establishment of
Israel as well as to giving it any money. In the end, the aid bill passed,
because they managed to convince the same government operatives that the lion’s
share of the aid was going to Arab states. Israel was only mentioned in
passing, in half a sentence. Congressman Abraham Ribicoff Connecticut [who
would later become a cabinet secretary under President John F. Kennedy] even
argued that it was a terrible mistake to put Israel’s name in the bill. The
idea was to soften the State Department objection through simultaneously
sending aid to Arab countries, and it became the historic basis of that same
deal,” Barda says. 

In May 1952, Truman sent a message to Congress explaining the importance
of passing a law for international aid and laying out his vision for the Middle
East. Truman said that Israel and the Arab countries needed a regional approach
to basic problems of economic development, which he called “vital” to
easing existing tensions that were mainly the result of a satisfactory solution
to the refugee problem. 

Truman said that the aid he was proposing for Arab nations would allow
them to produce more food and develop their water infrastructures, whereas the
aid to Israel would help the young state sustain its economy in a crucial time
of national development. Moreover, the president argued, aiding Arab refugees
from Israel would serve three purposes: It would help their new home countries;
strengthen the countries where they settled; and help Israel and the Arab
countries by eliminating the refugee problem, which he said presented a
“serious threat” to peace in the region. Barda sees this as an enormous miss for Israeli foreign policy and
public diplomacy. 

“This information completely changes the perspective on the matter
of [the Palestinians’] right of return. There are two nascent sides, both of
whom a rich uncle agreed to pay so they could solve their problems about the
refugees once and for all, just like what happened in the population exchanges
between Greece and Turkey after World War I, and in the spirit of the action
taken to rehome the German refugees in central and eastern Europe, who after
World War II were returned to Germany, partly through the Marshall Plan. Both
sides received hefty sums of money and were told: take compensation and let’s
move on,” Barda says. 

“Israel took in refugees from Arab countries and didn’t perpetuate
their status by giving them any different status [here]. Arab counties didn’t
do that – even though it was clear that the Americans had given them the money
so they could feed the refugees, develop agriculture, provide housing and employment
for them – in addition to the aid that was transferred directly to the U.N.
Relief and Works Agency. 

“If today [U.S. President] Donald Trump really wants to make a move
toward creating a mechanism of compensation for the refugees, particularly with
Jordan, where most of them live, he can take into account that any additional
compensation will in effect be superfluous. This story could be a very powerful
card to play, as Jordan and other countries have already received money to take
in refugees,” Barda says. 

The documents Barda found in Kenen’s archive show that just before the
aid plan was passed, another obstacle popped up. A congressman from South
Carolina put together a coalition to block any aid to Israel. Returning from a
tour of Jericho, Gaza and Jerusalem, where he witnessed the distress of the
Palestinian refugees, he decided that there was no reason to send American aid
to Israel. Nevertheless, his gambit failed, and the bill passed in the House of
Representatives in a vote of 146:65. 

The decision to bundle American aid to
Israel in with aid to Arab states turned out to be the right one. The aid bill
passed in the Senate, as well, and became law. Only a few days before the law passed, Deputy Secretary of State George
McGhee addressed the Senate and told legislators that the regional economic
plan included three parts: direct aid to Arab countries, direct aid to Israel,
and helping the U.N. coordinate refugees from Arab countries.

 “The American aid plan rebalances the historical narrative. The
U.S. undertook to pay both sides to put an end to the refugee issue. Israel
also played a part in the equation. There was drama the entire time it took to
get the aid approved, which was the first U.S. foreign aid to Israel. They were
always trying to cut down the amount. This story doesn’t exist in history
books. In contemporary journalism, it is mentioned offhand. Kenen’s archive
opened my eyes and let me see the full picture and understand what happened and
why it provides us with a lot of armor,” Barda says.

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