For some weeks now, governments and opinion-formers have been waiting with baited breath for President Donald Trump to unveil his peace plan for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Lyn Julius gives reasons why Jewish refugees should not be left out of the deal. Column in JNS news:
Donald Trump speaking to reporters (Photo: Algemeiner screenshot)
We’ve had a foretaste of how he sees the “refugee” issue—a “final
status” question that has hitherto been pushed to the back burner in
Middle East peace talks. Trump has decided to curtail funding
to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that cares
exclusively for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. These are
now said to number more than 5 million. Yet there were no more than
711,000 original refugees, or fewer, according to some estimates. Only
30,000 of these are reckoned still to be alive.
At about the same time as the Palestinian
refugees, a greater number (850,000) of Jewish refugees fled Arab
countries in one of the most dramatic examples of 20th-century “ethnic
cleansing.” All but 4,500 have been forced out by state-sanctioned
discrimination, arrests, synagogue burnings and murderous riots. They
abandoned billions of dollars’ worth of land and property—equivalent to four times the size of Israel itself. Returning to Arab countries would have put their lives at risk; it still does.
At the time, there was no internationally recognized definition of
what constituted a refugee. In 1951, the U.N. Refugee Convention agreed
“A person who owing to a well-founded
fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside
the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is
unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or … is
unwilling to return to it.”
This definition certainly applies to the Jewish refugees. The burden
of rehabilitating and resettling the 650,000 who arrived in Israel was
shouldered by the Jewish Agency and U.S. Jewish relief organizations,
such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The refugees
were shunted into putrid transit camps or ma’abarot (refugee absorption camps), but were soon absorbed into Israeli society.
Historians are now revealing
that in the early 1950s, in addition to the Marshall Plan to
rehabilitate Europe after World War II, the United States gave money to
Arab states and Israel to solve the refugee problem created by the 1948
War of Independence. The American aid 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
resettle the Arab refugees was handed over to the U.N. agency founded to
address the issue, 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 Jews from Arab lands.
But none of this aid went into resettling Arab refugees. Instead, an
exclusive agency, UNRWA, set up camps to perpetuate the delusion that
the Palestinians are in transit to their permanent home in Israel, and
that one day they will return. The great “March of Return” on Israel’s
border with Gaza demonstrates emphatically that the marchers’ ultimate
objective is not a two-state solution, but to overrun the Jewish state
with “returning” Arabs. As long as the “right of return” is the
cornerstone of the Palestinians’ strategy, the Jewish refugees from Arab
lands remain its antidote.
It is extraordinary that UNRWA should grant inherited refugee status
only to Palestinians; that it should attract one-third of the budget for
the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency that deals
with all refugees globally (some 65 million); and that it should have
four times the number of staff.
Trump seems to have recognized that UNRWA has been fueling the single
biggest stumbling block to peace, if not a recipe for continuing
bloodshed. If the “refugees” come under the umbrella of UNHCR, the focus
will be on rehabilitation and resettlement in their host countries.
The skewed mandate of the United Nations
From an early stage in the conflict, the United Nations was co-opted
by the powerful Arab-Muslim voting bloc to skew its mandate and defend
the rights of only one refugee population: the Palestinians. Hundreds of
U.N. resolutions were passed affirming the rights of the Palestinian
refugees. Not one concerned Jewish refugees.
For decades, the Israeli government failed to raise the question of
Jewish refugees in a clear and forthright manner. The result was vague,
generic reference to the “solution of the refugee problem.”
In the last decade, however, justice for the Jewish refugees has
become a strategic objective. Since February 2010, Israeli governments
of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing
them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in a settlement.
Why should the Jewish refugees feature in an Israel-Palestine peace
deal? The 50.2 percent of Israel’s Jews who descend from refugees forced
out by Arab and Muslim persecution have a right to expect that a peace
deal will be signed that does not ignore their painful history. They
cannot reasonably be asked to approve a plan that only provides rights
and redress for Palestinian refugees without providing rights of
remembrance, truth, justice and redress for Jews displaced from Arab
countries, as mandated under humanitarian law.
Both refugee populations were created by the Arab League 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 common objection to including the Jewish refugee issue in an
Israel-Palestine deal—that the Palestinians had nothing to do with it,
and that Jewish refugees should address their grievances to the Arab
states which drove them out—is an easily demonstrable fallacy. Seven
Arab states declared the 1948 war against Israel, but an extremist
Palestinian leadership, which collaborated with the Nazis
and incited anti-Jewish hatred across the Arab world in the decades
preceding the creation of Israel, played an active part in all Arab
League decision-making and goaded Arab states into conflict with the new
Jewish state—a conflict they lost and whose outcome cannot be reversed.
The Palestinians cannot escape some measure of responsibility for both
the Arab and the Jewish nakbas (“catastrophes”).
Indeed, the idea of expelling the Jews of Arab countries was adopted
by the Palestinians as a policy, according to the well-connected
Egyptian-Jewish journalist Victor Nahmias.
Still today, most Palestinians appear both uncompromising and
unrepentant. Therefore, any proposed solution that calls for return of
Palestinian refugees, even in paltry numbers, without taking into
account the Jewish refugees, perpetuates the injustice to Jewish
refugees by letting both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states
off the hook.
Two sets of refugees exchanged places in roughly equal numbers in the
region. A “right of return” for one set of refugees is morally
untenable; it’s not equitable to give one set such a right without
giving the same right to the other. But to give Jews from the Arab
world, now resettled in Israel and the West, 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 fairest solution is for neither
set of refugees to “return” to their countries of birth. Palestinian
Arab refugees need to follow the model of successful Jewish refugee
resettlement by being allowed to acquire full citizenship in their host
countries or in a future Palestinian state (a right that the Palestinian leadership has, to date, declared no intention of granting them).
When Trump discloses the final terms of his peace deal, the rights of Jews refugees to compensation must not be forgotten. An international fund,
as proposed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, should compensate
refugees on both sides for lost property and also be used to finance the
rehabilitation of refugees in host countries. The West and Israel would
pay into the fund, but it is imperative for reconciliation that Arab
countries should also contribute. Compensation should also go to the
200,000 Jews who did not go to Israel but settled in the West. They,
too, are entitled to justice.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).