July 3, 2003
The Right of Return Goes Both Ways
With the growing worldwide focus on displaced Palestinians, Jewish groups are suddenly raising the issue of a different kind of refugee: the almost 1 million Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries after the creation of Israel in 1948.
The timing is no accident. While the effort by groups such as the World Jewish Congress (WJC) points to a genuine injustice, it is also intended to neutralize the ongoing effort by the Palestinians and their supporters to insist on an Arab right of return to Israel as part of any peace deal. However, there are important differences between the two refugee situations that will make that a hard sell to a skeptical world community.
Last week, a group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries published a report documenting the human rights crisis facing Jews in that part of the world following the creation of Israel. The report concludes that the persecution achieved its primary aim -- forcing more than 850,000 Jews to flee, roughly comparable to the number of Arabs who fled the new state of Israel.
There was a big difference, though, in how the refugee populations were treated. More than two-thirds of the Jewish refugees quickly found their way to Israel, where they and their descendants now comprise the majority of the Jewish population.
In fact, the Jewish State did too good of a job. Despite some conflict with the European Jewish elite, the refugees were absorbed with little fanfare, and as a result, most of the world has no inkling that these people were once forced to abandon their homes and property. Thousands also came to the United States, laying the base for a vibrant and increasingly influential Sephardi community.
The Palestinian refugees were treated differently.
With the collusion of the United Nations, they were confined mostly in squalid refugee camps in a number of countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank. No effort was made to absorb the refugees. On the contrary, they were kept isolated, living under horrific conditions, to serve as living pawns in the effort to disparage and pressure Israel.
Arab governments professed deep concern for the Palestinian people, but they treated the refugees in their own countries as lepers, refusing to give them citizenship, limiting their civil rights, providing little or no economic aid. Palestinian refugees weren't absorbed, they were exploited mercilessly.
The international community contributed to this exploitation by failing to challenge the Arab nations. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), created in 1950 to help displaced Palestinians, became the only international agency devoted to keeping refugees in camps, rather than resettling them, in effect creating a permanent refugee population.
Since the disastrous Camp David peace talks in 2000, Palestinian leaders have put the right of return at the top of their list of negotiating priorities. That concept, as they define it, involves the right of refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes -- including in Israel.
Israelis have a wide range of views about what their country should give up as part of any comprehensive peace agreement, but on one issue, they speak with a unified voice: granting an unlimited right of return would be national suicide for the Jewish state.
Jewish groups that are raising the issue of Jewish refugees today say it's a matter of fundamental justice, and that's true. But the real motive here is political -- trying to deflate the Palestinian demand for an unlimited right of return by pointing out, accurately, that Palestinians weren't the only ones to be wrenched out of their lives and their homes when Israel was created.
Avi Beker, WJC secretary general, recently said that the campaign -- which included congressional hearings on the subject -- is an effort to bring "balance" to the refugee issue and thereby affect the quest for Middle East peace.
Both sides have legitimate claims, the Jewish groups argue. The most appropriate solution doesn't involve massive shifts of population, but humanitarian efforts to resettle refugees where they are or in the newly created state of Palestine, or -- in the case of Jewish refugees -- to provide fair restitution for the property that was stolen from them when they were forced to flee.
The new Jewish strategy for bringing some balance to the refugee debate makes sense, but it is unlikely to sway Israel's enemies or its many detractors in Europe and elsewhere. The reason is simple: much of the world doesn't want a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis.
To the Arab nations and to many in Europe, perpetuating a suffering Palestinian refugee population -- impoverished, bitter pariahs -- is a valuable tool in the ongoing effort to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state.
Israel did the humanitarian thing by quickly absorbing Jewish refugees. The Arab nations that profess such sympathy for Palestinian refugees have done the opposite, thereby revealing their real motives in the refugee debate.